“Literature is doomed if liberty of thought perishes” –George Orwell
This month’s book review may interest all the writers and would be writers out there. Written by Eric Arthur Blair, better known as George Orwell, Why I Write is part of Penguin’s Great Ideas series. Pocket-sized works of, largely, non-fiction inspired by pioneers, radicals, and visionaries, including subject matters such as philosophy, science, politics, and war.
Orwell, born in 1903, is most famous for his fictional works including the political satire Animal Farm, published in 1945, and the dystopian nightmare vision of Nineteen Eighty-Four, which, first published in 1949, is a sci-fi story centred around a country known as Oceania (in 1984), controlled by an overbearing, paranoid government insistent on manipulating every aspect of its citizens’ lives. A place where information is suppressed, history re-written, and propaganda reigns supreme. It is also, one could argue, as a work of fiction written over 70 years ago, a story that feels eerily remarkably current.
Considered one of England’s most accomplished authors and social commentators, this collection includes four of Orwell’s essays. However, the title is deceiving, with only the first, brief essay dedicated to writing. The other three examine Orwell’s views on society, politics, and the economy during WW2, which I found equally fascinating. “As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me” he wrote in one.
At only 100 pages long, Why I Write is short enough to read in one sitting and littered with humorous nuggets of writing advice. I’ll leave you with one of my favourites which, if you’re a writer, you’ll completely understand. If not, and it’s a profession you’re thinking of taking up, all I can say is, be warned!
“Writing is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.”
“I remained too much inside my head and ended up losing my mind” ––Edgar Allan Poe
This is Kelly Florentia’s fourth novel (read my fab interview with her here) and first psychological thriller. It is also a first for me by this author, and as a huge fan of the genre, I’m pleased to say it didn’t disappoint. Easy to read, intense, and full of twists and turns, ‘Mine’ will keep you gripped from start to finish.
The story opens with a prologue; the voice of the narrator, anonymous, says, “I know what you did and you have to pay. All I’ve got to do isfigure out a way to get rid of you. For good”.
Chapter one then introduces us to Lucy Harper, the main protagonist; endearing, suspicious, and at times quite gullible. Reeling from her recent divorce to ex-husband, Andrew, who left her for her long-time school friend, Jasmine, Lucy relies a little too heavily on alcohol to get by, which often clouds her judgement and makes her recall unreliable. She wakes from an evening out unable to remember how she got home, and worse still, who the man in her bed is. He seems pleasant enough, and as he replays their boozy night back to her, Lucy slowly but surely remembers who he is; Teddy Fallon, the new gardener of her best friend Alison, who, with the help of her mother, Karen, set the pair up on a blind date. Teddy is keen to meet again, Lucy less so. However, when Lucy receives an anonymous text message, including a photo, accusing her of something she’s sure she didn’t do, her life begins to spiral, setting off a chain of events that sees her shunned by her friends and suspicious of everyone around her. The texts keep coming with the emphasis on blackmail, and the only person Lucy can confide in, the only person who seems to believe her, is mild-mannered Teddy, but even that’s questionable at times.
Full of believable, well rounded characters, ‘Mine’ is a gripping, fast-paced debut thriller that will see you turning the pages long into the night. I did figure out the final reveal, however, guessing the ending didn’t make reading this fab novel any less thrilling. On the contrary, it is full of so many intriguing revelations and surprises, I often found myself doubting my hunches as much as poor Lucy did.
“I know nothing in the world that has as much power as a word. Sometimes I write one, and look at it, until it begins to shine” –Emily Dickinson
This month, I thought I’d choose something a little different to review. A book that has been in my possession for a number of years and is the perfect companion for all writers and budding writers alike. Scrabble players too, would love this. Anyone, in fact, that like me, has a fascination with words.
Foyle’s Philavery (pronounced fil-a-vuh-ri), a word invented to describe the book, is, according to the introduction, “an idiosyncratic collection of uncommon and pleasing words”. Written by Christopher Foyle; businessman, philanthropist and writer, who took over the running Foyles, the eponymous family bookshop in 1999, first began making a note of unusual words in 1990. This was around the time of the first Gulf War when US commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf, described information he deemed of no value as, ‘bovine scatology’. Not familiar with the latter word, I quickly thumbed the relevant page for its meaning, which immediately saw me laughing out loud. Simply put, bovine scatology is another, more sophisticated way of saying, stupid crap!
Some of my favourite words include, samizdat, which (in the former Communist countries of Eastern Europe) means “the clandestine copying and distribution of writings banned by the government”. Then there’s scriptorium, which is “a room set apart for writing”. And finally, kakistocracy, which, feeling particularly relevant at this present time, stands for, “a system of government in which the rulers are the least competent, least qualified or most unprincipled citizens”.
This treasury of unusual, quirky and obscure words is a pure delight. It’s not the kind of book you’ll read in one sitting, but rather one you’ll be drawn to time and again. A must have for all word lovers.
“The greater the power, the more dangerous the abuse” –Edmund Burke
Disturbing, compelling, and haunting are just a few words I’d use to describe My Dark Vanessa, which as the title suggests is a dark tale, concerning abuse. Set in and around Maine in the US, and recounted across two timelines, this is the story of 15-year-old Vanessa Wye’s love affair with her 42-year-old high school English teacher, Jacob Strane. At least, that’s how Vanessa prefers to remember it. What it really is, of course, is the complex story of a young girl who was targeted and groomed by an older man.
The opening chapter begins in 2017. Vanessa is in her early 30s and disillusioned with life and masks her disappointment by smoking too much pot and drinking too much alcohol. She discovers, via social media, that a former pupil from a private school she once attended has publicly accused her former English teacher of abuse, making Vanessa reconsider what she believes was the great love affair of her life. “When Strane and I met [she says], I was fifteen and he was forty-two. A near perfect thirty years between us. That’s how I described the difference back then––perfect.”
As the story unravels, we flit back and forth in time between Vanessa as she is now and Vanessa as she was before; a young, impressionable, lonely schoolgirl with a burgeoning crush on her charismatic teacher. Sadly though, Vanessa struggles to accept she was abused, convinced her relationship with Strane was “different”. However, the author uses Vanessa’s heightened sense of uniqueness to show the reader what it feels like to be groomed. How Strane uses Vanessa’s vulnerability to his advantage by telling her she’s “special” and how, like him, she is a “dark romantic”.
Brilliantly written, tragically sad, and emotively dark. My Dark Vanessa makes for an uneasy, troubling, but insightful and compulsive read.
“Being a mother is learning about strengths you didn’t know you had… and dealing with fears you didn’t know existed” –Linda Wooten
Having read and loved Sarah Vaughan’s 3rd novel, Anatomy of a Scandal, which is currently being filmed as a Netflix series with an all-star cast including Sienna Miller, Michelle Dockery and Rupert Friend, I couldn’t wait to read this, the author’s 4th novel.
I’m pleased to say it didn’t disappoint.
The author’s skilful and emotive storytelling immediately drew me in, reminding me of my own early days as a mother. How exhausting and overwhelming it can sometimes feel – “The cry builds. At first it is pitiful… Tentative, tremulous, just testing how it will be received… cranks up a gear as she draws the baby close… her eyes well[ing] with self-pity and frustration and an exhaustion so entrenched she is sometimes knocked off balance”.
The two main protagonists of this taut thriller are Jess, a mother of three, including her infant daughter Betsey, and her best friend Liz, also a mum and senior registrar of paediatrics at their local London hospital. From the outside looking in, Jess gives the impression of being the perfect stay at home mum. However, when she arrives at the hospital A&E department with Betsey, who appears to have suffered some sort of head trauma, Liz is both concerned and confused by her friend’s behaviour. Jess, who doesn’t seem particularly worried about her baby girl, is aloof, detached, which Liz knows is completely out of character for Jess. Liz wants to help her friend but when she questions Jess about what happened and Jess refuses to open up, Liz starts to fear the worst. She knows she has a duty of care towards Betsey, but she also knows that her next decision could have a huge impact on both on Jess and her family, and their friendship.
Little Disasters is a tense, thought-provoking thriller that cleverly and considerately explores the complexities of early motherhood and post-natal anxiety. However, it is also a story about friendship. About the public facade we often hide behind, and how, wrapped up in our own lives and our perception of others, a cry for help can go unnoticed… sometimes with devastating consequences.
Little Disasters is on sale in Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Waitrose, Asda, and all independent bookstores.
It’s also availablehereat Waterstones andhereat WH Smiths.
“I used to look at all these daft girls, marrying the first fellow they thought they could live with. And I suppose I was waiting for the fellow I couldn’t live without” –Nora Doyle 1917-2007
Well folks, Valentine’s Day, universally recognised as a celebration of romance and love, is just around the corner. So, with that in mind, my book choice this month makes for the perfect read, not to mention a great gift idea.
Covering a multitude of famous women, including queens, writers, artists and politicians from 1399 up to WWI, this beautiful volume begins with a brief history of each letter writer, reminding us of not just the era they lived in but also the social restrictions they often encountered and how “affairs of the heart could irrevocably alter the course of woman’s life in a way they did not a man’s”. Take, for instance, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu’s letter to her beloved, whom she was planning to elope with against her father’s wishes, “I tremble for what we are doing. Are you sure you will love me forever? Shall we never repent? I fear, and I hope”. Her fear is obvious and her anxiety palpable, almost jumping off the page. However, like so many other heart-felt letters in this lovely collection, there are also examples of passionate longing and desire, while others still reveal true heartbreak and despair. Particularly Queen Victoria’s letter to the King of the Belgians shortly after the death of her beloved Albert, “My life as a happy one is ended! The world is gone for me!” Yet, the common thread throughout this book reveals women of great emotional strength whose belief in love is unwavering.
This beautiful hardback edition of Love Letters of Great Women is the companion to Love Letters of Great Men and a must read for hopeless romantics and history lovers alike.A delightful compendium that also serves as a timely reminder (especially in this digital age of quick-fire texting and emailing, no longer given to letter writing by hand) of just how beautiful the written word is. And how, in the wonderful words of writer Phyllis Grissim-Theroux, “to send a letter is a good way to go somewhere, without moving anything but your heart”.
Happy New Year everyone! Fingers crossed it’s a good one. I thought I’d start this year with a Q&A, and this month I’m honoured to be chatting to the lovely Louise Beech, author of six novels and her, hopefully, soon to be released memoir, Daffodils. I recently read, and highly recommend Louise’s 4th novel, The Lion Tamer Who Lost; a heartfelt love story with a twist, set in Zimbabwe and Hull. Read my review here.
Welcome Louise, thanks for chatting to me today. Can you tell everyone a bit about yourself?
Hello, Eva. So lovely of you to ask me here for this festive Q&A! Well … about me? Isn’t that always a hard one? I live in East Yorkshire (Yorkshire girl born and bred) with my husband; our two grown children have flown the nest now. Before lockdown, I worked as a theatre usher (which I love, because I get to see all the shows!) and I am of course also a writer. I’m passionate about the arts, about supporting writers, and do my best always to give back if I can. For example, I’m part of the Women of Words, which is a group of four women who host monthly open mic events where women can perform (often for the first time) in a safe and supportive space.
Did you always want to be a writer, and if so, what writers have inspired you?
Oh yes, absolutely. When I was as young as three, I recall being in the back of the car, looking out at the treetops and sky and clouds, making up stories in my head. As soon as I could write, I wrote them down, filling exercise books. As a kid, I loved Judy Blume and Paul Zindel. Then when I read Flowers in the Attic by Virginia Andrews aged 15, I knew I wanted to write something like that. In later years, the book that finally made me sit down and write my first proper novel (which was actually Maria in the Moon) was John Irving’s The World According to Garp. It was … stunning. It moved me beyond words. The writing was magic. And I started my own first within days. Now, there are so many authors I admire; Marcus Zusak, Liz Nugent, Margaret Atwood…
I understand that your debut novel, How To Brave, was based on true events. Without giving too much of the story away, can you elaborate?
It was about my grandad, a merchant seaman who was lost at sea during the Second World War. Colin’s ship sank in the middle of the South Atlantic Sea in 1943. Fourteen men managed to get to a lifeboat. Fifty days later, only two were left. It’s an incredible story of bravery, one that I shared with my seven-year-old daughter after she was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes and refused her injections. Each day we shared a bit of the story, so it distracted her, and I could administer the much-needed insulin. We both became brave, in essence, because of Grandad Colin’s bravery. And I knew this needed to be explored in a novel. So, that story became the central plot of How to be Brave, my debut.
I believe you’ve recently finished writing a memoir? What inspired you to write it now, and how did it differ from writing fiction?
I began my memoir on 11th November 2019, the day my mum had her leg amputated. This followed a tragic suicide attempt nine months earlier, when she jumped from the Humber Bridge. By a miracle she survived, but with terrible injuries. On the morning of the jump, I was delayed by some beautiful early daffodils on a walk by the river … otherwise, I might have been there at the same time as she was. These daffodils haunted me. So that became my title: Daffodils. I’d always known I’d write a memoir because I had a tumultuous childhood, with time in care, and very unstable parents, but this seemed the perfect time. I wrote it during lockdown.
Wow, I can only imagine how hard that must have been for you and your family. However, I can also see why you then felt inspired to write your memoir and how, perhaps in some small way, it may have even helped you? They do say writing can be quite cathartic, after all. I sincerely hope your mum is doing better now.
And finally, the question I love to ask all writers! For anyone thinking of becoming a writer, what advice would you offer?
The main thing is never give up. You WILL experience many rejections and setbacks. The journey is likely to be long. But every single writer who has a book in a shop didn’t give up. Learn your craft well. Take on criticism. Read lots. Follow other authors and see what they advise. And follow your instinct with regards your voice. Only you can tell your story the way it should be told. Never forget that.
‘Be careful what you wish for, you’ll probably get it.’ –Proverb
My first book review this year is the wonderful, The Lion Tamer Who Lost, by the lovely Louise Beech. Written in the third person, this is an inspiring, albeit tragic love story set in the searing heat of Zimbabwe alongside the grey skies of Hull (England). Two distinct but contrasting landscapes. Both beautiful in their own way, but both harbingers of secrets, including some, as the story unfolds, better left unsaid. However, such secrets serve as a reminder of the yin and yang of life, and of what the harshness and tenderness of being human teaches us.
The two main protagonists are Andrew and Ben. Andrew is a writer, an occupation the author uses to tell a story within a story (mise en abyme), with each chapter beginning with an excerpt from Andrew’s book, which I found both clever and intriguing. Andrew, we learn, made a childhood wish, which he keeps in a silver box. However, when his wish eventually comes true, it isn’t in the way he’d hoped. Ben, on the other hand, is a student. Noticeably younger and less mature than Andrew, he nurtures a childhood dream to travel to Africa to volunteer at a lion reserve. But when Ben’s dream comes true, it isn’t for the reasons he imagined.
The Lion Tamer Who Lost is a sensitively written, thought provoking, emotive love story with a twist. Both the major and minor characters are well drawn and believable and, like most of us, are all wonderfully flawed and beautifully human, including Ben’s Dad, whom I really didn’t warm to at first, but later changed my mind. Although complex at times, ultimately, this is a simple story of love and loss, of courage and despair and a timely reminder of both the fragility and strength of life. A book I highly recommend.
You can find The Lion Tamer Who Lost here on Amazon
“Sometimes just getting up and carrying on is brave and magnificent.”
Well folks, we’re well into December. The final month of what can only be described as an interesting year! However, before we say goodbye and good riddance to 2020 let’s not forget, for those of us that celebrate it, Christmas is fast approaching. Therefore, this month, unlike previous years when I’ve read and reviewed some very lovely Christmas themed stories, I thought I’d take a look at something different. Something simple yet poignant, and something that, if you’re looking for gift ideas for the book lovers in your life––whatever the age of the recipient––might just be the perfect solution because, unlike most books, this one is both ageless and timeless.
As the title suggests, this beautifully illustrated hardback is a tale about a boy, a mole, a fox and a horse, with the author and artist being one and the same. For younger readers it’s easy to follow the journey of these four very different friends, sometimes across great mountainous landscapes or beneath vast star-studded skies. While at other times they venture into the darkness, or attempt to navigate the clouds, and at others still, the focus is on the simple joy of eating cake. For older readers, however, I see this more as a collection of unassuming, yet inspiring quotes. Especially during moments of uncertainty and self-doubt, particularly during these troubled and ambiguous times, reminding us that, no matter how dire or dark things might seem, when observed through the eyes of The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse, we know there is always love, hope, and friendship.
Five Big Stars from me!
Rating: 5 out of 5.
Merry Christmas everyone, and remember, “Being kind to yourself is one of the greatest kindnesses”.
I can safely say this cookbook is, without a doubt, unlike any other I have read or reviewed before. Written by Ariyan Arslan, better known by the stage name Action Bronson––an American rapper, writer, chef, and television presenter—this unique cookbook was a birthday gift to my son from my daughter, partly inspired by his love of rap music but mostly because of his recent interest in cooking. He was thrilled when he received it and immediately took to the kitchen to try his hand at one of the recipes, which I have to say looked and smelled remarkably good.
Born to an American Jewish mother and an Albanian Muslim father, Bronson—described in the foreword as a “dude that looks like a cross between Godzilla, a handsome 1950s movie star from Europe, and a cult Mexican wrestler”—grew up in a small two-bedroomed apartment in Queens, New York, with his parents and grandparents. Home life, he says, was hectic, but always filled with love and the smell of good cooking. His grandmother, or nonna, who the book is dedicated to, would often bake three times a day, and it’s clear her love of food rubbed off on her grandson.
However, unlike standard cookbooks, this one is not just a compilation of illustrated recipes, of which there are a number, ranging from bagels to pizza, burgers to opihi, and bebidas to coffee cake, it is also jam-packed with pages of Bronson’s tours and travel, as well as some of his favourite eateries, both locally and around the world. But be warned… if you’re looking for healthy food, you won’t find it here. These recipes are all about flavour. Sprinkled with wit, swearing, and humorous back-stories (as well as a whole page dedicated to toothpicks), this colourful culinary journal is the perfect gift for all rap music and foodie enthusiasts alike.