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.

 

 

Book review: The long way to a small angry planet

the long way to a small angry planetAlthough I enjoy science fiction, I am more of a dystopia girl than space opera. But I had read a couple of good reviews of the long way to a small angry planet and thought I would give it a go. And I have to say I LOVED it!

Not only has Becky Chambers created a brilliantly realised world with engaging characters and an interesting storyline, she has also managed to tackle the ‘big questions’ head on including racism, gender stererotyping and the ethics of bio-engineering, without being heavy-handed. It really made me think and I felt quite bereft when I finished the novel – I missed the characters!

I hope there’s a sequel…

 

 

Music and memories: Book review of ‘The Chimes’

The Chimes, Anna SmaillAn unusual dystopian novel, The Chimes is a story of a populace without memories.

Music underpins the lives of the populace of an alternative London; it guides them (tunes act as auditory maps so they can find their way around), it identifies them (everyone has their ‘own’ tune) and it defines their role (additional snatches of melody added to their tune that broadcast their activity). But most of all, it controls them. The chimes of the title ring out from the Carillon several times a day, essentially wiping any memories made and reinforcing the ‘Onestory’ which is all anyone knows.

But there are those that can and do remember snatches of the real story, the whole story not just the Onestory. They are hidden, on the fringes, and they want to give people their memories back.

This novel is saturated with musical nomenclature, an alternate version of musical terms. A strong knowledge of musical terms would help the reader get the most of out this novel, but even without that, it is an engaging read and one that really made me think about the importance of memories and how they form not just our back stories but how they can drive our current attitudes, our behaviour, and our future plans.

 

Magical storytelling: Iain Pear’s Arcadia

Arcadia_Iain_PearsOkay, so the title of this post probably gives away what I think of this novel! I have enjoyed all of Iain Pears’ previous novels and Arcadia can now be added to this number.

It is a difficult novel to categorise so I am not really going to try. The Guardian called it a “fantastical extravaganza” and The Independent claimed that it was a “near-perfect take on the perils of a parallel universe”.

Pears effortlessly intertwines three interlocking worlds and ten characters to create a wonderfully engaging story that celebrates the magic of storytelling. With a spot of time travel thrown in. And an homage (not a pastiche as it is a gentle portrayal not a mean one) to the kind of pastoral idyll found in certain fairy tales. I always find when I read Pears’ novels that I just ‘sink in’ to the writing, it envelopes me and I find myself raising my head dazed having read straight for three hours. And Arcadia was no different.

arcadia appHowever, it is a complex read, so complex that the author developed an app to accompany the book to help the reader keep track of the characters’ as they move between worlds and influence each others’ lives. I decided to forego the app for the first read, but now I am going to go back and follow each character’s story in turn (therefore reading the novel ‘out of sequence’) so I can appreciate even more the cleverness of this novel.

I hope I have’t put off prospective readers talking about the complexity of the plotting; Arcadia is a great read!

Book review: I Let You Go, Clare Mackintosh

I-Let-You-Go-cover-imageI think this may be the shortest book review ever – read this book! I can’t tell you why you should read I Let You Go as the main reason I would give you is the plot.

And the moment I start talking about the plot, I will inadvertently hint at one of the most startling twists I have read ever in a ‘psychological thriller’ (as this book is tagged a la Gone Girl, The Girl on the Train – both excellent by the way, if you haven’t read them) and it would be a real shame if you knew anything about this book before you started, bar what is written on the back cover blurb.

So what CAN I tell you? The main character Jenna is engaging, fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. The main plot twist comes halfway through the book which is a clever use of the ‘big reveal’. I had to read all of Part One again before moving onto Part Two to see where I could have gone so wrong.  It is an excellent portrayal of the reality of police work, the grinding police fact and statement checking that has to go on week after week to get to the truth. And that is all I am willing to tell you about I Let You Go. That and you should flex your hands regularly while reading, as you will be gripping the book pretty tightly by the end!

I will finish this post with a public health warning: Please don’t read this in public if you tend to get emotionally involved when reading a book (I don’t think my fellow tram passengers have ever recovered from the sight of me sobbing loudly when I reached the end of The Time Traveller’s Wife). When reading I Let You Go on the train yesterday, I actually exclaimed out loud and threw the book away from me when I reached the halfway point and stared at it accusingly for about ten minutes, while shaking my head and muttering to myself before I picked it back up again. So I apologise to my fellow travellers on the cross country 17:37 from Oxford for my histrionics but once you read this book you will understand and forgive me my actions…

 

 

Book review: Look Who’s Back

I recently joined a new book club (see my previous post about relocating and using meetup.com to meet people!) and talking about books in a group again has inspired me to blog reviews once more. I have been a bit slack recently as although I have been reading lots I haven’t been blogging. So here goes, first book review for a while. It was a good discussion about a bad book; I read it and really didn’t like it so attended the group in some trepidation in case everyone else loved it but luckily the majority had similar views to me. Bit of a relief considering it was my first meeting!

Look Whos BackLook Who’s Back
Timur Vermes
Warning, this review contains spoilers. This book apparently caused a stir in Germany when it was first published as its main character is Adolf Hitler, the person who is ‘back’ which is obviously a controversial choice. The premise is that Hitler wakes up on a patch of ground in Berlin in the Summer of 2011. To him it was only yesterday that he was in his bunker, so he is rather surprised by the modern world of 2011, not least the fact that Germany apparently lost WWII. However, through dint of his ‘personality’ and single mindedness he ends up managing to make media contacts, get a tv contract, navigate the pitfalls of modern technology before becoming a media star by the end of the book.

The opening chapter is relatively engaging but as far as I am concerned it goes downhill from there. The novel is meant to be a satire on the cult of personality, a witty riposte to the modern obsession with the latest celebrity ‘on trend’ who spouts nonsense but I just didn’t feel it when reading the novel. I didn’t find it witty, funny or satirical. The situations are contrived, the media consultants cardboard cut-outs and ‘Hitlerisms’ jammed into conversations. The novel is told from Hitler’s point of view, which gets wearing really quickly as the author takes every opportunity to use this narrative device to tell us what he thinks Hitler would think of the Internet, smartphones, etc. One of the only successful pieces of writing in the book is the ‘transcript’ of one of Hitler’s speeches to the media crew. It is typeset in free verse and is just phrases strung together, ‘inspirational’, all high emotion and fine-sounding but no real depth which, to me, accurately reflected what eyewitnesses have reported they felt when they listened to Hitler speak.

And, the cherry on top for me is the editing of this novel. Having a background in publishing, I found the constant typos a distraction. I also found the novel just didn’t seem to flow; it’s difficult to judge whether that’s the authors’ fault or the translator’s. However, kudos to the designer, it is a very striking cover.

Would I recommend this? No. But if you read Look Who’s Back in the original German, please let me know what you think of it. Maybe I missed something in the translation…