Archive | November 2015

My Name is Leon – Kit de Waal

Another book that I was so lucky to be given during my work experience this summer at Penguin. I feel guilty that it took me this long to get around to reading it, but then, I did manage to read it before it was even published, so I guess I still win? It took me a mere three days to read, in between essays and journals for uni, it was so nice to dip into under my duvet as the rain poured.

My Name is Leon is a touching, heartwarming story about little Leon who lives with his mum, Carol, and his new baby brother Jake, who only he can really look after. Because Carol is unfit to look after her sons, Leon and baby Jake are taken to live with Maureen, where the adults speak in low voices and make Pretend faces. And one day, Jake is taken to live with strangers whilst Leon gets left behind – because Jake is white and Leon is not.

The story is beautifully written through Leon’s eyes as he struggles to understand the changes in his life, why Jake was taken away from him and why he can’t see him or Carol anymore. de Waal perfectly captures the mind of a 9-year-old, without it becoming too cloying at times; it is perfectly balanced between awareness and imagination, set against the backdrop of racism in 80s England.

It is a truly thoughtful novel and a wonderful debut, which takes a delicate and potentially bleak subject and injects it with enough heart to make it light and warm and perfectly endearing. It is an easy read with simple language, but sensitive prose and descriptions, which for me, as well as a solid and engaging story, is the mark of an excellent writer.

I am so pleased to have read this novel, particularly before the masses, because it means that when everyone else gets around to reading it I can gush and say ‘Oh yes, I’ve read that and it was wonderful!’ I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and immediately recommended it to friends to put on their TBR 2016 list, which I would recommend to all of you as well!

Let me know if you think it sounds good in the comments below and if you’ll be putting it on your TBR list!

My Name is Leon, by Kit de Waal, is published by Viking in June 2016. 

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Summer Reads Vol. II

Returning to my summer reads! If you need a reminder, this will be a blog post that recaps a number of books in succinct reviews rather than in depth ones. Because my life is dedicated to university reading at the moment (currently reading: NOT The Shock of the Fall, rather A Feminist Companion to Shakespeare – don’t be too jealous) I’m recapping the rest of my summer reads here.

I would’ve loved to review some of these books in far more detail but I feel it’s more important to get the reviews down on the page whilst the memory of reading them is still fresh. Forgive me, but hopefully you find these useful!

Summer Reads Vol. II

1. This is Where I Leave You – Jonathan Tropper

Cover Image

This is Where I Leave You is a story of a family brought together by tragedy. When Judd’s father dies, his last wish being that the family comes together to sit the Jewish tradition of shiva, Judd’s world becomes the suffocating circus that has been his life with his family.

This was a lovely, easily read book that really gives an insight into family dramas and relationships. It is a story about love, life, loss, faith, faith in people, and above all, family. I love the multiple character threads that all tie up nicely together. Judd’s ending is a little predictable, but the ensemble ending is definitely an unforeseen delight.

What’s really great about this book is the family dynamic, and showing how family don’t always have be blood relations. Tropper is a master of casual writing: none of the text seems forced or tries too hard, it sits comfortably within the pages and calmly unpacks the characters giving due attention to them and their needs.

It is tender and it is dysfunctional and it all comes together to make an extremely satisfying read.

2. The Forty Rules of Love – Elif Shafak 

What’s firstly so fabulous about this book is that it has just been reproduced as part of the Penguin By Hand collection by Penguin General, which means the cover has been re-made with a beautiful craft-inspired jacket, in this case, a tapestry. I think we can all agree that artwork is simply stunning.

I found the book a little harder to get my teeth into; with complex language and subject matter that does not necessarily prescribe to my own interest, it was a book I ploughed through without my usual vigour. The novel (again) has two parallel narratives: the first of the unhappily married Ella in Massachusetts who whilst working for a literary agency is instructed to read the novel that makes up the second narrative. “Sweet Blasphemy” tells of the wandering dervish Shams’ life and his interaction with the Sufi Rumi.

Interestingly, within the novel Ella herself originally struggles with the second narrative, but soon grows to become deeply attached to it and its author. I, myself, preferred Ella’s narrative, though the multiple perspectives of Shams’ story were certainly an interesting addition to perspective.

This book has been wonderfully celebrated, and thus I do encourage reading it. Though for me, it just wasn’t my favourite.

3. The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins 

What a novel. As soon as I got stuck into this, I certainly knew why it was one of the most popular and talked about books of the year. It is full of frustrating stops and starts and twists and turns, with a huge killer twist at the end. Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning and every morning stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. “Jess and Jason,” she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost with her ex-husband Tom, who happens to live just down the road from “Jess and Jason”, with his new wife Anna.

Through a series of events, Rachel finds herself in the middle of “Jess and Jason”‘s lives and dramas and turns everything upside down as the tangled web she weaves gets more and more messy.

What’s great about this novel is that the narrator and main character, Rachel, isn’t really the most likeable person in the world. In fact, she’s pretty unlikeable – she’s a drunk, she’s a mess, and she doesn’t help herself with her obsessive personality. There were multiple times whilst reading that I just wanted to scream at her, ‘Rachel, get your act together!!”

It was an incredibly unsettling book, frustrating and times, compelling at others but the mystery at the heart of the novel is what keeps the book alive. Hawkins’ combination of relationship drama with criminal possibilities illustrates the dark secrets behind the facade of perfection, and how this perfect mirage can break down to reveal horrors underneath. It’s a totally gripping novel that I would thoroughly recommend to any reader who enjoyed Gone Girl and wants more of that sticky, interesting drama.

4. Me Before You – Jojo Moyes 

I loved this book. I could tell, as I read it and immediately afterwards, that – like Cecelia Ahern novels – it would be a book that I would return to again and again (though I will have to buy it first, as my kind best friend let me read it on her Kindle!). Like Cecelia Ahern, Jojo Moyes has the ability to create captivating and relatable characters and she certainly punched me in the gut with the ending.

This was actually the first book I’ve ever cried at. I’m a cryer, but my tears are usually reserved for films. This is definitely a testament to Moyes’ writing, her beautiful words and her wonderful, wonderful characters. The story tells of Lou, an out-of-work 26-year-old, whose only option left to support her family is to take employment as a carer for Will, whose successful, glamorous life has been ripped away from him in a motorcycle accident and left him as a paraplegic.

The story in itself is basic rom-com narrative, going back as far as Much Ado About Nothing: Lou and Will are mismatched, don’t get on and are frustrated with each other, but eventually they find a way to work together and find that their lives before each other are nothing compared to their lives with the other in it.

What truly makes it special is the navigation of relationships between family, between lovers, between employers and employees and how that really comes alive on the page through Moyes’ deep, complex and entertaining characters. I’ve always loved the kind of sarcastic bad-boy that Will brings to the table (seen in characters like Finnick Odair – coincidentally also played by Sam Claflin in The Hunger Games, and who plays Will in the upcoming film adaptation).

Lou and Will’s relationship is at the heart of the novel, and the development of their progression from uncomfortable employer/employee to friends really fuels the narrative and made the page ever turning for me.

I read it in one sitting and wouldn’t be surprised if you did too. Grab it now before the movie comes out and you won’t regret it.


So that’s the end of my summer reads (even though it’s now November) – I hope you enjoyed them! Do let me know in the comments below if you’ve read any of these (I’m sure you have) and what you thought of them.

 

The Skills Show Birmingham – My Meet with My Future Career

I was sat in a lecture as part of a series dedicated to my extended essay. Some of these lectures have been useful, and others, like this particular insightful one on a ‘poster competition’, have not. So, I did what any student is likely to do – I checked my Twitter.

Whilst scrolling I saw a tweet from JobsInBooks (the lovely Maria Vassilopoulos) saying she was attending The Skills Show at Birmingham’s NEC along with The Publishing Association to talk about #workinpublishing. And I thought to myself, hang on a minute… I want to work in publishing. 

As I was, in fact, in Birmingham at the time, mere miles from the NEC, I thought it was about time I took my career into my own hands and got myself down there. I registered to The Skills Show as I walked and after an hour long journey (and watching two trains for Birmingham International pull away from the platform as I arrived), I finally made it to the NEC.

The man behind the registration desk was incredibly helpful when he informed me that I had a film of sweat on my forehead and laughed; but I didn’t have time for him. This was it, I was actually going to be engaging in networking outside of a work placement.

I turned up at the Publishing stand and got talking to Emily Cook from IPG who opened my eyes to all the possibilities IPG could offer me, all the volunteering I could get involved with and even more creative ways to show my interest and enthusiasm for books, including an Instagram dedicated to books, instead of my weekly ‘Throwback Thursdays’ of the cutest pictures I can find of my brother and I.

Then I introduced myself to Maria (whose Twitter is OnceUponTheBook) and I was thrilled that she remembered me from our Twitter/email exchange a few weeks ago. I have to imagine this is somewhat what meeting a celebrity feels like – she’s certainly Twitter famous to me. It was so amazing to sit down and have an in-depth chat (which I think was in part due to my late arrival, meaning the stall wasn’t as busy as it could’ve been), and to hear exactly how Maria got to be ‘@JobsInBooks’. She definitely helped calm my fears about not getting exactly where I want to be straight away and that not all routes into publishing are traditional.

I also enjoyed speaking with Stephanie Cox who is the Events Organiser/Communications Officer for SYP North. What was great about meeting Stephanie was that she showed me that not all publishing events happen in London and in the event that I do have to move home after uni, there will still be opportunities to get involved up north.

I came away from the event feeling extremely satisfied and glad that I had raced over from the University of Birmingham campus to the NEC to be there. I have a handful of business cards (people who can expect emails soon!), a bunch of leaflets with useful information, and a more in-depth knowledge of where I could be and what I can do to get there.

Now all that’s left is considering that all important ‘keep in touch’. It’s all very well and good to say so, and to send a follow-up email, but what I find the most difficult is maintaining that relationship beyond the first ‘It was great to meet you/work with you’ email. Is it satisfactory to say ‘I read this book and thought of you’ or ‘I’m doing X,Y,Z at the moment and wondered what you were up to?’

It’s certainly something to think about and something that I need to perfect. I do believe that Twitter and LinkedIn are our best tools for keeping an active presence with people because they give us the change to ‘Like’ or ‘Retweet’ or even reply to things that our associates are doing in a more informal manner than an email. It’s like a little reminder, with a Like or a reply, you’re basically saying ‘Hello, remember me??’

I definitely want to improve my ‘keeping in touch’ skills, because as we all know networking is absolutely key to a career in this industry. I’m so pleased that I had my first real interaction with networking and I hope I can keep this up in the future! Looking forward to hopefully doing some great volunteering and getting as involved as possible with all the opportunities publishing can offer me, with or without a job offer!

Elizabeth Is Missing

What a novel. Elizabeth is Missing is the debut novel by Emma Healey, broken by Penguin General in 2014 to rave reviews, incredible debut sales and went on to win The Costa Book First Novel Award . I myself swallowed it in half a day and couldn’t read it fast enough.

Simplistically, it tells of Maud, a charming old lady suffering from dementia who can’t remember buying food, never mind where her friend Elizabeth is. As her dementia worsens, so too does her determination to discover what happened to dear Elizabeth and even more dramatically what happened to her sister Sukey when she mysteriously disappeared after the Second World War.

Having a narrator who can’t remember her own daughter’s name sometimes adds a depth unexamined in previous literature. Not only is the narrator unreliable and questionable, one can never guarantee exactly what is happening in the novel.

The novel comes alive with Maud, her characterisation and Healey’s flair for language. The beautiful way in which she constructs Maud’s past and interweaves it with her disjointed present allows you to really feel for Maud and her snatching attempts to grasp at something to answer her questions.

Whilst she fails to obtain more answers, the reader begins to have more questions. I thought I had guessed the ending about three quarters of the way through the book, but unfortunately, I found that by the time the ending had come around, I actually preferred the one I had invented in my own head.

Perhaps this novel is an example of exactly that: the life and stories in our heads are more interesting and more obtainable than those in real life. Is Elizabeth really missing? Or is Maud just missing some marbles?

I found it an incredibly satisfying read and rather refreshing from the usual crime thriller. Healey’s unreliable narrator is comparable to another unreliable narrator of another novel I read on holiday, The Girl on the Train. Though Rachel in the latter is a drunk forgetful, whilst Maud is merely forgetful, both delay the progression of the novel by forcing the reader to ask questions of the narrator, rather than just the story.

Despite my misgivings about the ending, I was wonderfully impressed by Healey’s narrative and her skills as an author. The book was funny, warm, heartbreaking at times, and had an element of old Hollywood drama in the flashbacks to the past, which I thought were beautifully constructed.

Maud is a refreshing voice in the canon and as I said, not often do we get a narrative from an elderly lady, especially one who can’t even remember her own daughter at times.

I would indeed recommend the novel, though do take it with a pinch of salt. It’s a fabulous debut from an author with much promise, and if you are disappointed by the end as I was, remember the beauty of the middle. The construction is an art in itself.

Cover Star.

Henry V at The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Oh boy am I lucky English Literature student??

Of my life, I can confirm few literary loves as true and unwavering. One being Harry Potter and the other, solidly, firmly, Shakespeare. Yes, I confess, I am that hated Literature student that loves Shakespeare and is completely awful about it.

And because of this love, I took a module this semester entitled Shakespeare’s Comedies – no prizes for guessing what that one’s about, taught by some masterful academics of Shakespeare’s world, imported directly from the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford-upon-Avon, which has links to my university.

As part of our course, we were lucky enough to be invited to the Institute itself to have some talks by academics on Henry V, a Q and A with the cast and then to see the production itself by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The production was filmed, so if anyone does happen upon it, I was sat in row D and may very well have my five minutes of fame there.

The day itself was a wonderful experience, and I tweeted about it with great pride and a little smugness.

Screen Shot 2015-11-06 at 17.33.12

But what I’m really here to discuss is the play Henry V and the production. It was an outstanding performance. I’ve never been lucky enough to see the Royal Shakespeare Company before but this floored me, and confirmed to me why they are the best of the best.

Now it’s debatable whether Henry V can even be considered a comedy – certainly in the First Folio it is a history play – and most likely it was included in our course because of this fantastic opportunity. However, the RSC made the most of its comedic elements from the language barriers between Henry and Catherine, to the accent struggles of the Irishman, Welshman and Scotsman – hang on I think there’s a joke in there somewhere.

It was a fierce and solid production that left me in awe of the magnificence of the company and of Shakespeare’s words. It’s a concept well known that you can’t really understand Shakespeare until you see it performed, read aloud or even on film. His prose and verse can be considered far too difficult to be understood straight off the page, and certainly, seeing it brought to life adds a further dimension and a clarity unable to be absorbed simply from reading.

I would recommend – and have recommended – this production to so many people, especially as the full tetralogy (Richard II, Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Henry V) is transferring to the Barbican theatre in London following Henry V’s closure in Stratford. However, alas, I believe tickets are selling out fast, so if you’re a Shakespeare lover or indeed a history lover get on it.

For me, I must now move on to something else, something firmly comedic. How about Much Ado About Nothing? 

On The Life of a Final Year English Student

I am feeling incredibly guilty right now. I love this blog so much and love everything that it stands for: the books, the reviews, the theatre, the drama; but unfortunately real life seems to have taken over in the last month and my lovely little blog fell to the wayside.

That’s the reality of being a student in the final year of her degree when instead of having time to write about Me Before You or Elizabeth Is Missing, two posts I was really looking forward to writing, I am instead dedicating my time to reading such works as Gender Trouble by Judith Butler and The Femme Fatale by Virginia Allen. Unfortunately, dissertation reading has taken over my life, especially as I’m doing two, and even though I have a fabulous pile up of books that look at me every night before I go to sleep, I haven’t managed to open any of them.

So my apologies to anyone that does read this blog and my apologies also to myself. I’ve even had a bout of tooth infection last week which put me off reading even The Femme Fatale never mind My Name is Leon.

So as well as taking the opportunity in this post to apologise briefly I thought I’d introduce my dissertations, in case they’re of any interest, and to show you readers what’s taking up my time instead of writing for you.

I’m a Joint Honours English Lit and Hispanic Studies student (Spanish in fancy terms) so I’m writing two 6,000 word essays on two similar but distinct topics (if that makes any sense at all). I think they’re both rather different, but as both are deep interests of mine, I can see where the possible similarities are: namely the discussion of women.

So without any further ado, here are my dissertations:

Spanish Independent Study Module 

Don’t ask why it’s called this, I’m not sure either. But nevertheless, mine will be – or rather is, as it’s already pretty concrete, and even has some parts of it written – a study of gender subversion in two Spanish Civil War films, Belle Epoque (1992) and Libertarias (1996).

Republican Spain was an era of subverting traditional norms and retreating from total social conformity, shown in both an idyllic and bleak light. Belle Époque leans more towards the idyllic side of subversion, in which hierarchies, social norms and gender roles are reversed, whilst possibilities for escapism seem endless. Conversely, Libertarias shows the bleak reality of forced conformity to traditional roles from which women were desperate to escape.

What’s interesting about these two films is that both were directed in the 1990s, whilst set in the early 1930s. A study of this shows the effect hindsight and nostalgia has on cinema and portrayals of gender in film.

My study will focus on unpacking gender theory by Judith Butler and Judith Halberstam, cinematic gaze theory by Laura Mulvey and spatial theory by Edward Said and Michael Foucault, whilst rounding it out with the consideration of nostalgia and contention. This all sounds rather complicated and confusing, but I’m hoping once I get around to writing it, it will all start to make sense. At least to the markers and me!

English Literature Extended Essay

My English Literature focus is on the very new (in English Lit terms), very progressive genre of ‘domestic noir’. This is primarily how the noir crime genre of film, and indeed fiction, places itself within a domestic sphere. For this, my primary texts will be the very well known and very popular Gone Girl and We Need to Talk About Kevin, with minor consideration of The Girl on the Train and Before I Go to Sleep.

With this I intend to consider why this genre is growing in popularity and what makes it distinct as a genre. In doing this I can consider its marketable qualities, the human fascination with crime and most importantly the effect on the reader.

It’s also incredibly important, for me as a female reader and female voice, to make a clear distinction as to why we must call it ‘domestic noir’ rather than ‘chick noir’. This established notion of ‘chick noir’, or ‘chick lit’ or ‘chick crime’ is incredibly damaging to a genre that is equally as important in the literary world as literature written by and for men. There should be no distinction between gendered readers in 2015 and these books are as worthy of being written about academically as novels by male authors.

For this reason, I am hoping that an academic study of the ‘domestic noir’ genre (which in my research has not been done yet) will open doors for the genre and solidify its place in the literary canon. And hopefully gain me some points for originality!


 

So those are my dissertations – congratulations if you made it to the end! Do let me know your thoughts in the comments below and I will aim to get out more blog posts of the things that this blog is meant to be about, book reviews and the like.

Complimentary cat gif. I don’t even like cats. (Don’t shoot.)