“There is no friend as loyal as a book” (Hemingway) – a review of Bookworm by Lucy Mangan

blog book review of Bookworm

Never has the old adage, you can’t judge a book by its cover been proved more wrong. You can and you should. Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading is beautiful inside and out. A tribute to the extraordinary importance that books have in childhood. I laughed, nodded my head vigorously, and even shed a tear as I read this wonderful memoir.

childrens-stories.jpgIn one of those coincidences that life throws at you, I visited my parents while reading Bookworm. My dad casually mentioned that there were a couple of boxes of mine still up in the loft and I should go through them as he was planning a clear out. And oh, how glad I am that I did. I opened up the boxes and there were some of my old childhood friends. The rush of nostalgia when I saw the covers overwhelmed me. Many of my favourites have sadly been lost, or donated, over the years so it was a very eclectic mix that remained. But every book had a history for me. And I spent a couple of hours exclaiming happily over each and every book in those boxes.

I had the same feeling reading Bookworm.  Reading as a child, I would frequently emerge dazed and blinking, hours after first picking up the book, confused as to why I wasn’t in Narnia, fleeing from a laboratory with my fellow rats, ice skating with Hatty in the moonlight, or making a shelter from willow branches on a secret island.

My parents supported, but were slightly baffled by, my constant urge to read. Breakfast (“put that book down and eat your toast!”), still breakfast (“are you reading the cereal box?! just finish your breakfast!”), post school/pre-tea time (“why don’t you go and run around outside?”), bedtime (“alright, one more chapter”), still bedtime (“lights off now”), still bedtime (give me that torch), still bedtime (“you’ll ruin your eyes sitting in the windowsill using light from streetlamp, for the last time, stop reading and go to sleep”)…you get the idea.

The only way to keep me in books was our local library. Without fail, every week my dad would take me to there (and in school holidays, twice a week, such a treat that was!) where he would patiently wait as I agonised over which five books to check out. And every birthday and Christmas, my mum would make sure that all the relatives knew which books I did(n’t) own or hadn’t read, in a vain attempt to ensure that I received books I hadn’t already read.

owl afraid of the darkAs adults we forget that intense love and passion we had for our books as children. How we could read and reread the same book over and over again. Every now and then I still have a flash of that childhood passion, like when I come across a particular  edition of the The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark. [He was an owl. He had issues. He was called Plop. He was perfect in my eyes.] I read and reread Plop’s story so many times. And every time I finished the story, I felt the same sense of satisfaction that Plop had managed to overcome his fears.  Another children’s book that I reread obsessively was The Secret Garden. It was a revelation to me; the main character was a girl, but not a sweet ‘setting an example’ kind of girl, but a grumpy one. A girl who gave as good as she got, who could scream louder than a boy, a girl who had an adventurous spirit and who wasn’t afraid. Mary Lennox, I salute you.

Reading this memoir, it felt as if Mangan was telling the story of MY childhood reading; every chapter of her book journey reflects a step I took on my reading journey (I suspect we are a similar age!). The Very Hungry Caterpillar. The Garden Gang (The Garden Gang!!). Enid Blyton. Roald Dahl. Tom’s Midnight Garden. The horsey books. Narnia. The boarding school stories (Ah, Chalet School!). The dystopian future books (Z for Zachariah, Changes). Judy Blume who gave me the courage that I would survive my teenage angst. And last, but certainly not least, I Capture the Castle.

This is a memoir for anyone who loved books as a child, who saw them as friends, who could quote whole chunks from them. And for anyone who still loves reading as an adult.

 

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I am, I am, I am by Maggie O’Farrell

blog book review of I am I am I am

I read this in hardback when it was first released (as I do all of Maggie O’Farrell’s books) but the recent release of the paperback prompted me to go back and reread it.

And thank goodness I did. Once again I got to marvel at the perfect tone of her stories and her lyricism. What struck me, as I read her stories, is her sense of optimism and above all her will. Her will to survive. Her will to succeed. Her will to carry on carrying on. There is not a single self-pitying sentence in the entire book. Her wit and her wisdom shine through every page, but not in a saintly way – she is matter of fact and tells her tales warts and all.

You would be forgiven for thinking that 17 brushes with death (well 16, those who have read it will understand my caveat) would make O’Farrell maudlin, fearful, or see herself as ‘unlucky’. But, as she tells an ex-boyfriend, she sees herself as lucky.

I read this book in a single sitting the first time, and again this time round. And I suspect I will, the third and fourth time (ad infinitum) that I read this. And you should to.

Pretty iconic? Pretty great!

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Hands up, I don’t tend to read beauty books, beauty blog posts, in fact anything about beauty (although I am a fan of India Knight’s beauty articles for The Sunday Times’ Style magazine). However, this book was recommended to me and, as I am a sucker for a good-looking book (pun intended), I thought I would indulge myself.

And I am so glad I did. I came to Pretty Iconic: A Personal Look at the Beauty Products That Changed the World with absolutely no expectations; I had not read any of Sali Hughes‘s writing before (apologies to all you beauty fans out there, I refer you to my previous comment about not reading beauty stuff), and wasn’t sure what I would find.

What I found was an absolute gem of a book. Not only is Hughes incredibly informed and passionate about beauty products and very good at explaining why they do what they do, she is also knowledgeable about the products’ history and what inspired them to be created in the first place. And I really like her writing style.

I didn’t think that I have a lot of make-up and unguents on my bathroom shelf, so I was surprised tofind that I did in fact own, or have used in the past, many of the products that Hughes recommends in her book. And it was interesting to get a better understanding of ‘why’ a particular product works so well for me.

Split into sections: The Icons; The Nostalgics; The Gamechangers; The Rites of Passage; The Future Icons, there is something for everyone here. Some of Hughes’ anecdotes within The Nostalgics section made me laugh out loud. I am the same age as Hughes and experienced a similar beauty rite of passage to hers so her mentions of LouLou and AnaisAnais perfume (who doesn’t remember that extraordinary turquoise and merlot angular bottle?) and banana clips and scrunchies made me smile and cringe in equal measure. I was also pleased to see that I am not the only one to remember the joy of the Cosmetics-To-Go catalogue (now Lush).

There are over 200 products featured in this book; it’s designed to be picked up and flicked through, but it is so well-written and so interesting that I read it straight through practically in one sitting.

Even if you have no interest in beauty products, I promise that you will enjoy dipping into this book. It is well-written, informative, interesting, and beautifully designed. And for any woman born in the UK in the mid to late ’70s, it is a wonderful trip down memory lane. In fact, I’m off to track down some Papier Poudre sheets right now…

 

The Loney: Andrew Michael Hurley

 

andrew-michael-hurleyAward-winning author, Andrew Michael Hurley, spoke with Dr Xavier Aldana Reyes, at the Gothic Manchester Festival 2016: The Gothic North, in the marvellously appropriate Historic Reading Room at The John Rylands Library to a full house yesterday evening.

This engaging conversation covered the landscape and writers that inspired Hurley when writing The Loney, Hurley’s approach to writing and some of the key themes that run through his novel. For those not lucky enough to attend, following are my notes on their conversation.

the-loneyIs there such a thing as ‘northern Gothic’ in literature? Well, if there is, The Loney is it.The Gothic enables a writer to approach the large existential questions such as faith and identity, in an interesting and different way and Hurley does this in The Loney. He explores the difficulties of those experiencing a crisis of faith, using a group of parishioners on their annual Easter pilgrimage to a lonely stretch of the northwest coast. Eerie, strange and haunting, the landscape is as much a character as the parishioners and their priest.  A deeply unsettling, haunting novel, The Loney has at its heart a tension, that between reason and unreason. There is an honesty in Gothic writing, specifically the honesty of arrogant narrators in Gothic; the narrators use their knowledge to combat the horror they are witnessing but there always comes a point when reason cannot comprehend what is happening, or explain it away, and they are overcome by the horror.

Hurley visited the Morecombe Bay area many times as a child, through all its seasons, and the loneliness of this area was one of his inspirations for The Loney. The northern landscape and the weather lends itself to the Gothic; its gloomy, glowering skies are quintessentially Gothic.

Hurley was brought up in the Catholic faith (although lost his faith some time ago); as a child he learnt from his religion that there is another world peopled with spirits, devils and angels. He found many of the tenets of his faith gory, such as transubstantiation, and consequently his novel is soaked in this religious imagery and fervour.

Writers that have inspired Hurley include Charles Maturin and Shirley Jackson. Hurley talked admiringly about the ‘elasticity’ in the worlds in Jackson’s novels; her realities are recognisable but she stretches that reality to something off kilter, not quite right, that acts to unsettle the reader.Some direct literary influences on The Loney include M R James’ Whistle and I’ll come to you, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (some of the novel is set in Whitby, another northern coastal area) and Daphne DuMaurier (Don’t Look Now, The Birds).

It’s very difficult to say any more about The Loney without spoiling it so all i will say is that you should read it! And good news, there is another novel on the way also set in rural Lancashire,in the Bowland Fells, focusing on a small farming community and its local folklore.

 

 

 

 

Book review: Sophie and the Sibyl

sophie and the sibylA wonderfully engaging, erudite and quite frankly, fun, novel about George Eliot. Written in the style of a Victorian romance, this is a literary romp through the later years of George Eliot’s career and her relationship with her German publishers, the Duncker brothers, It skillfully blends fact and fiction to create a meditation on creativity, intellectualism and love.

The chapter headings are marvellous, for example ‘Chapter Seven: spins the Wheel of Fortune in unexpected ways. The Reader is invited to place her Bets’ or ‘Chapter Three: steps out for a stroll in the autumn sunshine. Sophie von Hahn bewitches the Assembled Company.’

I should say that I do love Victorian novels, and any novel based during the Victorian period, written in the Victorian style, so I may be a little biased in this review. So all I will say is that if you like Victorian novels then you will enjoy this!

Book review: Wake by Elizabeth Knox

wake elizabeth knoxAnd swiftly on the back of reading Wake by Anna Hope, I decided to confuse the issue by reading another book called Wake, this time by Elizabeth Knox.

I read Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck years ago and loved it so was pretty confident going in to Wake. However, now I have finished it that confidence has been shaken. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it but rather it wrong footed me. The opening chapter is horrifically graphic, and it really unsettled me to the extent that I don’t think I really relaxed for the rest of the novel in case another violent episode was described.

The plot is part closed-room mystery, part dystopia (but set in modern day New Zealand), and has a whiff of Lord of the Flies. A community suddenly goes mad and starts killing each other and themselves. A handful of survivors gather together, trying to understand what has happened and why it didn’t affect them but are unable to contact the outside world to find out how far the madness has spread. The survivors are (mainly) appealing and well-drawn, not cookie cutters, their dilemmas well expressed and prompted me to think about how I would react to such a situation. The only jarring element was the Samantha/Samara sub plot which felt unnecessarily complicated.

In summary, I appreciated the cleverness of the this novel but I can’t say I enjoyed it.

Book review: Wake by Anna Hope

Wake Anna HopeSet in post-WWI England, many people want to forget what has gone before and yet, for many, this is not possible. Parents have lost their sons, wives their husbands, siblings their brothers. For those who have come back, even if they are lucky enough to be ‘whole’ physically, mentally they are suffering; survivors’ guilt, nervous shock from the horrors they have seen, nightmares, the list is endless.

However, Wake doesn’t focus on these lost or broken men but rather on their women – a sister, a mother and a lover. Each of them are struggling to adjust to the loss they have suffered, and the change in their circumstances that the end of war has brought, such as a loss of freedom, a change in job, a change in social status. Their three stories represent the three definitions of the word ‘wake’: 1) emerge or cause to emerge form sleep; 2) ritual for the dead; 3) consequence or aftermath. As the novel progresses their stories skirt each other, then intertwine as each of the women search for answers. While describing the women’s lives over five days in November 1920, Hope movingly describes the country’s preparations for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier which underpins this story. Day five is the day the soldier is interred in his final resting place and the day all three women find an answer to the questions that have been haunting them.

This is probably one of the most accomplished debut novels I have ever read and I can’t wait to read The Ballroom.