Archive | January 2016

The Versions of Us – Laura Barnett

I was lucky enough to receive a copy of this thanks to the wonderful Sam Eades, and just in time for the paperback release making this book appear everywhere at the moment! I think it’s Waterstones Birmingham’s Book Club Book of The Week and on Richard and Judy’s Spring List for their WH Smith Book Club promotion, and lucky them to have it on their lists!

This book is right up my street: I love a ‘non-traditional’ narrative, and this is one in three concurrent timelines. Though the multiple timelines can be confusing at first, this narrative style is so engaging and compelling that the novel becomes three stories in one.

The novel tells three versions of Eva and Jim’s lives and how a split second determines the rest of their lives: one in which they meet and fall in love, one in which they don’t and lead almost separate lives, and one in which the former happens but an accidental pregnancy tears them apart.

This is the ultimate question: fate or chance? Were Eva and Jim always destined to be together or was it a pure coincidence of meeting on that day on the streets of Cambridge? The novel traverses almost 6 decades of their lives both together and apart and navigates just what kind of effect one person has on another. The novel will take you not only through time but through space as Jim and Eva’s narratives traverse the globe, which makes the novel a lot less insular than it could be in a romance about a couple told three ways.

Of course three narratives also offers three perspectives on the same two people. There are subtle differences between the Eva and the Jim of Versions One, Two and Three, making the argument for whether people do affect us in almost unnoticeable ways. Still, underneath it all, Eva is introverted, compelling and quietly strong and Jim is impulsive and loving, making their actions insightful and entertaining.

It is a thoroughly emotional read, something that I feel is almost guaranteed in a story that spans so many years – there will always be births and deaths in a 60 year story. But Barnett offers unexpected twists throughout the stories, which will both break your heart and make you smile.

Outside of the text itself, Barnett is an exceptionally skilled writer. I think it takes a very accomplished writer to be able to weave three narratives seamlessly together and tie them up in a way that actually, one doesn’t feel like one narrative was superior to another – though I’m sure we all have our preferred narrative. The Versions of Us is a highly captivating read with characters (even those that only appear in one narrative) that are beautifully developed and fleshed out.

For anyone who likes a love story, I would thoroughly recommend this book: it’s something that on paper seems quite simple – a love story three ways, though in practice is rather complex. Barnett manages this exceptionally well and creates a synonymously complicated and yet uncomplicated love story. For though there are other characters and lovers throughout the tale, this novel is undoubtedly, irrefutably, all about Eva and Jim.

My secret Santa post from Sam! THE VERSIONS OF US & SHTUM.

My secret Santa post from Sam! THE VERSIONS OF US & SHTUM.

The Versions of Us is published by the Weidenfeld & Nicholson imprint of Orion books, with both hardback and paperback out now.



PRH Removing Degree Requirement – Opinion

Penguin Random House announced today that they are removing the university degree requirement from job applications to attract candidates from more varied backgrounds that might not necessarily have the qualifications. I read about this on The Bookseller and after thinking about it all day, decided I needed to put my two cents in.

I think that I’m probably one of the most stereotypical candidates for a publishing job. I’m in my fourth year of a degree in English Literature (and Hispanic Studies JH – please let that make me stand out!), I love books, and I’ve been working tirelessly at building up contacts and experience for the last two years (since I decided that publishing was the thing for me).

I’ve been lucky enough to have two work experience placements with two big names in publishing: Hodder & Stoughton and Penguin General. There are some people saying on Twitter today that unpaid experience is really only available to people from wealthy backgrounds. I definitely wouldn’t say I’m from a wealthy background, but a comfortable one. But my background and my parents’ jobs have nothing to do with me gaining experience. I gained my experience from putting myself out there, emailing as many people at as many companies as I could and proving that I could put my skills to good use. The only thing my background guaranteed me where others might not is that my uncle lives in London so I could stay with him for the two weeks of the year I did experience.

But that’s something that does hold me back, like so many others. I don’t live in London, I can’t spend hours working unpaid with the knowledge I’ll have somewhere to go back to every night. It’s not enough to have an uncle in London because I really don’t think he’d want a 21 year-old living with him for more than 2 weeks. So if you are lucky enough to live in London, make the most of unpaid experience because just by living there, you can afford at least 2 weeks.

The real problem is the unpaid experience and the unpaid internships, but that’s not what we’re here to talk about today.

I (will) have a degree (by July), which I got not through my background but through student loans and debts and a desire to further my education. I know that’s not an option or a choice for everyone, but it has been the choice for me because of pure academic want, rather than the knowledge that I needed one like you might do for Medicine or Law. But what PRH are saying today isn’t that now people with degrees are “excluded” but rather that the gates are opening for more than just those that do have. So hopefully my degree (along with the transferable skills studying has given me) will be useful when applying, but these days it’s not a necessity.

It seems like a bit of a knockdown sometimes when you read things like this after having spent 3 and a half years working on a degree. It feels a bit like that time I read that ‘English degrees aren’t a necessity anymore’ and I wanted to cry into the Complete Works of Shakespeare. But I understand that it is time to open the doors to something new and to acknowledge that traditional routes aren’t the only routes into the industry.

At the end of the day, I will say that I do believe my degree has been useful, in the main because of the transferable skills and opportunities it’s given me. I have a more analytical mind now than I did at the start of my degree, my writing and communication skills have improved, and I studied abroad in Spain for a year, which I would’ve been unable to do without my degree.

But if you have other experiences and other ways of attaining transferable skills, like these or other ones, there should be no reason why lack of qualifications should hold you back. Like Neil Morrison (of PRH) says it’s about attracting talented people, of any background or walk of life.

So rather than debating whether it’s necessary to have a degree or whether this is a good move, we should be finding ways of building up our skills and experiences in order to put our talents to their best use, whether that’s directly into a job or into perfecting our dissertations (as I should be right now).

Also, there are plenty of ways of getting experience that might not necessarily be traditional; i.e. it doesn’t have to be in publishing house. The wonderful Maria of Jobs In Books (check out her blog Once Upon The Book) taught me that: try bookselling, or admin work, or volunteering. These are all experiences worth having on your CV, which don’t necessarily require qualifications.

So I (will) have a degree, you might not. As long as we both have skills, there should be nothing stopping us. It’s great to see the doors opening for so many people – the harder part is seeing supposedly entry-level jobs that say at the end of the description ‘at least one year’s experience required’. Maybe that’s what we, as an industry, should be tackling next, along with those pesky unpaid internships.

Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory

Barbra Streisand was not wrong when she announced ‘I’m the Greatest Star’. It would be ridiculous to review any performance of Funny Girl and attempt to compare the star to Barbra because she is simply incomparable. And yet, it cannot be helped. Sheridan Smith, however, does an incredibly good job of coping with the prestigious role of Fanny Brice, without falling to the risk of simply imitating Barbra.

She makes the role her own, and after all she is playing Fanny not Barbra, and easily balances the comedy in the first act with the tragedy in the second. Her comic timing is simply excellent and her engagement with the audience makes Fanny even more relatable and likeable. And yet, at the same time, she can turn up the drama that reminds the audience that Fanny is not just the comic actress but is in fact a human with painful emotions that even humour cannot cover.

I think it is fair to say that Sheridan Smith carries the show at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Her Nicky Arnstein is played by Darius Campbell (formerly Danesh), and though they sound wonderful when they sing together, he does not quite have the suaveness necessary to pull of the charming Nicky and his hulking great figure is overpowering to Smith’s little frame, which makes them seem a little mismatched. His vocals are also, arguably, some of the weakest of the company and it is easy to see why Nicky’s songs were cut from the film starring Streisand.

I have to wonder whether Campbell’s voice will be able to sufficiently fill the Savoy Theatre when the show transfers to the West End in March. The show in itself demands a bigger theatre. The stage at the Menier Chocolate Factory is simply not big enough for a show with big costumes, musical numbers and a huge star at its centre. Sheridan Smith deserves a bigger theatre so that she can fully utilise her voice.

Though she did make me cry on two occasions (People and Don’t Rain on My Parade), I am of the opinion that the songs made famous by Funny Girl demand a more rousing vocal power. I would have really liked to see Smith fully utilise her belt and inject a stronger potency into the songs. When you listen to Barbra or even Lea Michele perform the Funny Girl classics, their voices reach all corners of the notes and I think Smith is more than capable of doing this, so when the show does move to the Savoy, I would be interested to see her really inject some oomph into the songs.

The character of Fanny, too, is too large for a tiny stage. She jumps off the stage and comes alive so much that she needs a full theatre to really emphasise the vivid nature of her character. Smith’s Fanny is a little more clumsy and graceless than Barbra’s, who though she was awkward, was never prone to potentially flashing the audience.

Of the supporting cast, the real star is Marilyn Cutts who plays Rose Brice, Fanny’s mother. Cutts perfectly exemplifies the stereotypical Jewish mother and hits all the funny notes of her character in all the right places.

The music itself is one of great acclaim, and rightly so, it sold out its Menier Chocolate Factory run in 90 minutes. It is beautifully directed by Michael Mayer and I love the decision to make Who Are You Now? into a duet between Fanny and Nicky, giving it more sentimentality than previously.

One final note of personal opinion, though nothing to do with Smith’s insane talent: she’s too pretty for the role. I was supposed to be able to see myself in Fanny, a Jewish girl with an unsightly nose, and yet all I could think of when Smith sang about her ‘American nose’ was how much I would kill for a little button nose like hers. Though Streisand is undoubtedly beautiful and glamorous, her distinct features made her sympathetic to the lyrics. It’s impossible to take seriously the notion that Smith might be ‘Jewish-looking’ with a large nose, and thus her standout against the Eight Beautiful Girls Eight and the other Follies must be her height.

So there you have it: that’s my review of Funny Girl, which I had been waiting to see since August. I have to wonder how I would feel had I seen it in the vast Savoy Theatre where I was lucky enough to see Gypsy (which was outstanding) this summer just gone. Ultimately the bright lights of the show rest on the talent of Sheridan Smith and she carries the show to its great heights.

I will admit that I favour Streisand’s Fanny, but this is no criticism of Sheridan’s formidable talent and the energy that she brings to the role. And as this is the first time Funny Girl has returned to the London stage since Streisand’s own run, I do believe that everyone should be flocking to buy tickets.

Funny Girl is at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 5 March and at the Savoy Theatre from 8 April. 

Fangirl – Rainbow Rowell

Fangirl is a 2013 contemporary young adult novel by Rainbow Rowell about coming of age, fiction narratives and dealing with balancing the real world with the world of stories.

I hope Rowell won’t mind me saying that this was an easy read, that was swallowed in about a day and really broke up my recent trend of reading heavier books (both weight-wise and depth). It was a refreshing look at growing up and dealing with change and I liked that it was a coming-of-age novel that wasn’t set in high school, because actually some people do come-of-age afterwards.

Cather and Wren are identical twins (Catherine (!!) which is so great and funny and emphasises the inseparable nature of the twins) who have spent their childhood as one and the same, but when they head off to college Wren begins to distance herself, engaging herself in what might be considered typical freshman behaviour of going out every night and drinking with her cool new roommate.

Meanwhile, Cath is left behind to deal with her own social anxiety and her brash roommate Reagan and Reagan’s overly charming boyfriend Levi, with only her Simon Snow fan fictions to keep her sane. Even her advanced Fiction-Writing Class is becoming an added stress as she struggles to balance her love of fan fiction with her professor’s demands to write original fiction.

I thought the novel was very well-written with some beautiful sentence structures, but I really struggled with the Simon Snow sections. I understand that Simon Snow is inevitably meant to be synonymous with Harry Potter (without even mentioning that it’s a world of wizards and spells and Watford is basically Hogwarts, it goes right down to the author being Gemma T. Leslie – or GTL – or JKR – right??) and the Simon/Baz fan fiction is Harry/Draco slash fiction. But the problem was it was nowhere near as engaging or interesting as Harry Potter, it honestly all felt a little clumsy and desperate to appear as majestic as Harry Potter. So then, you must think that Cather’s world is one where HP doesn’t exist. Except Levi (Reagan’s ‘boyfriend’) mentions Harry Potter directly! The Simon Snow world felt forced to me and I found myself skipping over the sections of Simon extracts or Simon fan fiction extracts that were interspersed in the novel, because they didn’t add anything to the narrative.

I think instead of peppering the novel with pointless Simon Snow extracts that did little to explain how great and important it was supposed to be, Rowell could’ve used those sections to show interactions between Cath and her readers, to show rather than how important Simon Snow was in life, how important Cath was to Simon Snow fan fiction.

I initially found Cather hard to warm to but I think that’s because I identified more with Wren initially and couldn’t sympathise with Cath’s anxieties, which at some points were completely ridiculous – like she can go into a class of strangers and even talk to one of them – Nick -, but couldn’t face the dining hall. I just wanted to shake her and tell her to stop being ridiculous, so I’m glad Reagan did it for me.

However, having said all of that, I actually really enjoyed reading the novel and I think when Rowell focuses on her own writing instead of trying to imitate a fictional author, she writes really beautifully. And when Cath starts to open up she’s got this fierce, snarky wit that makes her a strong character without her sister. I really loved her interaction with Nick at the end (no spoilers) because it showed that she wasn’t a doormat anymore and she could stand strong.

All the characters are so fully developed and distinct from each other that they’re impossible to not like. I found Levi just so wonderfully charming (probably the point) but what I loved was that he didn’t seem perfect to me, like the Augustus Waters Young Adult Prototype (though I know AW isn’t perfect, but you get my point. Maybe Troy Bolton would be a better example). Levi had his own imperfections and awkward moments, and I could feel his smile radiating off the page.

From reading other reviews, it feels like people either love or hate this book. I think I’m in-between. I loved Rowell’s development of characters and her ability to construct some really beautiful images and sentences. I guess I just wanted more from the world, and I think if she was going to write a book about fan fiction, writing about an imaginary fandom that was so close to Harry Potter was a little silly.

The beginning of the novel was so well developed and the climax with Wren/Laura/Art/Levi was great, but the ending needed more: I needed to know how Cather went from being ‘only good at fan fiction’ to having her original fiction in the school magazine, I needed to know how Carry On turned out, and though I think it was answered that Cath finally found balance, I think it just needed to be more explicit.

So it’s a good read, it’s an easy read, and I do recommend it. But let me make it clear that Rainbow Rowell is not John Green (who I consider to be the YA writer to aspire to) and she still has a way to go to get to that level of character and plot depth. But she is a solid writer and this novel is definitely worth reading, if you like books and reading and have had some kind of interaction with any fandom, you’ll like it.

Fangirl is published by Macmillan Children’s Books.