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The Library of Unrequited Love by Sophie Divry

The Library of Unrequited Love

Translated by Siân Reynolds, this short French novel is an amusing soliloquy in the voice of a librarian. She finds someone who has been locked in overnight, and variously scolds, enlightens and lectures them on literature, subject hierarchies, book classification, and her secret crush. Stuck in the Geography section in the basement, she wishes to been allowed to work on History or Literature.

Here’s my favourite passage: ‘To know your way around a library is to master the whole culture, i.e. the whole world.’ As with previous best-sellers, I intend to tell you what I thought of it through the incisive prompts of the ‘Reading Group Questions’, which have be so thoughtfully provided in the back pages.

1. What did you think of the fact that the person found in the library is never named or described? Did you imagine the librarian was talking to you, or did you have a picture in your head of the listener? For some reason, I felt she was talking to a male person, so no, I didn’t feel like she was talking to me, despite the lovely use of second person throughout. I think it’s a great device, as essentially the person is anonymous to her too, which is why she feels she can monologue freely.

2. Did you understand the librarian’s infatuation with Martin? Do you think she will ever speak to him about her feelings? Martin is a man who comes in regularly. All she knows about him is what he reads. It’s rather romantic, but essentially a flight of fancy. She will never speak to him: she is too shy, and it could shatter her imaginary ideal of him, which I think she sometimes enjoys. For example, she refers to a chair he never sits in as ‘Martin’s chair’ as that’s where she would like him to be. It’s a more satisfying image than the reality could ever be.

3. What do you think of the library as the setting of a love story, unrequited or otherwise? I think it’s charming. There are the clues to their personalities in the books they’re looking at; the stolen glances across the quiet study room; the light repartee that can be sparked by literature. There’s nothing more attractive than a firm grasp of the Dewey Decimal System. If I had a pound for every time someone asked me out in a library, I’d have £1.75.

4. The librarian has mixed feelings about her confinement to the Geography section. Which sections of the library would you never visit? I’m not very enamoured with local history; there seems to be a vast section of that, presumably due to the kind donations of local authors, who don’t realise that five other people have already written a guide to the history of cycle paths in their village. Food also fails to excite me. That said, I’m always open to suggestions.

I very much enjoyed all ninety-two pages of this witty and clever musing verging on diatribe. Have you read it? What did you think? Which sections of the library do you never visit? Comments please!

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The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde

Well of Lost PlotsIn the third instalment of this comical series, Thursday Next needs a rest, so she signs up for a Character Exchange inside the Well of Lost Plots, where unpublished books reside. I was utterly delighted with that premise alone – who hasn’t day-dreamed about living inside a book? Unfortunately, the book Thursday chooses may well be scrapped for parts, her memory is being slowly eroded and a murderer is taking down fellow Jurisfiction agents (the police of the book world).

This is a book for keen readers and writers; the literary in-jokes and puns are a joy. I don’t want to ruin it by sharing too many, but the mispeling vyruses really tickled me, as did the fact that Godot seems incapable of showing up to a meeting on time, leaving everybody waiting. It’s eccentric, smart and chucklesome.

I have yet to read the rest in the series – I started in the middle as I was reliably informed that this is the best. Have you read it or any other Fforde novels? Leave me a comment below.

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The Suite Life by Suzanne Corso

The Suite Life

This book chronicles the life of Samantha Bonti as she leaves relative poverty in Brooklyn for a wealthy Manhattan life with a Wall Street husband. For the first hundred pages or so, the book is uneventful.  A woman who often refers to herself in the third person falls in love with a showy man whose main character traits are over-eating and listening to Alanis Morissette. Thankfully, the characters are subsequently fleshed out and become far more interesting as the market crash hits and the family self-destructs. Samantha learns that there are rather too many parallels between her marriage and a previous relationship with a mobster. If that had been done subtly, I might be more enamoured with this book. As it is, there is more telling than showing. The first person narrator frequently declares how clear the parallels are and repeats aphorisms. 

I liked how linear the plot was. It was generally accessible and an easy, quick read. It has some lessons to teach about the perils of decadence and corruption and the importance of self-reliance.  It has strong Christian themes, though relied too heavily on religiosity as a measure of good character. 

It is a sequel, so perhaps I would have got more from it if I had read the previous instalment. I was interested enough to read it to the end. Generally, I think this book is a casualty of bad branding or marketing. I’m sure there is an audience that would really enjoy it, but the reviews I’ve seen so far all indicate that they were expecting something that the book didn’t provide. This could indicate that the synopsis was not representative of the content. Reviews complain that it is too much like ‘chick-lit’ or ‘Christian fiction’. I contend that if it had been marketed as such then it would have reached the right readers and perhaps seen fewer negative reviews.

Thanks to NetGalley and Gallery Books for the advanced review copy.

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Why We Write edited by Meredith Maran

 The subtitle sums it up beautifully: ‘Twenty acclaimed authors on how and why they do what they do.’ The introduction wittily reframes the question of why so many people write and offers famous solutions, including George Orwell’s suggestions: 1, sheer egoism; 2, aesthetic enthusiasm; 3, historical impulse; 4, political purpose. I think Terry Tempest Williams’ answer is an excellent one too, ‘I write to make peace with the things I cannot control.’

A summary of the author’s work and a table of ‘vitals’ introduce each section; did you know that Isabel Allende’s father was the first cousin of Chilean President Salvador Allende? Or that Jodi Picoult wrote Wonder Woman for DC in 2007?  Isabel Allende is the first to share her reasons and methods. She writes lyrically about the trials and successes of her career and finishes with this: ‘Language: that’s what matters to me. Telling a story to create an emotion, a tension, a rhythm – that it what matters to me.’ I also found myself pondering one line of her advice long after reading it: ‘a story should feel like a conversation…not a lecture.’

The writing is often introspective, but intelligent and open; everyone has had different crises, panics, rewrites, rejections and doubts: though all of them have ultimately succeeded. Each section ends with words of wisdom for writers. There are so many good ideas in this: read at the level at which you want to write; bypass publishers, put it out yourself; adopt an international viewpoint; push for original ways of describing things; pick ordinary moments and magnify them.

David Baldacci’s description of the profession is delightful: ‘I’m paid to daydream.’ Basically, I could spend this entire review quoting line after line from this book because it is all crafted by such accomplished writers. Armistead Maupin warmly remembers an encouraging teacher; Susan Orleans considers the awkwardness of calling oneself an ‘artist’. Almost every word in it feels like it is in its right place. That said, I did skip the Jane Smiley chapter – I was made to write one too many essays on A Thousand Acres and I’m keeping a promise I made to my teenage self that I needn’t read her again.

Many of the pieces have strong similarities, so it is more a book to dip into than to read all at once. There is a good mix of common issues, idiosyncrasies and practical concerns. The writers answer the question of why they write with brilliant honesty (from ‘the money’ to ‘I can’t think what else I’d do’) though one idea seems to pervade for the majority: something in them knows that they must write. They simply have no choice.

So, now I’m curious: why do you write? Comments please!

It’s an interesting book for writers and others interested in the craft. It’s also a worthwhile purchase: part of the profits goes to 826 National, a youth literacy organisation. Thanks to NetGalley for the review copy.

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Democracy of Sound by Alex Sayf Cummings

This history of piracy covers everything from copying piano rolls and sheet music in the nineteenth century to pirating mp3s and leaking tracks on YouTube. It includes fascinating facts about the industry, for example: ‘despite numerous attempts, the recording industry did not secure federal copyright protection for its products until 1971. Recordings were technically uncopyrightable for decades, and various pirates seized on the apparent loophole in federal law to copy works without seeking permission.’

Democracy of Sound

I loved reading about the avid, competitive jazz collectors of the 1930s and the expense some outlaid for a home disc engraver to copy rare records. It also, to some extent, provides a history of musical evolution. Apparently, free form boogie-woogie is rather difficult to copyright.

Throughout the book, there is an engaging discussion about who owns the rights to music and its distribution: the composer; the artist; the recorder; the record company? If someone covers a piece of music, to what extent does that belong to them? Ethical questions give the discussion nuance; some pirates justified their actions by saying that they were providing a service to the people as record companies failed to produce or reissue classic, niche records that were culturally important. Of course there were also mobsters and inside-jobbers doing it for the cash! Excellently, one of the pirating outfits of the 1950s ‘bootleg boom’ cheekily named themselves ‘Jolly Roger’. The section about the birth of the mixtape and hip hop is a brilliantly researched account that really captivated me.

The book also catalogues the inception of each changing technology, explaining how it works. This book works because it deftly interweaves legal, economic, ethical, cultural and musical history, alongside a chronology of enthusiasts and music-lovers. Its serious conclusion considers the future of music and the recording industry. The book is political, informative and sharp. Anyone with an interest in music should read it.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with this advance review copy.

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The Heavenly Road Trip by Fiona Linday

The HeavenlyThis collection of young adult short stories is engaging, spanning varying social and cultural issues. The first concerns a girl escaping from potential trafficking. I particularly like the style of the beginning; short sentences and fragments reflect almost a stream of consciousness. This gives way to a more traditional narrative style in parts of the story. The weather is used for effect charmingly: ‘The sun excited the whole hillside until the flowers, the trees, the bushes and the grass, all burst into colour.’ The first person narrative is insistently present with an almost visual pattern in the continual use of ‘I’. This creates an urgency which draws the reader into the character’s very present danger.

The second story adopts the perspective of a teenager training for the Paralympics. The author uses voice credibly; the character feels relate-able and genuine. This story is particularly impressive for its shifting focus and the way it presents a rounded view of the character and her concerns. The brevity of the paragraphing here intelligently reflects her young character’s thoughts.

The other two stories are futuristic with biblical themes. Both used imagery strongly and would interest some readers. The use of diary form in ‘Meg’s Diary’ is interesting and gives a certain pace and intrigue. Fiona Linday is clearly adept at writing in varied styles and knows the craft well. The mix of genres in this collection means there are aspects that will appeal to all.

Thanks to Fiona Linday for sending me a copy to review. Find out more here.

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Wish by C.H Aalberry

WishC. H. Aalberry beautifully conjures magical lands and thrilling encounters in his debut YA fantasy novel, ‘Wish’. Shards of the shattered WishStone have granted unpredictable powers to a cast of lovely and credible characters. Dak the Warrior is a fearsome giant with swirling red tattoos, two sharp axes and an unexpectedly generous nature. He travels with Lae, who is magical, sarcastic and well-read, and their charmingly anthropomorphised scruffy dog. Their adventure to save the world from war and the necromancer and to find the secrets of the WishStone is gripping and heart-warming in equal measure. Every character that they meet is distinct and well-written.

The author is very witty and uses humour cleverly in his characterisation. Dak, for example, speaks simply, for the most part, but occasionally surprises with excellently-timed moments of wisdom. Aventur, a narcissistic shiny-haired time-travelling bard, is given some very funny lines and maxims we can all live by: ‘Fortune favours the brave of heart and clean of hair!’

I don’t often review books that I’ve edited, but I think this one is particularly special. The plot is imaginative and unpredictable, the settings are vividly drawn and the characters feel very genuine. Also, it is very cheap ($0.99) so if you like the sound of it, take a punt! Buy it on Smashwords here or on Amazon Kindle for just £0.77.   

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The Idealist

The Idealist

Jean Lopez’s historical novel is so compelling that I read it in one sitting. Based on historical fact, it tells the fascinating story of a young, idealistic lawyer, José Antonio, who became a fascist political leader at a tumultuous moment in Spanish history: the Civil War. It cleverly explores the relationship between personal charm and authoritarianism. His character is by far the most enthralling and best written in the book; I was less invested in the invented people. Lively dialogue and a constant sense of purpose and deep emotion kept me interested until the end. Short chapters allow the violence and drama to build at credible pace.

 The quality of writing is very high. The author smoothly adopts her characters’ perspectives to give their rich and varied impressions on people and events. For example, we see José Antonio through the eyes of several others, including his aunt:

‘But of course all of José Antonio’s girlfriends had been beautiful. Tía Ma would have been surprised indeed if they had not been so. He reminded her of a little boy collecting butterflies.’

The author has clearly done a vast amount of research; the authenticity of detail makes it an informative portrait of a time. However, the first part has a great deal of factual exposition to the extent that passages felt like they were written in a different style (closer to that of historical non-fiction). This amount of information is perhaps beneficial as it grounds the reader in the veracity of the occurrences, but I would have preferred the literary voice to be more closely maintained. Additionally, I found the epilogue to be too long; I have always been taught that epilogues should be brief. From a proofreader’s perspective, I couldn’t help but notice a few rogue punctuation marks. These flaws are minor and should not prevent anyone from enjoying a seriously impressive and accomplished work that deserves to be widely read. I want a whole collection of Jean Lopez texts to teach me about world history through her original and absorbing prose.

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My Favourite Spooky Novels for Halloween

Here are my favourite novels that feel Halloween-appropriate. They may not all contain the classic supernatural monsters that provide the inspiration for the creepiest costumes. However to me, horror is much more than monsters: it is an oppressive atmosphere; chilling imagery; a twisting, startling plot; and good dose of foggy Victorian nights where villains lurk down dank alleys and in nervous imaginations.

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier ‘Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.’ This famous first line transports the reader with the nameless narrator back into a tale of tension and drama. It may not be a literal ghost story, but the protagonist is psychologically haunted by her new husband’s first wife, the eponymous Rebecca. The creepy housekeeper is devoted to her dead mistress and bullies the new Mrs de Winter into feeling that she will never be good enough. She begins to doubt herself and her husband’s love. If you haven’t read it, do, if only for the dramatic twists. It’s about power and fear. The imagery is taken directly from the horror genre:  ‘The road to Manderley lay ahead. There was no moon. The sky above our heads was inky black. But the sky on the horizon was not dark at all. It was shot with crimson, like a splash of blood. And the ashes blew towards us with the salt wind from the sea.’

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde Teaching the perils of vanity, this beautifully written allegorical triumph is the perfect horror story. It has everything: crime, murder, sex, drugs and some startlingly gruesome surprises. Dorian Gray is young and beautiful. He falls in with a hedonistic crowd and has his portrait painted by Basil Hallward. He realises the transience of good looks and declares that he would sell his soul if the portrait would age instead of him. This Faustian pact becomes more real than he could have imagined as his sins are drawn on the picture, making it horrifically disfigured. This is Oscar Wilde’s only novel and caused moral outrage when it was published: usually the sign of an interesting book!  

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley It’s a Gothic horror classic. The original mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein brings forth new life in his lab, but is appalled by the monster he has created. Eight feet tall with translucent skin and yellow eyes, it craves human contact, yet terrifies everyone it meets.  This self-aware creature is one of the most fascinating characters in literature and is far more articulate in the text than it is allowed to be in most green-faced film adaptations: “I do know that for the sympathy of one living being, I would make peace with all. I have love in me the likes of which you can scarcely imagine and rage the likes of which you would not believe. If I cannot satisfy the one, I will indulge the other.” With a frame narrative, this novel is structurally intelligent as well as impressively dark and complex.

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte So the ghost story element has rather had power taken out of it by that Kate Bush song, but that aside, the novel remains atmospheric, deeply creepy (implied nechrophilia) and involves some of the best pathetic fallacy I’ve ever seen. The central piece of the book is the all-consuming, destructive monomania that Cathy and Heathcliff feel for each other. In my favourite passage from the book, Heathcliff says: ‘Why did you betray your own heart, Cathy? I have not one word of comfort. You deserve this. You have killed yourself. Yes, you may kiss me, and cry; and wring out my kisses and tears: they’ll blight you—they’ll damn you… Because misery and degradation, and death, and nothing that God or Satan could inflict would have parted us, you, of your own will, did it. I have not broken your heart—you have broken it; and in breaking it, you have broken mine… Do I want to live? What kind of living will it be when you—oh, God! would you like to live with your soul in the grave?’ The themes of heaven and hell, of souls and damnation pervade each generation’s stories.

What would you add to this list?

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Flow, My Tears, the Policeman Said

Minority Report, Blade Runner, A Scanner Darkly: Philip K. Dick’s brilliant imagination has been the inspiration for some excellent films; up until last week I had only seen these screen interpretations, but had never actually read any of his books. I know now how much I was missing out on. The poetic title drew me to it. ‘Flow, My Tears, the Policeman Said’ is the intriguingly constructed story of genetically engineered superstar Jason Taverner who lives an ideal life of beauty, fame and fortune but wakes up one day to find that he is unknown, with no official identity. In a dystopian police state this is a dangerous position to be in.

 The characters are flawed and complex, the narration spends just enough time inside Jason’s thoughts to draw the reader deeply into his situation. The futuristic technological details of the dark world the novel is set in are cleverly inter-twined with familiar humanity and universal angst. Aspects are explained subtly and ambiguities illuminated as the story progresses; the reader is never patronised with over-explanation. It is political and evocative. The intelligent writing and shocking reveals made me think of Victorian gothic horror; the imagery and occasional violence evoke 1970s sci-fi films and the depth of emotion, the recurring stanzas of 16th Century poetry and its sense of loss remind me of a sad song that I used to love. Even though it was written in 1974, it feels contemporary, concerning and powerful.

Have you read any Philip K. Dick? Which of his do you recommend I go for next? Are there any similar authors I should read?

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