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Review: ‘Fortunately, the Milk…’ by Neil Gaiman

28 Oct

milk

Rating: ★★★★★

Earlier this month I was privileged enough to attend an exclusive Waterstones bookseller event. This is one of those nice little perks that I just didn’t know came with the job — but I’m glad it did!

The event was an audience with the lovely Neil Gaiman, author of masterpieces ‘Coraline‘, ‘Stardust‘ and ‘American Gods‘, among others. He read from his latest book, ‘Fortunately, the Milk…‘, talked a bit about its conception and the surprising way it mirrors his previous book, ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane‘.

Apparently, the main reason that Gaiman wrote ‘Fortunately, the Milk…’ was because he thought that there generally weren’t enough dads in books for kids.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AT6RpDl9bXc] Continue reading

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Review: ‘Apocalypse Now Now’ by Charlie Human

27 Oct

now

Rating: ★★★★☆

Set in Cape Town, ‘Apocalypse Now Now’ follows the story of sixteen-year-old Baxter Zevcenko, the enterprising kingpin of pornography-peddling schoolyard business The Spider. When his girlfriend Esme goes missing he discovers a secret supernatural underworld and, with the help of a grizzly bounty hunter sidekick, must try to avoid gang wars, his meddling younger brother, being devoured by giant crows – and an apocalypse or two.

The title comes from a common South Africanism relating to the amount of time to elapse before an event occurs. In the near future; not happening presently but to happen shortly. Continue reading

Review: ‘Family Likeness’ by Caitlin Davies

7 Sep

likeness

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

I’ve never really understood the appeal of the genealogy story. With multi-generational texts like ‘Middlesex’ and ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, I find myself wanting to skip to the now far more often than a good English Literature graduate should. I don’t know if it’s a fault of my immersion in the Instagram Generation – where we’re constantly trying to capture and hold the present like an overflowing bag, worried lest we let a single fleeting moment slip away without capturing it forever in the sepia tones of permanence – or whether I’m just not a fan of grandparent sex. Either way, this was not the book for me.

Family Likeness’ is Caitlin Davies’ fifth novel. It follows the story of Muriel Grey, the daughter of a white Englishwoman and an African American soldier stationed in England during the war. Muriel is raised in a children’s home during the 1950’s and much, if not all, of the story centres around her and her daughter’s later efforts to uncover the truth about her lineage. Continue reading

New Fiction Review: ‘The Day the Crayons Quit’ by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers

17 Aug

tdtcq

Rating: ★★★★★

For ‘The Day the Crayons Quit‘, debut author Drew Daywalt and international bestseller Oliver Jeffers have teamed up to create a colourful solution to a crayon-based crisis.

It’s a creative book that will delight adult and children alike. One day, young Duncan finds a stack of letters where his crayons should be. They’ve gone on strike. It turns out that his Red crayon feels overworked, what with the amount of firetrucks and red apples Duncan has been colouring in. Yellow and Orange aren’t talking at all. Grey laments that elephants are an awfully big expanse to cover all by himself, and White has an existential crisis over the meaning of it all. “Could you please use me sometime to colour the occasional pink dinosaur or monster or cowboy?” asks Pink, while Beige reclaims its name with pride. Meanwhile, all Black wants is to maybe work on a rainbow or two. Who could blame him?

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I’m just going to say it: this is a fantastic book! The end, no moral. If this is not the outright winner of whatever ‘2013 Children’s Book of the Year Award’ currently exists, I will be very surprised. The concept is genius, and Oliver Jeffers’ childlike illustrations truly bring the text to life. It’s certainly made me feel incredible guilt over all the melted crayon art I made a couple of years ago.

‘The Day the Crayons Quit’ may actually be more suitable for older readers — some of the letters are a little too long and the jokes just a little bit too clever for the teeny tiny target audience — but if money was no object, I would still buy it for every child I know. The only questionable element I could find was Peach being the ‘naked’ crayon, while Brown was mentioned in passing as being used to colour bears. (I mean really? ‘Peach’ ≠ ‘Flesh’, you guys.) I don’t know if this is just me reading too much into it, but it would’ve been nice to have a bit of diversity in such a colourful book.

New Fiction Review: ‘Acorn’ by Yoko Ono

12 Aug

Frankie just finished reading ‘Acorn’, a book of instructional pieces by conceptual art extraordinaire Yoko Ono. S/he thought this:

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Yoko’s great. Really, she knows what she’s doing. Her ideas are interesting, she’s clearly quite well read and well informed, she’s an intense and acute observationist, and she’s as much a presence on paper as she is in person. She’s an extraordinary artist, and no one needs reminding. But she’s not my artist. She doesn’t speak to me, she doesn’t resonate, she barely inspires a ripple in my imagination.

And that’s not to say that I don’t have imagination; I make songs, I make collages, I have an investment in art-making and conceptual thinking. But I’m also a pretty standard young person: barely any money, still unsure what I’m willing to do as a real job, concerned about the way I look and how others perceive me, inspired by various Westernisms and very much an urbanite. I’ve been toughened by the city, toughened by a fairly working-class upbringing, toughened by having to deal with assholes on a near-daily basis, toughened by being an unsigned, unloved musician, toughened by club and drug culture, toughened toughened toughened, made bitter, twisted, cynical, unbearable, and pissed off to the max (and yes, that’s everyone else’s fault, actually). Continue reading

New Fiction Review: ‘The Herbalist’ by Niamh Boyce

11 Jul

herby

Rating: ★★★☆☆

I won my copy of ‘The Herbalist’ through a Goodreads First Reads competition and was immediately struck by how much the cover looked like that of ‘Call the Midwife’. I don’t believe this choice was accidental. The texts share a common thread; both novels are historical fictions that pertain to women’s bodies, and both have a heavy religious presence.

‘The Herbalist’ is the story of a small group of women in 1930s Ireland. It details how the seemingly trivial appearance of a charming foreigner, who enters their market square one day to pedal his miraculous wares, changes their lives forever. It’s a novel about social convention, secrecy and seduction. Each woman is faces with her own choice to make and burden to bear, sometimes with disastrous consequences. Continue reading

New Fiction Review: ‘The Academy: Game On’ by Monica Seles

12 Jun

gameon

Author Monica Seles is a retired tennis champion. She won the French open at sixteen and went on to become the number one ranked woman in tennis, winning a total of nine Grand Slam titles before retiring from the game in 2004. I know this only because I read her biography in the back of ‘The Academy: Game On’, which I won through a Goodreads First Read competition. ‘Game On’ also has another author in very small print on the title page, so I’m guessing it was ghost written – not that it really matters.

It turns out that ‘Game On’ is your typical rags to riches plot, set against the backdrop of a very exclusive sports academy. You know, “17-year-old tennis superstar in the making gets the scholarship of her dreams… and more than she bargained for”. It’s sort of like Mean Girls meets Bend it Like Beckham, with a touch of The OC (‘cause they’re all so super rich).

The girls were fairly interesting, and this novel definitely passes the Bechdel Test with flying colours. There’s the protagonist, Maya, who is fairly likeable, punk Cleo, rising star of the ultra conservative golf scene, Renee, a girl rich enough to buy her way in to the Academy, and Glamazon Nicole, Maya’s heroine – and competition.

‘Game On’ is filled with all the hot guys and frenemies you’d expect. I haven’t read a lot of teen romance, but I imagine the romantic interests are fairly typical of that genre as well (bad boy vs. shallow stud). There are so many twists and changes of heart that my eyes were flicking back and forth across the page like I was witnessing a tennis match. Some of them were predictable, some of them I didn’t see coming and they struck me with the force of a tennis ball hurtled from a malfunctioning ball machine. (Are these tennis metaphors going a bit too far?)

This novel had a slow start but picked up the pace very quickly. It was genuinely funny at times, and although I never found myself laughing aloud I did find myself smiling a lot. The author does have a tendency to spoonfeed the reader a bit with her descriptions and there are a lot of instances of wishing she’d show instead of tell. This sentence on page two we probably could have gleaned for ourselves: “Finally, she had done it. This sixteen-year-old have-not from central New York with absolutely no connections whatsoever had somehow made it into the most exclusive club.”

Some of the description made me wince a little bit, like calling Cleo “an Asian girl with a towel wrapped around her head” the first time we see her, and

“You will be able to pick a Russian from a Belarusian from a Czech at a hundred yards in three seconds flat. Facial features, skin color, clothing, hairstyles […]”

feels borderline racist and wasn’t really necessary to the story or plot at all. ‘Game On’ also has a very “feel sorry for the poor beautiful rich kids” feel. For example, this quote:

“The only things Maya had ever heard about the way she looked were how freakishly tall she was, how creepily blue her eyes were, how plain blonde her hair was.”

Like, you can’t really just add an unflattering adjective to a word and make it so it seems like she doesn’t fit society’s idea of the perfect woman. Come on, Seles!

Also, after a dad says something offhand to his son:

“Jak and Maya found each other’s eyes. The pain was almost physical. Certainly worse than anything the kid he injured was feeling.”

I kind of disagree, considering that the character in question had just broken a fellow football player’s arm so hard that he’d let out a scream which sounded “primal, like a wounded animal”!

The whole novel offers an interesting commentary on class divides. I know it’s never going to happen in a million years, but a spinoff series about Cleo and her life as a Chinese immigrant who is also a lesbian would be A-MA-ZING. I really liked Cleo and it was super inclusive of them to put a lesbian in BFF role, but they really skimmed over her romance with Svetlana. Like we didn’t even meet the girl. I’m hoping to see more of baby dyke Cleo and her radical undercut in the sequel – although, speaking as a queer girl with an undercut, Cleo is pretty misogynistic for a queer girl with an undercut.

I have to admit that I enjoyed this book a lot more than I thought I would. And what I mean by that is that when the sequel comes out, I’m prepared to spent actual, real money on it. Nice serve, Seles.

Surrey Poetry Festival 2013

10 Jun

Here’s the University of Surrey’s poet in residence, Stephen Mooney, talking about the annual Surrey Poetry Festival which took place on Saturday. (Recognise him? He headlined our LGBT+ Arts Night last year!) The festival was held in the super historic Guild Hall on Guildford High Street this year, and included several book launches from Veer Books and Contraband, as well as an interactive installation, and readings and presentations from some really amazing contemporary poets.

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The first performer we saw give a reading was David Ashford, who was launching his collection of poetry ‘Xaragmata’. In my opinion, Ashford is the best candidate to be Steven Moffat’s next Doctor. Holding his book for the first time, he jokes about object fetishism and we laugh – his stage presence is endearingly awkward. Ashford was one of my lecturers for the entirety of my university education so I don’t really feel entitled to critique his performance, but the truth is that there’s not much to critique. His unique brand of poetry, which draws inspiration from mathematics, science, mythology and history, is really engaging and almost hypnotic to hear spoken. One of the audience members told me that he entered a trance-like state, in which the boundary between abstract and visual, numbers and colours, lost all meaning. If that’s not impressive I don’t know what is.

Nat Raha‘s book ‘countersonnets’, out with Contraband, was the first thing to catch my eye when I entered the Guild Hall. With a cover photograph by Del LaGrace Volcano I knew that this poet was going to be pretty radical, and it turns out that we saw her read at the very first Poetry Festival a couple of years back and she was just as engaging then. Raha is a super cool queer girl and the way she rocks on her heels when she’s speaking, her sporadic breaths, tasty choice of words, and sparing use of the word “fuck” in her poetry are all totally captivating. I hope she comes back to Surrey for next year’s festival!

The last poet that we saw was Karen Mac Cormack, who was launching her book AGAINST WHITE with Veer Books – quite a hefty tome. I liked a lot of her poetry, especially the piece she chose to close the session with, which was a kind of experimental use of alliteration and wordplay. My favourite groupings of words were the most sibilant. I love that sharp “ss”.

We only bought tickets for one ‘session’ and I was sad to miss Sophie Robinson, as I really enjoyed her readings at the very first Poetry Festival. I was also disappointed to miss Stephen Mooney and the student showcase, both of which were happening right after we had to go — Sophie Goodman in particular looked like she’d be really exciting to hear.

I really love student poetry, because I think that there’s a tendency from academic poets to be really inaccessible and/or experimental and while that might be good on a page when you have time to absorb the language and syntax, I think something might be lost in performance. Student poets and amateurs are just a little bit more raw, a little bit more honest or truthful which I think is what poetry is supposed to be, ultimately.

Conversely, I’d love to see some people at a future event who do performance poetry as a thing, e.g. Emilie Zoey BakerJeanann Verlee , Kai Davis. I know none of these ladies are British — maybe England is too ‘English’ for slam poetry?

Anyway, check out our haul from the event:

this one

I’m so gutted we forgot to get people to sign their stuff!

Incidentally, this free  copy of Potlatch was put together by a bunch of my talented uni pals, and also featured David Ashford’s work (among others). You might be able to get a free copy by emailing the potentially-defunct address at the back of the booklet, but no promises. It was designed by Emma Thomson, whose collage skills are incredible — she also makes some adorable handmade mascots for her roller derby team now, which you can buy.

Back in the day, Potlach was co-edited by Christina Manning, who just got married (congrats you guys!!), and Sarah Tuckwell, who recently helped me out at a craft fair by selling incredible cake while I tried to unload my Gliterature products onto strapped-for-cash students. Sarah runs a blog for Contraband called Black Market Modernist, and she is also available for human trafficking.

New Fiction Review: ‘Doll Bones’ by Holly Black

1 Jun

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I won my copy of ‘Doll Bones’ through one of Goodread‘s First Reads competition and it couldn’t have come at a better time, as I was in the stages of recovering from a particularly bad ‘The Graveyard Book‘-induced book hangover. I hadn’t read any of Holly Black’s previous works (no, not even the Spiderwick Chronicles) so I didn’t know what to expect, but I thought this book might make an appropriate supplement to Neil Gaiman’s novel. I was not disappointed.

‘Doll Bones’ is an unexpected coming of age story which follows three preteen BFFs who are on a quest to placate a ghost who may, or may not, be haunting them in the guise of a bone china doll. With a father like the one in ‘The Neverending Story‘ and a naïvety concerning his affect on girls his age, Zach is a cute choice for protagonist. I love that he wasn’t a bit ashamed to be carrying around this doll, and his concern about growing up and having to stop playing with the girls was touching and poignant. One particular passage near the beginning reminded me of the first half of the latest Hyperbole and a Half blog post:

That was why Zach loved playing: those moments where it seemed like he was accessing some other world, one that felt real as anything. It was something he never wanted to give up. He’d rather go on playing like this forever, no matter how old they got, although he didn’t see how that was possible. It was already hard sometimes.

Growing up is inevitable and sad. Something gets lost but it doesn’t have to be lost forever… not if you don’t want it to be. I find myself wanting to write this C.S. Lewis quote down and slip it between the pages of one of Zach’s books (like he was doing in one of the library scenes): “When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.”

‘Doll Bones’ is different to other quest plots in that the characters actually know they are ‘questing’. The children are fans of J.R.R. Tolkein, Doctor Who and other fantasy worlds; they relish the idea of their adventure, and some of the themes about growing up and putting toys away etc. play into this hope against all odds that magic can be real. This can be a little postmodern at times, for example when Zach is wondering about all the questers who must have failed before the heroes finally prevailed in the stories he loves, but it’s a nice touch and very fun to pick up on while reading.

I definitely wouldn’t recommend this book for children under the recommended reading age as it’s quite creepy – unless they’re connoisseurs of Goosebumps or whatever the contemporary equivalent is. I think a child revisiting this book when they’re fully grown will find it even more precious, after they’ve lived their own bildungsroman. Older readers should be able to get through this book in a couple of days. It’s really that absorbing. When you’re not reading it you’re wondering about the characters and their plight, and I think that’s the mark of a good novel. Black is clearly brilliant at creating story worlds, and despite the fantasy element of this one it was still totally believable. I’ll certainly be checking out her other writings – especially now as I have another book hangover to deal with!