Category Archives: Reviews

The Changing Room by Jane Turley

I proofread The Changing Room and worked on its Book Club Discussion Points and Author Q and A. I’m very lucky that Jane Turley sent me a gorgeous paperback edition last week. It’s a joy to behold and it was a delight to work on.

The Changing RoomIt is undoubtedly the funniest novel I’ve read in a long time. Jane Turley’s natural wit and flair for sharp dialogue make this an absolute pleasure to read. She reminds me of Sue Townsend, with a good dose of Rachel Joyce: all three have a gift for seeing the humour and pathos of everyday life.

“Today, I am in the changing room of my life and tomorrow, win or lose, I’ll move forward a stronger and wiser woman.” 

Alongside the classic British comedy are deeply moving moments as Sandy looks after her mother, who is becoming increasingly difficult due to Alzheimer’s, and loses her brilliant PTA frenemy to illness. There is a strong sense of social justice, responsibility, and the importance of looking after each other and coming together in times of crisis, as well as a lot of enjoyable silliness.

It is essentially a warm, genuine and life-affirming novel. I cannot recommend it enough.

The Changing Room Header

Available from Amazon in ebook or paperback, Smashwords, or Barnes and Noble. Please read and review it.

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The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey by Rachel Joyce.

the-love-song-of-miss-queenie-hennessy

I rather enjoyed The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, so I was interested to read the companion book, from the perspective of the woman Harold was walking to. Queenie is in the last stages of her life and uses her ‘waiting time’ to write a letter to Harold, as she is no longer able to speak. Some of it is a little surreal and morphine-addled, lending veracity to her narrative. Colour is provided by the other residents of the hospice, but it’s heartbreaking as they inevitably die.

“If only memory were a library with everything stored where it should be. If only you could walk to the desk and say to the assistant, I’d like to return the painful memories about … and take out some happier ones, please”

The story of her time with Harold is moving – an absolute classic of unrequited love. Though Queenie has a secret, and she must keep writing until she gets to it. The thing I enjoyed most in the novel was the vivid description of her sea garden: a monument to her life in driftwood and shells.

The ending took me by surprise – something I hugely admire in a novel. I highly recommend it.

Have you read it? What did you think?

The idea of a novel taking place during another novel, but from a different perspective, was very interesting. The parallel story enhances the first. Are there any other novelists that have done this? I’d love to know.

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Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

MiddlesexThis Pulitzer-winning novel is pure excellence. It’s literary in a wry, self-aware sort of way and is among the best family sagas written. The novel details three generations of the Stephanides family as the elders pass down narrator Cal’s genetic mutation. I think this might be the only fiction I’ve read with an intersex protagonist. Please recommend me more. Gender identity is one theme: the American Dream, immigration and assimilation are also deftly displayed. Social commentary successfully plays through the Greek epic allusions.

The narrative is impressive. It’s a mix of sardonic wit and verbosity, imagining details and events at which the narrator couldn’t have been present. He acknowledges his fabrications; when omnisciently recounting his father’s thoughts moments before his death in a car accident it feels like magic realism has taken over. There’s just a great ‘LOOK I’M DOING A BOOK’ attitude about this novel which I loved.

Middlesex is a modern classic.

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My Policeman by Bethan Roberts

my policemanI have a fascination with books set in Brighton. My familiarity with the city means novels set there instantly have keen verisimilitude. In My Policeman, Marion, Tom and Patrick live round the corner from me, sixty years ago. Inspired by E. M. Forster’s relationship with a married policeman, Roberts’ novel is at its heart a love story. Marion loves Tom, a young policeman who swims in the sea each morning. Tom loves Patrick, a curator at the museum. Patrick loves Tom too, very deeply. Being gay was illegal in the 1950s, so Tom marries Marion for respectability, but Patrick is an ever-present third party in the relationship. It is a difficult situation with multitudinous consequences.

The narrative is split between Marion’s letter to Patrick, written in the 1990s looking back on their lives, and Patrick’s contemporaneous diary. Marion got on my nerves all the way through, though I assume she is there to represent a sort of public conservatism and naïveté. I much preferred Patrick’s account, full of wit, love and pathos. The next real humans I saw had to endure me talking about the characters and their actions as if they were real, because it’s the sort of book that begs to be discussed. When I had just finished it I was frankly rather annoyed at it, but if it hadn’t been a strong novel I wouldn’t have cared enough to have such a reaction.

Have you read it? What do you think?

 

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Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

BlackbirdsMiriam Black knows after one touch when a person will die. She shakes the hand of a truck driver and sees his impending murder, wherein he calls her name. She has tried in the past to change the deaths she sees and resigned herself to failure. This time she tries again.

Miriam is an exemplary character: a nihilist, wit and creative swearer, she is a pain and a delight. There are psychopathic antagonists in Ingersoll, and his henchperson, Harriet. I very much enjoyed how his other henchperson, Frankie, just wasn’t that into it and dreamed of a quieter life. Fully rounded characters for henchpeople is my new editorial campaign.

Present tense can be tiresome, but in this case was essential and used effortlessly. Blackbirds is grim, gritty and violent, in an accomplished, crafted way. I skim read over some bits I didn’t want to haunt my impressionable dreams. Read it when you’re feeling robust.

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The Bard and The Doctor: British Institutions Re-imagined at the Brighton Fringe

England’s largest fringe festival takes over the city of Brighton during the month of May. The Brighton Fringe brings the great, the good, and the ‘that-could-do-with-a-bit-more-rehearsing’ of the arts to the seaside city. Of the 740 events, my partner and I went to see two: I need a Doctor: The Whosical and Shit-faced Shakespeare.I Need a Doctor

The Whosical runs through the story of two Whovians and their need to dodge cease and desist letters from the litigious Stephen Moffat using a questionable principle of “different, but the same”. K-9 became K-10; Daleks became Exterminators; and the Cybermen are cunningly disguised as the Cyber-Gents (who tap dance!). Different, but the same. With just two of them playing all the characters; sometimes more than one at the same time. It’s a wonderfully warm and endearing tale, peppered with songs, which only adds to a story that is best described as cute. I laughed so hard that I was close to rolling in the aisles. Here’s a taster:

ShitShit-faced Shakespeare: a team of classically trained actors stumble through an abridged version of Much Ado About Nothing, whilst one of them is, well…. shit-faced. Shit-faced, for those of a non-UK background, means bladdered. That’s just as confusing, Gazebo’d? Tanked? Hammered? Legless? Smashed? Three sheets to the wind? Really drunk basically. This thoroughly enjoyable story is made all the better as the other (non-tipsy) actors attempt not to corpse in the face of alcohol-inspired anarchy.

The compere, wearing what can only be described as Dorothy’s Ruby Red Chucks (something I must own!) a morning suit jacket and braces, is in charge of the plastered actor, directing them back to the stage when they wander into the audience in search of a lighter, a cigarette, their boyfriend, a friend, a seat to rest or just a chat. My favourite bit was when she stopped the show to tell another actor they were hamming it up too much and should have another go.

Here’s footage of them on a different night:

Both performances highlight the fantastic variety of great performers in the UK and the unique twists that have been applied to iconic British institutions. If you ever want to go on a journey in a Police Box (different, but the same) or see an actor actually go rogue with Shakespearean material then these are definitely two shows to check out. Both will be appearing at the Edinburgh Fringe, the largest fringe festival in the world.

 

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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

i-know-why-the-caged-bird-singsI borrowed this from the library a few weeks ago, but hadn’t had a chance to read it. Suddenly, Maya Angelou was gone and demand for the book necessitated its return the next day. I read it in an afternoon, with the loss of the author and numerous obituaries in my mind, and it was an intense experience.

Partner: ‘Oh, you’ve finished your book, how was it?’

Me: ‘Can you just hold me for a while?’

It is an honest, deep and heartbreaking autobiography of an important person. She was prolific and magnificent. Before this I had only read her moving, political poetry, but I intend to read much more.

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When Rosa Came Home by Karen Wyld

RosaLook at that cover: isn’t it gorgeous? It’s the reason I decided to read this fabulous feat of magic realism. Young Angelita didn’t know she had another sibling until Rosa was brought home, unconscious, mysterious and accompanied by a circus-load of friends (human and animal).

Angelita is the perfect narrator. She does not speak and is therefore an ideal listener, naturally allowing the soliloquies of the visitors to flow uninterrupted. Gradually, Rosa’s time away is pieced together.

It is gentle and warm, with the feel of a modern fairy tale. There are certainly the tropes of classic folk stories and a good deal of dramatic irony: a favourite technique of the Grimms et al.

I highly recommend this book. Links to purchase in many formats are all here.

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Failure and The American Writer: A Literary History by Gavin Jones

Failure and The American WriterI was so deeply engrossed in this book that I read it in an evening and then dreamt of living in the woods with Henry David Thoreau and Edith Wharton. Gavin Jones, Stanford professor and expert on American literature, explores the theme of failure in nineteenth century writing. In opposition to the ‘American Dream’ narrative, failure as a theme has compelling realism, and great potential for social critique, the author argues.

He explores the theme of failure in the works, for example, the decline of Lily Bart in Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth. But beyond plot, he considers narrative and stylistic failure, botched manuscripts and critical flops. Henry James: marvellous author, terrible playwright. Edgar Allan Poe: wrote bad poetry as purposeful subversion.

What I particularly enjoyed, as an editor, was reading about how novels were reworked, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson started out as a novel about conjoined twins. Late on in the drafting, he decided they should be separate twins, though didn’t tidy the manuscript very thoroughly: some scenes make far more sense in the former scenario. His drastic change of plot also meant that he had characters who no longer seemed directly relevant. He toyed with the idea of drowning one in a well to remove the plotting problem she posed.

This book raises fascinating questions about whether authors should write simply for popular success or to challenge readers, risking commercial failure. Melville, for example, wrote two books, ‘for money – being forced to do it as other men are to sawing wood…my only desire for ‘success’ (as it is called) springs from my pocket and not from my heart…independent of my pocket, it is my earnest desire to write those sorts of books which are said to ‘fail’.’

The best lesson for writers to be found in this book comes from Herman Melville: ‘It is better to fail in originality, than to succeed in imitation…Failure is the true test of greatness.’

This exceptional work on failure is a success.

Thanks to Cambridge University Press for the review copy.

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The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

hedgehogThis book made me weep. It was powerful, witty, profound and personal, and beautifully translated by Alison Anderson. The protagonists are a secretly cultural cat-lady concierge and a suicidal pre-teen genius who lives in her building. They both ponder what the point of it all is in their separate, but interconnected worlds. I think this book deserves to speak for itself, so the rest of this post is a collection of my favourite passages.

“Personally I think that grammar is a way to attain Beauty. When you speak, or read, or write, you can tell if you’ve spoken or read or written a fine sentence. You can recognise a well-tuned phrase or an elegant style. But when you are applying the rules of grammar skilfully, you ascend to another level of the beauty of language. When you use grammar you peel back the layers, to see how it is all put together, to see it quite naked, in a way.”

french hedgehog“I thought: pity the poor in spirit who know neither the enchantment nor the beauty of language. ”

“When something is bothering me, I seek refuge. No need to travel far; a trip to the realm of literary memory will suffice. For where can one find more noble distraction, more entertaining company, more delightful enchantment than in literature?”

“Where is beauty to be found? In great things that, like everything else, are doomed to die, or in small things that aspire to nothing, yet know how to set a jewel of infinity in a single moment?”

“I have finally concluded, maybe that’s what life is about: there’s a lot of despair, but also the odd moment of beauty, where time is no longer the same. It’s as if those strains of music created a sort of interlude in time, something suspended, an elsewhere that had come to us, an always within never. Yes, that’s it, an always within never.”

“There’s so much humanity in a love of trees, so much nostalgia for our first sense of wonder, so much power in just feeling our own insignificance when we are surrounded by nature.”

Have you read it? What did you think?

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