Time for a Creative Rebirth!

Sitting on Books
In the last few months, there’s been an abundance of cultural trips, copious amounts of reading, and plenty of fun…but no blogging. Although I could provide a whole string of excuses for this, the truth of the matter is simply this: when it comes to sitting down to write, I am a terrible procrastinator.

PoetryMad Hatter's Tea Party

Budapest

Some of the most exciting events of the last few months: going to Latitude; taking part in the Children’s Literature Festival at work (which included a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party in the Enchanted Woods!); and a little trip to Budapest!

Daydreaming, checking Facebook/texting friends, and making more cups of tea than necessary are all large elements of my procrastination. I know I am not alone; it seems the majority of the western world indulges in the same time-wasting antics, yet that knowledge does nothing to appease my frustration at my own lack of motivation.

Strangely, however, it seems that my passion for writing has been reignited today. Besides penning a few lines of poetry, the first in quite a while, I also got the urge to write a blog post. Generally, this time of year does tend to have a transformative effect on my levels of creativity, so I can only attribute my desire to write to the gradually changing light and striking colours of the season. After being tired and devoid of creativity for the last few months, I feel as if someone’s flicked a switch and I’ve finally burst back into life!

This sudden outpouring of creativity will not result in me frantically posting numerous 30 Before 30 book reviews, however. Whilst the challenge continues- I am now on book 23 with 10 weeks to go and more optimism than I had a month ago! -, it would be difficult to catch up on documenting all of the books I’ve read through individual reviews. I will endeavour to write short reviews of each in due course, but for now I’m just pleased to be feeling motivated again!

September may be the start of the season of death, yet for some of us, it’s (hopefully!) the catalyst for creative rebirth…

Autumn Celebration!

And The Blog Goes On…

Since my last blog post, life has altered quite significantly. Besides starting an amazing new job, I’ve also had to contend with finding my way around a new city, meeting many new people (including weird men at bus-stops- which, let’s face it, is quite normal for me!), and spending a lot of time on my own. Though it’s been quite mentally draining, I’ve vastly enjoyed my first month in Liverpool, and am definitely feeling much more settled now. Exploring a new city is always exciting, especially when you begin to discover the various gems it has to offer. Having already visited a speakeasy, seen an amazing version of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, and revelled in the natural beauty of Sefton Park (which contributed to a minor state of sun-induced delirium), I feel like I’ve started to embrace the natural and cultural landscape of Liverpool. It’ll never replace Yorkshire in my heart, but I’m definitely growing quite fond of it…and the people are lovely too (even the Scousers!).

New housemate

One of my new housemates. And occasional stalker!

 
Unfortunately, all this change has had quite a detrimental impact on my blog. Whilst I’ve managed to maintain my 30 Before 30 challenge, I’ve been a bit lax, to put it politely, on the blogging front. As blogging separately about each of the books I’ve read recently seems like an arduous task, however, I’ve decided to cheat a little and provide a very brief overview of my thoughts on each:

 
Song of Solomon- Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison is renowned for her intricate and candid exploration of the black experience, and this book is no exception. Focusing on a young black man’s journey to realise his personal and familial identity in mid-twentieth century America, Song of Solomon is a work of lyrical complexity, with Morrison skilfully blending myth, allegory, song, and a host of, in my opinion, unlikeable characters together to create a novel of enchanting proportions. Although the central protagonist, Macon Dead Jr, or Milkman (so-called because his mother nursed him long past his infancy), is detestable in parts, particularly in his treatment of women, his metamorphosis from boy to man is fascinating and touching. There is so much to love about this novel, it definitely deserves to be read at least once.

SongOfSolomon

 
The View From Castle Rock- Alice Munro
Despite hearing many great things about both the author and the book, I was disappointed to find The View From Castle Rock extremely tedious. As someone who loves anything related to genealogy, I thought that this series of fictional stories based on Munro’s family history would be just the sort of book for me, but I was yawning before I was five pages in! After managing, with some difficulty, to read half of it, I decided to skim-read the last 150 pages. I wish I had something more positive to say, particularly as it’s very uncharacteristic of me to dislike a piece of literature. I’m not going to allow this negative experience of Munro to deter me from reading any more of her works, however. In fact, quite the opposite. I am now determined to find something of merit in her writing!

 
The Secret History- Donna Tartt
In this instance, the many glowing reports I’ve had of this novel are consistent with my own thoughts on it: it was an utterly enthralling read! The Secret History revolves around the lives of six students at a private college in America who become obsessed with the practices of the Ancient Greeks as a result of the influence of their charismatic though somewhat strange tutor. After some of them accidentally kill someone whilst attempting to recreate a Bacchanalian rite, they are forced to murder one of their own in order to keep their secret hidden. Yes, it’s an intellectual read and if you’re not particularly well-versed in the classics, there are some allusions that you will fail to understand, but it is also a thriller that will take hold of you from the very first page.

The Secret History

 

The Old Man and the Sea- Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway is a writer that I always felt I should read rather than actually wanting to, hence my inclusion of one of his works on my 30 Before 30 list. Whilst I can see that The Old Man and The Sea might be hugely enjoyable to many people, it was not a particularly exciting read for me. As the story of an unsuccessful Cuban fisherman’s triumph and eventual defeat as he finally catches an enormous fish that drags him out to sea only for it to be eaten by sharks before his return to shore, The Old Man and the Sea is a simple yet effectively written tale exploring the relationship between man and nature. I’m sure that there are various interesting literary interpretations of it, but, on the most basic of levels, I’m afraid to say that it didn’t appeal to me as a reader. Luckily, it’s only a 99 page novella, so I didn’t feel as though I’d wasted too much time reading it!

 

Although I’ve only provided a very vague outline of my thoughts on each novel, I feel as if I’ve now achieved my objective for the week by forcing myself back into the routine of sitting down to blog! There are still a fair few books to work through over the next six months though, so I’d best continue with the next one if I’m ever to complete my challenge. There’s still a heck of a long way to go…

 

30 Before 30: My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece

Annabel Pitcher

As a teenager the majority of books classified as Young Adult (YA) passed me by. Other than reading a few Point Horror books and the necessary ‘coming-of-age’ Judy Blume novel when I was a pre-teen, I recall making a relatively swift transition from Nancy Drew to Jane Eyre (with a few Mills and Boon pit-stops along the way, courtesy of my uncle’s girlfriend!). Once I had entered the vast realm of adult fiction, I saw no reason to go back, and consequently, I have since realised, probably missed out on some amazing pieces of literature for young people.

Since working with teenagers I’ve made a distinct effort to return to the world of YA fiction and have, on the whole, been pretty impressed with it. So when a secondary school teacher I know recommended Annabel Pitcher’s My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece I decided to give it a try. Entirely different to the sensationalist fiction of Darren Shan or Stephenie Meyer (which is good in its own right), I was completely blown away by how candid and poignant it was.

Exploring the effects of loss on a 10 year old boy and his family in the years after his sister is blown up by terrorists, My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece tackles a difficult subject in a sensitive yet not overly saccharine way. From the opening paragraph, it is apparent that the death of Rose, Jamie’s older sister, has cast an irrevocable shadow over the family, yet Jamie, the narrator throughout, remains detached from the grief that consumes his mother, father, and Rose’s twin sister, Jasmine. Although his dad cannot bear to spread his daughter’s ashes, instead keeping them in an urn on the mantelpiece, Jamie fails to even remember his older sister. Whilst his family disintegrates under the weight of grief, poor Jamie struggles to make sense of a loss that he can never fully understand. .

Delving into a multitude of issues relevant to life in modern Britain- from racism to alcoholism and single parent families- Pitcher’s debut novel reflects just how devastating an impact death can have not only on family life, but also on a child’s mental and emotional wellbeing. Uprooted and not properly cared for, Jamie has to contend with issues of bullying and loneliness in silence as the rest of his family become increasingly absorbed in their misery. Anyone who has ever worked with children will have met a ‘Jamie’ before- a child who arrives at school in the same dirty clothes every day; someone who is never included, no matter how hard he tries; a person who tells elaborate tales or simply remains silent as a means of hiding the reality of his home life. The sad fact is, Pitcher’s fictional story is a brutally honest account of what happens when grief takes over.

Beyond the sadness, there are moments of light relief that will keep younger readers entertained, particularly the parts involving tricks played on Jamie’s new teacher- a seemingly uncaring woman who is almost as horrible to him as his classmates are. The heart-warming friendship that blossoms between Jamie and fellow outcast Sunya, a kind Muslim girl, is also cause for cheer, so it’s not all doom and gloom.

What most struck me about My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece was the way that, despite being labelled Young Adult fiction, it is just as relevant to an adult as to a teenager. The universal nature of death means that we all have to suffer the consequences of grief at some point, yet being an adult does not always prepare you for it any better than a child. Besides being infused with warmth and a welcome sense of reality, the book reminds us that there is no specific formula for grief- we all deal with things differently, we all make mistakes, and, ultimately, we are all just human.

This novel had me in tears at various stages, which, let’s face it, isn’t hard (as regular readers have probably noticed, this has become a frequent occurrence through this challenge!). I’m pretty certain that I’m not the only person to ever cry at My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece though- in fact, I’d defy anyone NOT to get a little glassy-eyed at it! If you’re an animal lover be prepared for some serious sobbing however- a box of tissues might well be necessary. You have been warned!

ginger cat

 

 

 

30 Before 30: The Shadow of the Wind

1232The Shadow of the Wind

Reading like a prose ode to literature, Carlos Ruiz Zafon’s The Shadow of the Wind is a book lover’s dream. It’s been a few weeks since I read it, but one of the most potent passages from the first chapter is still very much embedded in my mind:

‘This is a place of mystery, Daniel, a sanctuary. Every book, every volume you see here, has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it…Every book you see here has been somebody’s best friend’.

Discovering a place called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books would be akin to finding heaven on earth for me. If such a secret library actually existed, I might never leave. Except to venture out to the odd party. And to buy an eternal supply of tea and crisps.

For Daniel, the main character of the book, the discovery of this repository of obscure literature in the bowels of Barcelona and his subsequent ‘adoption’ of a long forgotten novel, The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax, not only eases the pain of his mother’s death, but begins an obsession that will characterise his transition from boy to young man. When he discovers that a mysterious figure named Lain Coubert (which he later find out is the name of the devil in Carax’s books) has managed to destroy every copy of the novel apart from his own, Daniel starts to investigate the author, Julian Carax, and to piece together the enigmatic story of his life.

Though his detective work often lands him and his trusty sidekick, former Spanish Civil War torture victim Fermin Romero de Torres, in hot water, Daniel continues to attempt to unravel the mystery of Carax’s life- which, he soon discovers, is one that encompasses family tragedy, a doomed love affair, and layers of lies. Like a typical teenager, Daniel ignores the threats of Lain Coubert and a corrupt police officer in order to fulfil this self-imposed mission, ultimately facilitating his own journey to manhood.

Despite the convoluted plotline (which I’ve only really given a bare outline of), the basic idea that a book has the power to catalyse change and transform lives is one that all bookish types cannot fail to appreciate and understand. Other than this, what I really loved about the novel was the sense of community within it- how neighbours rallied round to support each other and stand up for those who were being persecuted in the years after the Civil War- and the use of some classic gothic tropes, such as the archetypal gothic building. Blending the gothic tradition with historical fiction, comedy, and a touch of romance, Zafon’s novel has a bit of everything to keep people enthralled until the end.

The fact that it is also beautifully written means that it is very hard to criticise the novel. If your concentration span is limited, you may find it difficult to follow in parts, but this is quite a minor flaw in my (very biased!) eyes. Ultimately, it made me laugh, it made me cry, and it made me think. But, more than all that, it filled me with a sense of belonging; with a sense that I had found a writer who truly understood my reverence for the written word and the hallowed status that books have always had in my life.

There is no question about it: I will definitely be reading The Shadow of The Wind again. And, quite possibly, every other Zafon book I can find.

Read it if you can; it’s a literary gem.

The Liebster Award

liebster-award-300x3001

When I first started blogging, I wasn’t aware that there were such things as blogging awards, but apparently there are- and I’m chuffed to have been nominated for one thanks to the lovely and very interesting Yasmine over at http://ymulholland.wordpress.com.

For those of you who don’t know, blogging awards are a really great way of gaining exposure for relatively new bloggers, enabling them to reach new audiences of like-minded individuals. If you get nominated for the Liebster Award, all you have to do is follow the rules below:

·       Thank the blogger that nominated you and share a link back to their blog.

·       Display the award on your blog.

·       List 11 facts about yourself.

·       Answer 11 questions chosen by the blogger that nominated you.

·      Think of 11 new questions to ask your nominees.

·       Nominate 5-11 blogs that you think deserve the award and who have less than 1,000  followers. You can nominate blogs that have already received the award, but you can’t renominate the blog that nominated you.

·        Inform nominees of the award

11 Facts About Myself

  1. Growing up in a family of Huddersfield Town supporters meant that I used to have a season ticket when I was a child. I haven’t been for about 10 years, but I do still enjoy watching the odd football match- it’s the only sport I actually like!
  2.  I love animals and get really attached to pets. Although I was brought up to be a carnivore, I was also taught that all living things deserve to be treated with love and respect. When my 19 year old goldfish died I cried like a baby.
  3. I’ve always been really intrigued by magic and the supernatural. When I was a teenager, me and my best friend used to do spells, and my mum, brother, and I like to talk about anything relating to the supernatural.
  4.  I tried to be a vegetarian once, but failed- I just felt ill all the time! So now I eat chicken and fish. My dairy intake is also quite limited as I have a mild lactose intolerance.
  5. I’m a really emotional person and cry at everything- books, films (even Disney!), music, adverts…
  6.  I LOVE dancing, as I’m sure anyone who’s seen me on a night out will testify.    After reading it’s my favourite thing to do.
  7. I barely wear any make-up anyway, but I try to only buy cosmetics that are BUAV approved (not tested on animals). This can be quite difficult!
  8.  People always mention what a happy, positive person I am, but I can be really moody and stroppy when I want to be…generally when people don’t understand my need to be alone!
  9.  I’m not at all motivated by money- and I don’t have a lot of respect for people who are.
  10. Some of my favourite words are ‘rapture’, ‘melancholy’, ‘effervescent’, and ‘mellifluous’.
  11. I used to be obsessed with Emily Bronte and went through a phase of thinking I was her in a past life!  

11    Questions From http://ymulholland.wordpress.com :

  1. What was your favourite book as a child/teen?

My favourite books were The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and Little Women, both of which I used to read on an annual basis. The magical elements of Narnia captivated my imagination and I really wanted an Aslan of my own. I loved Little Women so much because I identified with Jo March. Like me, she loved books and writing and didn’t really care what anyone thought about her. Both books still have the power to reduce me to tears!

  1. Who is/are your favourite author/s?

There are so many brilliant authors out there, but I generally sway towards those who have quite a poetic or exuberant writing style, like Ben Okri and Angela Carter, or those who write about the fragility and complexity of relationships, like Amy Tan, Kate Atkinson, Maggie O’Farrell, or Joanne Harris. I’m definitely not a style over substance person, but a writer’s prose style can make or break a book for me.

  1. Which book, or books, has had the most influence or impact on you?

Many books have had a big impact on me, but, in recent years, I’d say Kate Atkinson’s Behind The Scenes At The Museum really resonated with me in a way that I’d never experienced before. Besides being funny, poignant and intensely readable, it made me reflect on my own maternal family history, and made me think about writing my own family members into history so that they don’t become ‘lost in time’.

  1. What is your favourite literary era/time period?

I really enjoy gothic fiction, so the whole period of Victorian literature is wonderful. The idea that there was so much passion, superstition, and fear of social change lingering underneath/behind the stiff corsets and upper lips of the 1800s fascinates me!

  1. How would you describe yourself as a reader?

Involved. I find it difficult to extricate myself from what is going on and think of characters as friends (I also have real friends…honestly!). I often feel quite drained from all the emotion that I invest in books.

  1. What is the worst book you have ever read?

I really can’t think of one. By now, I think I’m quite a discerning reader- if I don’t like the look of it, I don’t read it! I’m sure they’re very enjoyable to some people, but I could never read the type of books that perpetuate the myth that women are only interested in clothes, makeup, and men. Books generally have to have some substance- some social, political, or literary value- for me to read them.

  1. Why did you start blogging about books?

I needed a creative outlet, so I decided to start blogging about all the things that I love or am interested in- though it seems to have become pretty literature-concentrated! Writing about literature at MA level was fab, but you have to remain fairly neutral; feelings and opinions aren’t relevant unless they contribute to an academic theory/debate. I wanted to write about books in a way that everyone who loves literature could relate to.

  1. What is the most rewarding or challenging aspect of blogging?

It’s always great when someone says that you’ve inspired them to read something, but, if I’m honest, I just enjoy the writing process- it’s so cathartic.

  1. Can you pinpoint the exact moment where you discovered your love of/interest in books?

I think I was born to love stories and reading! Apparently as a baby I used to pick up the newspaper and babble away to myself as if I was reading it. It’s quite strange actually; nobody else in my family likes books- I’m the anomaly!

  1. How often do you read, and for how long?

I try to read a little bit every day, even if it’s only a poem or two on the bus, but it’s very difficult to do when you have a job, active social life, and lots of other interests! Once I’ve started a book I tend to plough through it quite quickly. I can read a book in a few hours if I put my mind to it.

  1. Do you watch TV/movie adaptations of books, if so what is your favourite adaptation and why?

Although I always endeavour to read the book first, I do love a good adaptation! It’s great to be able to see the visual representation of someone else’s imagination, even when it isn’t always consistent with the book. As a period drama lover, the film version of Sense and Sensibility starring Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet is a particular favourite of mine, but I’ll happily watch any.

 My 11 Questions For Nominees

  1. If you could be any literary character, which one would you be and why?
  2. What’s your favourite opening line to a book?
  3. Which fictional character would you marry and why?
  4. What’s the most emotionally draining book you’ve ever read?
  5. If you could have written any book, which would it be and why?
  6. Which book would you adapt for the big screen and which actors would you choose to star in it?
  7. Who is your literary idol?
  8. If you could have a dinner party with five writers, dead or alive, who would you choose?
  9. Which fictional world would you like to live in?
  10. What do you enjoy most about reading?
  11. What three books would you take on a desert island?

Nominees

If you enjoy reading about all things book-related, check out these blogs:

The Literary Bunny http://christinarosendahl.wordpress.com

Too Fond  http://toofond.wordpress.com

What Amy Read Next http://raininglilies.wordpress.com

Blunts Book Blog  http://bluntsbookblog.wordpress.com

The Literary Sisters http://theliterarysisters.wordpress.com

 

30 Before 30: The Famished Road

Famished Road1991 Ben Okri The Famished Road

Ben Okri is the literary love of my life, but The Famished Road can definitely be likened to a literary version of Marmite.

Fusing the domestic with the political through an amalgamation of African myth and a postcolonial world of poverty, Okri has never failed to mesmerise me with his intensely poetic and visionary writing style. In his 1991 Booker Prize winning postmodern novel The Famished Road I felt like Okri had cast an enchantment from the very first page, drawing me into the chaotic world of the African spirit-child Azaro with the lush opulence of his words. Some people may find the arcane density of his writing difficult to follow, but, as this passage hopefully illustrates, the style he employs has the quality of myth, and seems to be used as a means of highlighting the western reader’s entrance into a culture where oral tales form the basis of everyday existence:

‘ In the beginning there was a river. The river became a road and the road branched out to the whole world. And because the road was once a river, it was always hungry.

In that land of beginnings spirits mingled with the unborn…There was much feasting playing, and sorrowing. We feasted much because of the beautiful terrors of eternity. We played much because we were always free. And we sorrowed much because there were always those amongst us who had just returned from the world of the Living…’

The Famished Road explores the many elements of life in an African (probably Nigerian) ghetto- poverty, love, injustice, violence, and hunger- through the eyes of a boy who has abandoned his spirit companions to remain in the world of the living. Despite their endeavours to lure him back to their world, Azaro roots himself in a life of suffering, enduring the eternal threats of famine and death to remain with the people he loves.

The novel has been criticised for being repetitive and I must confess that it is. Azaro’s father, a character whose courage I admire but whose temper I don’t, seems to fly into a rage in virtually every chapter, yet his anger always abates before anything too serious occurs. Whilst these violent outbursts can get quite boring, they are, in my opinion, intended to be an accurate reflection of the monotony and futility of life in an African compound, where people are faced with the same struggles and injustices day after day after day.

Far from being predictable, however, there are instances in the book where you’re not quite sure what is happening. Okri blends the spirit world with the world of the living so well that you are often unsure who is alive and who is dead, or what is real and what is fantasy. Although this can be confusing, it allows you to see Okri’s world from the perspective of an African child and contributes to the sense of political and social chaos that permeates the entire novel.

Ben-Okri

At five hundred and seventy four pages long, I can understand why some people put it down long before the end; at times, it really did feel like a labour of love. What propelled me to continue reading it, besides my complete adoration of his prose style, was the fact that this book, a winner of a prestigious Western literary award, was not written by a European, but by a black Nigerian man- someone who is more qualified than most to give a distinctly black African perspective of and insight into the black African condition.

If I’m being honest, this is the sort of book that many people will detest. If you’re not very literary/philosophical and have no patience, I can almost guarantee that you will hate it. But if, like me, you enjoy the challenge of a highly literary read that will continue to provoke thought (and probably confuse you!) long after you’ve read it, The Famished Road will provide you with all the mental and spiritual nourishment you need.

And then some.