Category Archives: Book Review

January 26, 2017

On My Bookshelf: I Capture The Castle

On My Bookshelf is a series of my most favourite books, frequently recommended to friends, family, and now to you!
i-capture-the-castle

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. That is, my feet are in it; the rest of me is on the draining-board, which I have padded with our dog’s blanket and the tea-cosy.

When a friend recommended I Capture the Castle to me several years ago, I couldn’t believe I hadn’t already read it. It’s one of those books you can return to year after year and still find utterly enchanting. Cassandra Mortmain’s diary mirrors the frenzied attempts I had as a teenager to document every moment; the fights with my siblings; the longing for life to be interesting; falling in love for the first time. Her eccentric father, bohemian step-mother and the family’s hand-to-mouth lifestyle living in a crumbling castle are far more romantic than my teenage-hood ever was!

April 10, 2016

March Favourites

Papworth family in Flaine, March 2016March seemed so long when we were in it, so I can’t believe we’re already 10 days into April! I spent wonderful weekends in Bath and Oxford with friends and a week skiing in the French Alps with my family. My London-based recommendations are a little thin on the ground this month, but I still have plenty to share…

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March 2, 2016

February Favourites

Spring snowdrops

It’s March and Spring is in the air! I want to share what I got up to in February with you all. Despite the winter weather it was lovely to try out a few new things…

VISIT > Petersham Nurseries

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August 27, 2015

Dreaming of Morocco

Majestic Disorder, A Handful of Honey, Travels with a TangerineHurrah! We’ve booked a late-summer trip to Marrakesh – not somewhere I would have naturally chosen to go, but now I can’t wait to explore. When we first thought about going on holiday I had my heart set on a Mediterranean island but was persuaded by my fairly beach-averse boyfriend and a browse of some travel literature that Marrakesh would be far more interesting.

Annie Hawes is best known for her brilliant Extra Virgin series set in her adopted Italy. In Handful of Honey she travels to Morocco and Algeria for several weeks and her shrewd observation of cultural barriers and similarities, along with a good dose of intriguing history and hilarious anecdotes has transformed me from a North African travel sceptic. If you’re off to Morocco or Algeria this is a must-read. I almost wish there was a sequel to take with me and read in situ!

I dipped into issue 4 of Majestic Disorder which is set in Marrakesh. It has a beautiful photo story of a trip over the Atlas Mountains into the Sahara Desert, something that I’m keen to try and recreate while we’re there if we can.

Before I begin browsing a proper guidebook, I’m attempting Travels with a Tangerine, Tim Mackintosh Smith’s book about the Moroccan explorer Ibn Battuta. So far it’s a much denser than A Handful of Honey – turns out that an Moroccan explorer from the Middle Ages is much less relatable than an English woman from the 21st century. Who would have thought? I’m going to keep going with it as every now and then there are snippets of incredible facts such as Ibn Battuta travelled three times the distance of Marco Polo. Pretty incredible that I’d never heard of this guy before I read the book.

If you’ve been to Morocco I’d love to hear what you did or anything set there that you’ve enjoyed!

June 11, 2015

Recently Read: The Goldfinch

The Goldfinch Donna TarttI’ve heard so much praise for The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt’s latest novel – in the last year, that I just had to read it to find out what all the fuss was about. And, I didn’t think the praise was unfounded! The Goldfinch starts in New York City, where a bomb explodes in the Metropolitan Museum of Art that kills 11 year old Theo Decker’s mother. The story follows Theo to Las Vegas and Amsterdam as he struggles to come to terms with his mum’s death and form the shattered pieces of his life back together.

The Goldfinch stack of books

Initially I was a bit daunted by the length. The Goldfinch is a mammoth book, over 700 pages long. I packed it for an interrailing trip across Europe last month, reasoning that at least it would keep me occupied on the long train journeys. Yet, every time I devoured another few bite sized chunks of The Goldfinch I felt I was reading mini episodes of a radio or TV show, carefully constructed short stories within a wider narrative.Chair with The Goldfinch on itThe Goldfinch on chair

The pace and energy of The Goldfinch suited me perfectly. Some criticism has fallen on The Goldfinch for not being ‘realistic’ or ‘serious’, but I suspended my disbelief enough to enjoy the story, even when coincidental events were a bit too good to be true plotwise! Every character was beautifully detailed and complicated, from alcoholic, Russian teenage dropout Boris to Hobie, the slow steady craftsman who are the guiding friends of Theo for many years. For me, The Goldfinch was everything I wanted it to be – meaty, character driven and a thoroughly engrossing read for dipping in and out of across Europe!

The Goldfinch book stack

Ps: I find it really hard to recommend a book/film without giving away the whole plot (it’s a real problem) so I steered well clear of plot almost entirely! 

January 25, 2015

The Miniaturist Review

waterstones book of the year 2014waterstones book of the yearSomething weird happened recently.

Within minutes of stepping into Waterstones a customer had come up and told me to read the copy of The Miniaturist I was flicking through. And it happened twice. In different towns, weeks apart!

It was all I needed to be persuaded as I already liked the cover (hands up everyone else who judges a book on the cover, I know it’s not just me!), and it was Waterstones’ Book of The Year so they had a lovely big pile of them on a table looking very twinkly and enticing.

It was the perfect novel to read in the week between Christmas and New Year. The damp, swirling cold of Amsterdam’s canals in the story was counteracted by cozy fires and delicious warming meals. And while protagonist Nella is missing her family home’s marzipan when she goes to live with her new husband, I was surrounded by sweets and chocolate galore.

Jessie Burton’s intricately crafted sentences and amazingly detailed setting were the strong points of the novel. Rather than Amsterdam being a briefly written backdrop for the story, I felt totally immersed in the culture of 17th-century Amsterdam. I don’t think I’ve ever learnt so much about a city through a novel before, it was like stepping back in time with a tour guide!

The mysterious storyline and feisty characters – sometimes a bit too openly feminist to believe the book was set 400 years ago! – meant I hankered to get back to it and binge read nearly the whole book in one afternoon.

I hope you enjoyed it if you have read it too. Let me know in the comments what you thought!

September 7, 2014

Oh Comely Book Club

oh comely book clubI rarely write in to magazines or take part in competitions, but when Oh Comely magazine invited readers to have one of 5 Penguin Classics sent to them to become part of their book club I picked one straight away. Getting a free book through the post was a lovely treat, and it was exciting to be potentially reading it at the same time as other people around the world. I ambitiously chose The Art of Joy by Goliarda Sapienza, a 700-page Italian erotic novel, written between 1967 and 1976, published around 20 years later and only recently translated into English.

I read the first half of the book fairly quickly, it was gripping, intriguing and unsettling. The structure reminded me of Jane Eyre, as the protagonist Modesta recounted her early memories of childhood and led the reader through her adolescence to her adulthood as, like Jane, a strong, capable woman. Yet The Art of Joy is almost an anti-Victorian novel, an inverted Jane Eyre. Modesta’s early experiences involve sadistic masturbation to the screams of her sister and sex with a stranger who claims to be her father. Even a decade spent in a convent doesn’t transform Modesta into the chaste, obedient woman she’s meant behave like. But The Art of Joy isn’t the typical ‘fallen woman’ storyline like Madame Bovary. Modesta acquires wealth, an education and status, without giving up her sexual adventures with men and women.

I read the entire novel and really enjoyed it, but thought that it was a bit too long. Modesta was a really strong and likeable character, but other characters felt two dimensional in comparison, as if they were cameo roles to indulge her as a femme fatale. This might be because I got a bit bored of the plot and skim read the last 300 pages! With incestuous relationships continuing through the novel’s fifty year span and numerous characters having nicknames, I got lost in a web of characters who may or may not have been related to each other. Unfortunately Sparknotes wasn’t able to help me out either!

I’m looking forward to the Oh Comely Book Club discussion next week. Did anyone else take part?

July 6, 2014

How to Build a Girl – Review

How to Build a Girl Union Chapel

After Caitlin Moran’s notorious first book How To Be a Woman went down so well as a Christmas gift, my boyfriend gave me her second book Moronthology (equally hilarious) and tickets for us to see her speak about her third book How to Build a Girl at Union Chapel for birthday gifts. What he didn’t realise when he booked the tickets was that he’d end up standing on his seat chanting ‘I’m a feminist!’, which gives you a pretty good idea of how the evening went.

I steered clear of How To Be a Woman initially, viewing it as long angry autobiographical rant about feminism and periods. So it was a nice surprise, after having it forced on me pityingly for my lack of pop culture knowledge, to find out that it was actually a hilarious commentary on girl-and-womanhood by a witty, astute writer, who just happened to have a berserk badger stripe hairstyle.

Standing in the queue outside it became apparent that Caitlin Moran’s work has so far spawned a predominantly female fanbase; my boyfriend was one of about thirty men there. Thirty men who also worry about their legs and fancy Benedict Cumberbatch. We’re all essentially the same.

 

Our tickets allowed us a free drink at the bar (hurrah!) as well as a signed copy of the book, however we weren’t allowed to take any alcohol into the actual venue from the bar presumably because it’s used as a church for half the week. Yet, in an surreal juxtaposition, Caitlin talked her way through sex, masturbation, pornography and drugs throughout the evening, hardly Christian condoned topics. Not being able to drink a glass of wine while watching a re-enactment of a porn scene was a mind-bendingly odd experience. Caitlin had a full bottle of wine on stage so perhaps she had special dispensation from the for the night? Let’s hope so.

How to Build a Girl’s protagonist, Johanna Morrigan, feels very like a fictional reflection of Caitlin: an overweight teenage girl from Wolverhampton living on benefits and leaving school to write for a London based music magazine. She states, ‘this is a novel and it is all fictional’, leaving the events of the book open ended as to whether they happened or not, and a frequent need to remind myself that I wasn’t reading How To Be a Woman Part Two.

Not since I read Jaqueline Wilson and Judy Blume’s books growing up have I read a novel that feels like an author knows, and is willing to write about, what growing up as a teenage girl feels like. How to Build a Girl is infused with positivity, the limitless, indestructible, lightness of being a teenager as well as the sometimes confusing, dark, destructive struggle of growing up and building of an identity. Set against a backdrop of ‘90’s working-class poverty, I felt I had a window into a community I’ve co-existed with and rarely heard from before, just as pertinent twenty years later as Cameron’s slashing welfare benefits and the propaganda of a ‘lazy’ working-class is still firmly etched into the collective middle-class subconscious.

Many of the ‘90’s references were lost on me (I knew Ceefax, but not Uncle Tupelo) but Caitlin’s writing was so slick, witty and vivid that glossing over some of them didn’t make me enjoy the book any less. Her ability to metaphorically pin-point exactly how something feels, sounds or looks is exceptionally displayed; a ‘very large penis’ is a ‘draught excluder, with two buttons for eyes’; the extinct trolleybus system ‘a series of dreamlike veins left on old maps’.

As far as I can tell from Caitlin’s twitter feed every audience has been invited to stand on their chairs and shout ‘I’m a feminist’, so if you’ve got tickets for the tour you might want to get practising. And, if you’re thinking of buying the book, it’s far too good to wait for the paperback at Christmas, go and buy it now!

How to Build a Girl is on sale now, and Caitlin Moran is touring throughout July.

May 9, 2014

Crash Course Literature

‘That’s the pleasure and challenge of reading great novels, you get to see yourself as others see you and you get to see others as they see themselves’. – John Green

You may know John Green’s name. Whether it’s as an author of young adult fiction; the man that wrote The Fault In Our Stars, the film adaptation of which will be released 6th June; one of 2014’s most influential people according to TIME; or, as I first knew him, one half of the brother duo Vlogbrothers.

Today though, I want to introduce John as the writer, presenter and co-producer of Crash Course Literature, a fantastic series of YouTube videos teaching English Literature novels, plays and poetry: The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, Romeo and Juliet, Emily Dickenson, Things Fall Apart, Jane Eyre, Frankenstein, Hamlet, The Odyssey and To Kill a Mockingbird. Literally everything that I studied through school and university. If only Moby Dick was on the list; I’d be acing that novel right now!

Crash Course’s aim is to provide entertaining, high quality, education to the entire world for free. And, it does it extremely well across a broad range of subjects, all taught by John and his brother Hank. Crash Course Literature is like a fun, succinct version of Sparknotes. Every episode is around 11 minutes long and jam packed with insightful analysis into whatever piece of fiction John’s teaching that week.

It’s hard to know what angle to enthuse about Crash Course from; the bright stylised graphics by Thought Bubble; the humour and accessibility of the series; John’s passionate, perceptive reading of each texts’ themes and characters; the fluid way that he explains the wider context of each text, and indeed of literature as a whole; and the tiny bits of significant detail he picks up in each novel. I mean, who knew the colour yellow was highlighted numerous times at the end of The Great Gatsby? I was too focused on the colour green!

I would absolutely, one hundred percent recommend Crash Course Literature to anyone studying any of the above books (and I believe Slaughterhouse-Five is coming next week). It’s like having an internet personal tutor, who cares far more about the book than the mark you’re hoping to get, consequently, making you more passionate about what you’re studying, and get a fantastic mark as a result, bonus!

Yet, for anyone not studying these books, even if you haven’t read them, I urge you to watch the series. You might believe that once school and university and evening classes finish, academic learning stops. But, Crash Course’s philosophy, to provide free education to all through the internet, is fantastically idealistic but utterly achieved through the series. John makes literature approachable, and breaks down the barrier to reading by making classics less intimidating.

July 17, 2013

Bonjour Tristesse and A Certain Smile

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This summer I’ve been soaking up the good weather and some really great reads in equal measure. This collection of short stories was lent to me by a lovely friend, who has a brilliant and pretty dark taste in literature so I knew I was in for a treat! I drank up the pages, every page making me thirstier for more, and had these stories ticking around my head for the next week: the mark of a perfect read! Devouring this collection was easy: Sagan writes two compelling Bildungsroman stories, both with beautifully depicted settings in her native France and an intriguing cast of characters.

Sensual, evocative, perplexing, beautiful – all of these adjectives sprang to mind when I finished reading Françoise Sagan’s first short story collection – followed by sheer astonishment when I discovered that Sagan was only 18 years old when she wrote Bonjour Tristesse and A Certain Smile and did so after failing her exams. When I was a teenager I didn’t have the creative drive to become a novelist. I did, however, pass my exams. I feel Sagan’s achievement is slightly more spectacular, not least because her work has been read, admired and critiqued far more than my A level William Blake essays ever will be.

At just 18, Sagan’s literary output and command is astounding. Her stories are full of understanding about the complexity and perplexity of human relationships. The protagonist of Bonjour Tristesse, Céline, is an almost psuedo-biographical version of Sagan; a late teenage girl who, having failed her exams, is attempting to retake them, whilst holidaying in the south of France with her doting, philanderer father and his latest fling. Sagan captures the intensity of Celine’s desire, anger, infatuation and remorse with vivid clarity as she is able to channel her own youthful experiences, unhampered by adult hindsight, into her writing.

Sagan’s ability to write with maturity from an immature perspective is demonstrated from the outset of Bonjour Tristesse:

‘A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sadness. In the past the idea of sadness always appealed to me, now I am ashamed of its complete egotism. I have known boredom, regret, and at times remorse, but never sadness. Today something envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, which isolates me.’

Céline’s first experience of sadness highlights her youth and the awareness that it is slipping away from her. The simile of her sadness as a ‘silken web’ relates her belief that developing new tender, mature emotions (a symptom of the unique initiation into adulthood) equates entrapment; wrapping around her like a thin shroud intent on burying her youth. The film of this ‘web’ isolates her, from both her former self and the adult world she is entering, suggesting that her core identity will be lost through this transition. For Céline, contemplating adulthood is dire: it means the loss of pleasure and the taking up of responsibility. Anne, Céline’s late mother’s old friend, symbolises this transition within the novel and Céline’s gradual acceptance of the beauty and joy of adulthood as well as the sacrifice and pain bound within it.

Sagan’s strength lies in being able to skilfully fuse a detailed and precise plot with the immediacy and intensity of the pubescent transition. As this transition is one that everyone must go through, not just fictional characters, considering at 18 Sagan was able to write from the other side of this transition, whilst possibly still going through it, demonstrates just how talented Sagan was.

Best read: Stretched out in the sun on a French beach in summertime