SNOW!!!

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Another off topic post but I’m so excited to wake up and see SNOW! Being the UK, everything has immediately ground to a halt which makes it incredibly quiet outside. I’m enjoying the view while cooking the Sunday roast and later on I shall be snuggling up to read The Girl in the Tower (the second part of the Winternight Trilogy, which is epic). Yay!

Hope you’re all having a lovely Sunday xxx

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Review: The Bricks that Built the Houses by Kate Tempest

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Photo courtesy of Goodreads.

If you don’t know who Kate Tempest is, allow me to introduce you. Kate is a musician, novelist, playwright and poet from South London and has won many awards for her work, including the Ted Hughes award for “Brand New Ancients” and two Mercury prize nominations for her albums “Everybody Down” (2014) and “Let Them Eat Chaos” (2017).
If you’d like to find out more, her website is here.

As you would expect from such a creative powerhouse, Kate Tempest’s novel, The Bricks that Built the Houses, is beautifully written with a lovely lyrical quality. However, her subject matter is pretty hard hitting and I found the juxtaposition with her writing style completely enthralling.

The book itself is a gritty account of life in South London for two struggling young women. Becky is a dancer/waitress by day and an erotic masseuse at night, whereas Harry is a drug dealer, gaining access to all the best parties to sell coke to her high end clients. Their two worlds collide when they meet at an event, and a series of chance occurrences leave them thoroughly entangled in each other’s lives.

I love Kate Tempest’s spoken word/music and so I was excited to read her novel. Apart from the beautiful writing, I was struck by what felt like a thoroughly authentic story. It really seemed like a “write about what you know” scenario – I imagine that many of the places and characters featured in the book are based on reality. There are some extremely well observed scenarios and her descriptions are so vivid that I was totally transported into the world she had created.

Kate Tempest is fantastic at portraying her characters in glorious 3D. They’re all flawed in some way but are just trying their hardest to make ends meet. Tempest is brilliant at showing both the light and shade in each person and doesn’t shy away from the effects of poverty on everything from career “choices” to mental health.

The Bricks that Built the Houses would be quite a depressing read if there wasn’t the most beautiful love story between the two main characters. This really lightened the tone and provided some of the most poignant observations about love and attraction that I’ve ever read. I think this is where Tempest’s poetic abilities really come into their own and I absolutely loved her writing about Becky and Harry’s relationship. Again, the authenticity of the love story stands out, not least because there is absolutely no saccharine sentimentality about it. I haven’t specifically researched whether Kate Tempest is gay/bi/queer but it feels like the relationship between Harry and Becky is one that she’s had personal experience of. It’s great to see this kind of representation in a non-YA, non-chick lit (I hate that term, but you know what I mean), non-erotic literature.

Unfortunately, I think the one thing that lets the book down is the actual storyline, especially towards the middle of the novel where I did find myself getting a little bit lost (and date I say it, bored). Some heavy editing would really help, as all the other elements are there and I particularly loved how interlinked everyone was towards the end. I did find the ending petered out a little – it would almost have been better to end on a cliff hanger, although I’m generally against them.

If you’re looking for an authentic social commentary about life for ordinary working class young people in 21st century Britain then I’d recommend this book. It just needs to be a bit shorter!

Overall rating: 3.5/5
The most beautifully written account of drug dealing in South London you’ll ever read.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #36 Read a book by someone that you admire.

Coventry 2021 City of Culture Winners

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Totally off topic post but I’m very proud to announce that my hometown of Coventry has just won the title of City of Culture 2021. Hurrah! I know quite a few people who have been part of the bid and I think they’ve all done a fantastic job. I’m so proud, especially as the bid was based around the city’s diverse population, something that we’re extremely proud of.

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Coventry has got an amazing history, medieval buildings, three Cathedrals and a vibrant creative scene. It hasn’t always been a great place to live (it was virtually flattened during the Blitz in the Second World War, and it was hit very hard by the recession in the 80’s) but due to lots of recent investment we’ve bounced back – there’s a reason that part of our coat of arms is a pheonix rising from the ashes.

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Coventry is the birthplace of many inventions, including the Rover safety cycle (the basic design that all modern bicycles are based on), the jet engine and the material Tercel. It’s also where the British car industry was founded by Daimler in 1895.

In literary terms, Coventry has produced many writers and poets, including Lee Child, Philip Larkin and George Eliot (whose novel Middlemarch was based on life in Coventry). This is the first stanza of my favourite Larkin poem, “This Be The Verse”:

“They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you“

How true!

I’m really hoping that some of the Heritage Lottery grant that’s awarded as part of the title goes towards the cities libraries, many of which have recently closed or are being entirely run by volunteers.

From now on, everyone is going to want to be sent to Coventry!

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Review: Elephant Moon by John Sweeney

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Photo credit: http://www.goodreads.com

Gosh, this is a really beautiful book. I can see why it was made into a film (that, as usual, I haven’t seen). It’s so beautifully descriptive, and is set in such a fabulous location that I’m sure it would look wonderful on the big screen.

Elephant Moon is the story of Grace, a British school teacher working in Burma during the Second World War. She teaches the mixed race “orphan” girls (usually with deceased Burmese mothers and British/American army fathers who have long since left the country) at a boarding school/orphanage. Not fully recognised by either Burma or the US/UK, the girls are left to fend for themselves when the Japanese begin their invasion of the country. Instead of booking her own passage out of Burma through the British Consulate, Grace instead decides to help the girls to the safety of India by guiding them through the hundreds of miles of jungle between the two countries – on foot. Based on real events, and with the help of those they meet along the way (plus assistance from some very clever elephants) Elephant Moon is an incredible story of love, survival and the kindness of strangers.

I really loved this book. I adore novels set in the 1940’s and this one was so effortlessly, charmingly British that I got completely transported to the days of the Empire, with expat women in silk stocking and men with pencil moustaches  sipping gin and playing bridge at the club, despite the tropical heat and humidity. It was set in such gorgeous surroundings (unspoilt virgin rainforest) and had such adorable characters (beautiful, well behaved children, baby elephants, a teacher who I imagined to look like Cate Blanchett) that I completely fell for its old fashioned charm. Yes, the book is set in a war zone and so there are also many scenes of blood, destruction and death, but John Sweeney somehow manages to consistently evoke a feeling of sophisticated elegance even during the most harrowing passages. I felt that there was a real juxtaposition between the brutality of the war and the way that the characters sometimes interacted with each other and the natural beauty of the flora and fauna of the country.

I really enjoyed the love story that emerged between two of the main characters, and how terribly British the whole thing was. Again, there was a juxtaposition with another emerging relationship that was brutal in it’s execution and the combination of both scenarios playing out at the same time seemed the heighten the feelings of adoration/revulsion that I had for each. There other parallels too – the relationship that Grace had with the school children was similar to the maternal bond between the elephants, her mistrust of one of the male characters was echoed by a mother elephant, her complicated feelings of both despair and faith in the British Empire were mirrored in her feelings towards a certain Mr Peach….there were lots of intersecting themes that really allowed me to get lost in the story.

It would be totally remiss of me to fail to give the aforementioned elephants at least a paragraph of their own. I loved loved LOVED reading about them and their journey through the jungle with the children. They were absolutely adorable and such a good vehicle for creating so much of the tension and drama in the book. More stories should have elephants as central characters, especially if they’re babies called Oomy. Awwwww!

If there is one thing that I thought could be improved upon with this novel, it would be the ending. I felt that it was a little bit rushed, although I loved the content of how the story finished.

Inspirational, epic, charming and evocative, this is a beautifully written novel that you’ll find yourself lost in. It has a little bit of everything in the narrative and doesn’t shy away from the senseless destruction and terror of war, but instead juxtaposes it with scenes of majestic beauty to create something truly unique. Highly recommended.

Overall rating: 4.5/5
Terribly, terribly British, but terribly, terribly good.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #28 Read a novel set in wartime.

Review: Collected Poems by Primo Levi

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For once, I’m going to write a serious book review, because the work of Primo Levi really does deserve some respect. In case you don’t know anything about him, Levi was born in Italy in 1919 to a Jewish family. He trained as a chemist, but the Second World War drastically altered his fate. After fighting in the Italian Resistance Movement, he was captured and in 1944 was sent to Auschwitz. Of the 650 Italian Jews who went there with him, Levi was one of only twenty who left the camps alive. He managed this through a combination of luck and good judgement – his scientific knowledge led him to work within the camp’s laboratories attempting to make synthetic rubber, thus avoiding hard labour in freezing outdoor conditions and providing him with an opportunity to steal materials which could be traded for food with the other inmates. Shortly before the camp was liberated, Levi contracted Scarlet Fever and thus avoided the Auschwitz evacuation initiated by the SS which resulted in the death of the vast majority of the prisoners. After the war, he went on to become an author, and produced (amongst other things) some of the most haunting poetry that I’ve ever read.

This book is not to be read by the faint hearted. The earlier poems contained within the first third of the work are clearly an attempt by Levi to come to terms with the horrors of the war and although they often feature themes of anger and desolation, there’s also a sense of forgiveness. It’s quite amazing, considering what he must have gone through, but there’s never any judgement or blame – only reflection and bewilderment that the human race can treat each other so appallingly.

As Levi gets older, his poetry becomes more expansive and although many of the themes of warning, loss and regret are the same, the references become more veiled and allegorical. There’s also quite a lot of literary references (some are more obvious than others) but in the volume that I read all are referenced for easy explanation in the back of the book. I’ve seen some reviewers say that they think Levi’s later work isn’t as good as his war poetry, but I found the same narrative streak running through it all and thought that almost all of the poems had the same level of gravity and emotion.

The language used within Levi’s poetry is surprisingly gentle, and the meditative tone suggests a man trying to make sense of his experiences, rather than to shock or horrify. It’s an incredibly honest and emotive look at life, and Levi has a special way of using concise language to convey a myriad of thoughts and feelings. Although the book itself is quite slim, I would urge you to take your time in reading each poem individually, and really think about what message Levi was trying to get across.

I haven’t rated this book as it seems like an incredibly crass thing to do – but I do highly recommend it to you all.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge 2017 #23 Read a collection of poetry in translation on a theme other than love.

Review: The Burning Girl by Claire Messud

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I could review this book in one word: disappointing. I was really hopeful that it would be great, based on the blurb – but it just meandered about and tailed off at the end. Let me explain…

The story starts off quite promisingly. Juju and Cassie have been BFF’s all through their childhood, but as they get older they start to drift apart. They have one final summer together where they discover a creepy old derelict mansion in the woods and spend their days playing in it before they go back to school and start to make different friends. So far so good. Usually I would expect something to happen at this point – they take their new friends back to the mansion, something is discovered etc. etc. However, nope – just quite a lot about how the girls are drifting apart. The introduction of the weird doctor Anders Shute made me think that something was going to happen – was he abusing Cassie and/or her Mum? But again, no, nothing is revealed. Eventually, Cassie runs off and finally… no, nothing really happens with that either. The end.

Sigh.

I think my disappointment stems from the fact that I thought I’d really relate to the characters in the book. I’ve had friendships fall by the wayside almost too many times to count and its not often that you see this represented well as a central theme in a novel. You often get the “we used to be best friends and now she’s bullying me” trope, or perhaps the “I’ve been totally ditched for the cool new girl” scenario but the gentle decline of two people growing up in different directions seems to be pretty rare. Or at least, I haven’t often come across it (but then I don’t read a lot of YA). Therefore, I was really looking forwards to seeing how the novel would treat the girls’ friendship. However, apart from a couple of awkward situations where the parents thought the girls were much better friends than they actually were, and the ending where Juju worked something out about Cassie before anyone else, the majority of the book was just… nothingy. I didn’t really relate to Cassie (who I didn’t much like) or Juju (who was kind of boring) and having two teenagers who interacted with each other less and less didn’t really make for a good story.

I did enjoy the introduction of Anders Shute and the sense of foreboding that came with him. I loved how well observed his behaviour was, as he never actually does anything too weird – but you still know there’s something really off about him. I would have liked it if more had been written about his relationship with Cassie, or if there was some huge revelation about him – but no.   

Sigh.

By 3/4 of the way through the book I was starting to get properly bored, but hurrah – there’s a bit of action when Cassie makes a discovery and runs off. I thought it was really weird to have the main thrust of the story happen right at the end but I did enjoy this part of the novel, although I thought it was fairly obvious where she had gone.

By the end, I wasn’t really bothered what happened to Cassie, so everything fell a bit flat.

Meh.

Overall, this isn’t a terrible book – some parts are really well written, some characters are well observed and there’s nothing really annoying about it. However, for me there wasn’t enough action and I hated how there were lots of little storylines that went nowhere. The whole thing was pretty forgettable, really.

Overall rating: 2/5
Disappointing.

Please note that I read this book for free via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. Thanks, Netgalley! I also read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #1 Read a book recommended by a librarian.

Review: Our Man in Havanna by Graham Greene

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Why, what a jolly good jape this novel turned out to be. Most excellent. Plenty of action but all good clean fun – a couple of ladies of the night but no mention of any how’s-your-father. Good show, Mr Greene!

It would be really interesting to know how anyone not-British gets on with reading period novels by British writers. It never fails to amaze me how much language moves on. So, for anyone who didn’t understand a word of the above paragraph, I’ll translate…

What a great adventure this novel turned out to be. Plenty of action, a few mentions of prostitutes but no sex – well done Graham Greene!

If you do struggle with slightly obscure English phrases, Our Man in Havana is possibly not for you. Despite the story being set in Cuba, the overall feel of the book is very much English. Mr Wormold, a vacuum cleaner salesman, is eeking out a life in Havanna for himself and his daughter Milly when an encounter with a mysterious gentleman provides a way of earning some extra income. All that Wormold has to do is to submit a few reports about the goings on in Cuba. Unfortunately, there are two main issues;

1) Wormold doesn’t know what’s going on 
2) He possesses an active imagination and has a spendthrift young daughter, so is desperate for the cash.

What follows could be perceived as a farce, but it’s far more seriously written – think less Three Men in a Boat and more Catch 22. There’s definitely a satirical element to the novel that makes it very funny (I recognised the bureaucracy within the secret service as being very similar to all of the public sector jobs that I’ve had). The writing is quite economical – the book is a little on the short side – but it’s brilliantly done and really clips along at a good pace. Tally ho!

One of the downsides of this writing style is the lack of description, especially when it comes to the setting. Really, Our Man in Havana could have been called “Our Man Abroad Somewhere Warm” because it’s so scant on details of the scenery. I know that Greene defined the book as one of his “entertainments” (which I’m taking to mean beach read) so it isn’t meant to be too in depth, but a bit more descriptive prose would have been good.

I Ioved all of the characters in the book, including the piously Catholic but hugely manipulative Milly, the powerful but not that intelligent Captain Segura, the stiff upper lip, keep calm and carry on Beatrice and of course, the humdrum little Mr Wormold himself. It’s a slightly wacky cast but they all fit in to the story well. In particular, I loved the attitude of everyone involved in the secret service – give him an OBE!

Towards the end of the book I felt that the humour died off a bit and although it was replaced with action I didn’t engage with it as much. I got a little bit lost when the “fake” reports started coming true and again, the brevity of the prose didn’t help with my confusion. I hated the ending (Beatrice and Wormold, really?!?) although again, the response from the characters within the secret service was hilarious and brilliantly depicted.

Overall, I really enjoyed Our Man in Havana. It had good pace, some great characters and was genuinely amusing. It could have done with a bit more detail, but as a light hearted romp it was really enjoyable.

Rating: 4/5
Light hearted, satirical novel about the most rubbish spy you could ever imagine. Highly recommended.

Please note that I read this book as part of the Popsugar Reading Challenge 2017 #9 Read an espionage thriller.