Monday, 29 June 2015

Book review: Pretty Is by Maggie Mitchell

Identity, memory, self-worth and desire - all are at the core of Maggie Mitchell's beguiling novel Pretty Is.

When Carly May and Lois were 12 years old they were kidnapped. Missing for two months, everyone presumed they were dead, until they were rescues. Now grown up, Carly May has changed her name and is pursuing an acting career, while Lois has written a book fictionalising what happened to the two girls during the time they were kidnapped. When Carly May is cast in the lead role of the film adaptation of Lois' book, the two women are brought back together again. What really happened to them when they were 12, how has it affected them, and is there still a threat to their lives?

In Carly May, known as Chloe in the present time, and Lois, Mitchell has created two complicated female characters who I spent the entire book trying to unpick, and who spent the two months they were kidnapped trying to unpick each other, and the years since then trying to both forget each other and make sense of each other. It's easy to think that it was just the kidnapping which affected Carly May and Lois so badly, impacting on the rest of their lives, but Mitchell shows through glimpses of their home life that the kidnapping only exacerbated the girls' feelings of otherness and exclusion, that feeling that maybe there was something special about them, and that's why they never fit in, and that's why they were chosen by their kidnapper.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

My favourite Maya Angelou rhymes

When Maya Angelou died in May 2014, the world mourned the loss of one of its greatest poets. One small measure of comfort is the fact that she left behind a vast number of brilliant poems (plus her autobiographies), addressing racism, prejudice, love, slavery, self-worth and more. I've recently been reading and rereading her work, and thought I'd share some of my favourite lines from some of my favourite poems by Angelou, starting with a few words from my absolute favourite poem, Still I Rise.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own backyard.
-from Still I Rise

I'm the best that ever done it
(pow pow)
      That's my title and I won it
      (pow pow)
I ain't lying, I'm the best
(pow pow)
      Come and put me to the test
      (pow pow)
-from Times-Square-Shoeshine-Composition

From Monday, the morning of the week,
through mid-times
noon and Sunday's dying
light. It sits silent.
Its needle sound
does not transfix my ear
or draw my longing to
a close.

Ring. Damn you!
-from The Telephone

She splayed her foot
up to the shin
within the ocean brine.
-from Communication I

Her proud declarations
     are leaves on the wind
-from America

Pretty women wonder where my secret lies.
I'm not cute or built to suit a fashion model's size
But when I start to tell them,
They think I'm telling lies.
- from Phenomenal Woman

Storm, blow me from here
With your fiercest wind
Let me float across the sky
Till I can rest again.
-from Woman Work

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.
-from Caged Bird

There are some nights when
sleep plays coy,
aloof and disdainful.
-from Insomniac

Lift up your eyes
Upon this day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
-from On the Pulse of Morning

Friday, 26 June 2015

Desmond Elliott Prize 2015

The Desmond Elliott Prize is awarded for new fiction, with the judges searching for a "novel which has a compelling narrative, arresting characters and which is both vividly written and confidently realised.".

This year's shortlist has definitely found novels with those qualities. On July 1 the £10,000 prize will be awarded to either Carys Bray for A Song for Issy Bradley, Claire Fuller for Our Endless Numbered Days or Emma Healey for Elizabeth is Missing.

All three books are absolutely brilliant, and I don't envy the judges picking a winner. If you haven't read them, here are my thoughts on each book (with a link to my full review in the title).

A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray
Synopsis: A Mormon family has to deal with their grief after the loss of a child.
Bray has created a story about faith in family, about the bonds of love that bind people together, even after someone has died, about the ways in which humans are tested and the ways in which they survive. It's a story about grief that moved me to tears for a family that I loved and mourned with.

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller
Synopsis: A young girl is taken to live in the forest by her survivalist father, and told that the rest of the world has ended.
Our Endless Numbered Days is so, so dark, but it was only as I approached the end that I realised just how dark the book is...the writing style almost reminds me of original fairytales, where princesses didn't live happily ever after.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
Synopsis: As Maud, 82, gets increasingly worried about her friend, Elizabeth, who is missing, past and present collide.
It's stunningly written, and will give you palpitations, and it's worth every penny (and I believe there were a lot of them) that Viking stumped up for it.

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Book review: A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray

There is no word in the English language to describe a parent who has lost their child, no way to signify to someone in just one word that this is a person who is grieving, who is trying to come to terms with an unspeakable loss.

How we grieve, how a parent grieves, is at the centre of Carys Bray's wonderful debut novel A Song for Issy Bradley. When Issy Bradley dies, her strict Mormon family all deal in different ways. Issy's mum Claire is consumed by grief, taking to Issy's bed for weeks, unable to cope with her husband Ian's blind faith in his faith, which he has turned to more than ever to deal with Issy's death. Their oldest daughter Zippy finds her faith being challenged for the first time in her life, as she battles between her grief at losing Issy and her desire to be a typical teenage girl. Her brother Alma addresses the loss by continuing to push against the Mormon faith, but discovers that it may not be that easy. And youngest child Jacob is optimistic that Issy will come back, that a miracle will occur and his sister will return to him.

Faith, or the lack of it, is a preoccupation of A Song for Issy Bradley. Bray, who was brought up Mormon, left the church in her thirties, almost the opposite of Claire, who in the book we find out became a Mormon because of her relationship with Ian. Claire takes on the Mormon faith willingly, but still rails against it sometimes, finding it difficult to reconcile her needs for herself and her family with the demands placed on her by her faith. Claire is cynical, she gets offended, she wants to be selfish - all perfectly human traits but ones that don't always sit well with her faith. 

Monday, 22 June 2015

Book review: Asking for It by Louise O'Neill

I've never actually been the recipient of a real punch to the gut, but how I felt when I finished reading Louise O'Neill's Asking For It is how I imagine being whacked really hard in the stomach feels - you're left momentarily breathless, shocked, unable to process for a minute, and then the hurt piles in.

Beautiful, confident, 18 years old, Emma O'Donovan's life changes one night when she goes to a party. Waking up the next morning in front of her house, she doesn't remember what happened or how she got there. Her first clue is when she turns up at school to find herself mocked and shunned, and the reasons why become clear when Emma discovers a Facebook page which show photos of her with some of her small town's most popular boys. Emma's memory, her friends, her family - all want to believe their own story, and what happened that night is only the start of Emma's nightmare.

In Emma O'Neill has created a character who isn't particularly likeable, but who I always felt for, and whose side I was always on, unhesitatingly. Emma is kind of selfish, she uses her beauty to her gain, she takes advantage of friends, she steals, and she gives extremely bad advice, so bad that it actually means someone gets away with a crime and one of her friends is hurt physically and emotionally. Yet Emma is unflinchingly real, a typical 18-year-old who thinks the world is hers for the taking, and who believes she's destined for bigger and better things, and who acts as she does to fit a stereotype placed on her not just by her friends and the boys she knows, but also by her parents and her brother. 

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Book review: Leave Your Mark by Aliza Licht

Aliza Licht's Leave Your Mark promises to help give you tips to land your dream job, kill it in your career, and rock social media. 

Those are some big claims, and while I don't think reading this book is going to suddenly set you on the path to awesomeness, I think it'll fire you up so that you want to try.

Licht started in fashion journalism before joining DKNY in a publicity role. There, when Twitter appeared, she set up DKNY PR Girl, pretty much the first Twitter account to give the inside track on PR in the world of fashion. Taking her experience in journalism and PR, Licht has written a how-to guide to making the most of every career opportunity that comes your way, and creating some of your own.

I don't read business books or self-help guides or anything similar - the closest I've come before this is Sheryl Sandberg's wonderful Lean In. So I wasn't really sure what to expect when I picked up Leave Your Mark.

The first thing is that it's very upbeat, very matter of fact, and Licht's voice is very confident. Confidence is a big point in the book, but it took me a while to get past my British reserve and start really enjoying what Licht was saying and the way she was saying it. I never really got used to the 'take a selfie' sections, where Licht almost gives the reader a task in which you have to assess yourself. The use of the word selfie felt a little trying too hard to be trendy to me, and I didn't love it.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

Book review: The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink

I very rarely cry at books. I'll get sad, my heart will hurt, my eyes might tear up, but it takes a lot for those tears to actually spill over. So when I tell you that when I finished the last page of Cathy Rentzenbrink's The Last Act of Love to realise I had tears running down my face, it should clue you in to how powerful a memoir this is.

I should say at this juncture that I work with Cathy - I know her professionally, and consider her both a mentor and a friend. Beyond knowing the subject matter of the book, I didn't really know what to expect from The Last Act of Love. What I found was an intensely personal tale dealing with the universal subjects of love, family, and loss.

In the summer of 1990, Cathy's younger brother Matty was knocked down by a car, leaving him in a coma in hospital. Cathy and her parents willed him to survive, and he did. But at the time, Cathy and her family had no idea that survival might not have been the best option - Matty was left severely injured, unable to walk or speak or communicate fully. Every time he made progress, he suffered an epileptic fit, or something else that set him back. Eight years after his accident, Cathy and her parents were forced to make the hardest decision they would ever make.

Tuesday, 2 June 2015

Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction 2015 - shortlist reviews

The Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction will crown its 2015 winner tomorrow night, and I've read all of this year's six shortlisted books as part of the We Love This Book Club at work. You can see my mini reviews below, see what other people reading the list thought here, and watch a video of me and my colleagues talking about our favourites and trying to guess the winner in the video at the end of this post.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Book review: The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley

I don't usually read horror, because I'm a scaredy-cat, but Andrew Michael Hurley's The Loney is more than just a horror novel.

When the remains of a young child are found on a section of bleak Lancashire coastline, Smith is forced to think back to a pilgrimage he took with his parents, disabled brother Hanny, and figures from their church to The Loney in 1976.

The Loney starts very briefly in the present, as Smith makes an introduction to the reader that makes it clear something is not quite right. And then we're hurtled back in time to the 1970s, where we meet a younger Smith, his brother Hanny and their extremely religious mother. It is Mummer, as Smith calls her, who seems to instigate the events of the novel, by organising a pilgrimage to The Loney, accompanied by Father Bernard, the new priest at the local church. Also accompanying them are a couple who were related to the previous priest, who died in mysterious circumstances after something happened on a previous pilgrimage to The Loney, and the church's young assistant and her boyfriend.


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