Three Things… October 2018

Borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.

Regular readers may have noticed that this blog has gone a bit quiet recently. I’ve been facing some difficult personal upheavals again, and I’ve been finding it hard to concentrate on reading, let alone writing reviews. However, things seem to be settling down a bit now, especially work-wise – I’m settling into my new job as a research fellow at Queen Mary University of London, and have just submitted the full manuscript of my first academic book, A Progressive Education? How Childhood Changed in Mid-Twentieth-Century English and Welsh Schools, which is under contract with Manchester University Press.

Reading

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I was reading Esi Edugyan’s Booker-shortlisted Washington Black before things went pear-shaped, and so it probably suffered somewhat from being read over an exceptionally long period of time. Washington Black shares some surface similarities with Jane Harris’s recent Sugar Money: they are both narrated by a young, male, enslaved narrator who starts his story in the West Indies, although Washington Black is set in the early nineteenth century, exploring the shifting legal position of slavery at the time, whereas Sugar Money deals with a slave revolt in the mid-eighteenth century. Both books also tap into an eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century tradition of adventure narratives, which can lead them to feel a bit repetitive, as the story jumps from one dramatic event to another. However, I found Washington Black much more reflective and emotionally resonant than Sugar Money, helped by the fact that it takes place over a longer period of time and moves through a range of geographically diverse settings.

Washington Black’s life is transformed when, as a young boy, he comes into contact with his master’s brother, ‘Titch’, who helps him escape from slavery and adventure into the unknown. Like Sugar Money, Washington Black moves from scenes of intense and horrifying realism – most of which take place on the Barbados plantation – to more whimsical escapades, as when Washington and Titch fly off in a hot air balloon and, finding themselves about to crash into the sea, manage to steer it so they land on a ship (much to the captain’s displeasure). Tonally, Edugyan handles this expertly, and Washington’s voice is convincing and compelling.

Nevertheless, I felt that something was lacking in the cast of this novel. Frustratingly, it was Titch rather than Washington who came most vividly alive for me. Initially appearing as a kind of ‘white saviour’, or, in more historically-appropriate terminology, a ‘knight in shining armour’, Titch’s mind and motives are deconstructed across the course of this novel. Edugyan cleverly flips our perspective on him a number of times, revealing his inner conflict while not allowing him to become truly sympathetic. The final scene between him and Washington is especially powerful. While I appreciated this nuanced portrait, it’s a shame that the main black characters feel so wooden in comparison. Washington notably comes to life only when he interacts with Titch, while a love interest introduced about halfway through the novel remains no more than that. I’d be surprised if this won the Booker today (though I am usually wrong about prizes, so it probably has a good chance).

I received a proof copy of this novel from the publisher for review.

Watching

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Due to aforementioned life events, I haven’t been watching anything especially intelligent recently. Netflix’s sweet rom-com To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before was perfect escapism. The predictable plot follows a girl who has to confront a series of past crushes after her secret love letters to them get mailed out, but it’s nice to see a more diverse cast in this genre – the heroine, Lara Jean, is Korean-American in the novel, though played in the film by a Vietnamese-American actress. I liked what the author of the original novel, Jenny Han, had to say about the casting of Lara Jean: ‘One producer said to me, as long as the actress captures the spirit of the character, age and race don’t matter… I said, well, her spirit is Asian-American. That was the end of that.’

Thinking

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I went to see Sarah Waters talk about her 2009 novel, The Little Stranger, which has just been made into a film, at the Durham Book Festival. The talk was followed by a screening of the film, which, rather to my surprise – having thought the book would be difficult to film – I very much enjoyed. The film manages to be genuinely creepy, restraining the urge to have anything flashy happen, and Ruth Wilson is superb as Caroline, completely inhabiting her ‘unfeminine’ gait and confident sloppiness. Waters always interviews well, and I was particularly intrigued by a comment she made about the ‘ontological shock’ that should be at the heart of any good ghost story. As Waters put it, if we see a ghost, this should surely strike at the heart of our understanding of the laws of reality. If we see a ghost, surely now anything could happen – a glass could fly across the table, we ourselves could fly apart. I think Waters is absolutely right about the horror of this, and it’s something I think very few ghost stories do well. (I have to say, this is something that always annoyed me in Harry Potter as well – both Harry and Hermione are SO confident about what is silly and mythical, e.g. Luna Lovegood’s Crumple-Horned Snorkacks, and what is real. If you were introduced to a world of magic at the age of eleven, might you not be a bit more open-minded in the future? I have a vintage fanfic from 2004 that explores this question – that’s how much it got to me!)

Three Things… September 2018

Borrowed from Paula at Book Jotter.

Reading

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I have to admit that I’m a little relieved 20 Books of Summer is over. It’s back to reading what I want, by which I mean the backlog that has accumulated while I read my 20 books. I just finished Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, which I found emotionally exhausting, as it mirrors so many of my thoughts and concerns about potential motherhood, although I have to admit to finding Heti an irritating and self-indulgent writer at times. The thought that’s stuck with me, however, is the simple statement that if you’re genuinely undecided about having children, ‘it will probably be a fine life either way.’ It started me off thinking things that Heti doesn’t explicitly spell out. If having children is central to what you want, it makes sense to shape your life around that, but for the rest of us, the choice whether or not to have a child is less a question we can ask in isolation – Should I Be A Mother? Should I Bring A Child Into This World? – and more a practical question that’s dependent on where we find ourselves. Speaking only for myself, I know I wouldn’t want to have a child unless the circumstances were exactly right (and I have pretty specific ideas of what I mean by that!) and if that never happens, I’m better off without one. Sadly, I doubt this will be the end of my worries about it, given how patriarchy likes to make us feel guilty for even entertaining the thought of not having children.

Another thing that Heti doesn’t touch on in Motherhood is the idea that not wanting your own children means you don’t like children, an unfortunate belief that I find comes up surprisingly often. I worked part-time with children for four years when I was doing my PhD in Cambridge and absolutely loved it; I know it’s something I want to do again in the future. I’m also really looking forward to getting to know my friends’ children, and my sister and I are both very keen to be aunts (there’s only the two of us, so you can see the flaw in this plan… we’ll have to rely on (potential) partners’ siblings for the moment). As a historian of childhood, I also spend my professional life thinking about how children have been marginalised and oppressed in the past, something which is very important to me. Heti doesn’t seem to have many children in her life – which is of course absolutely fine – but even if I don’t have my own children, I know I’ll want to live a life that includes other people’s children.

Watching

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I saw Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen’s film Still Here at the Side Cinema a week or so ago, and thought it was absolutely fantastic. Konttinen photographed residents in Byker from 1969-81 – her most famous photograph is probably ‘Girl on A Spacehopper’ – and in this film, she goes back to talk to some of the people she photographed who are still living in the area, although not always in Byker itself. Konttinen did a fascinating Q&A after this short film where she talked about how she tracked down her subjects. The ‘girl on a spacehopper’ has proved the most elusive; four women have claimed to be her already. I particularly enjoyed hearing from the man who was disappointed he was missing from the photograph of kids collecting junk [see above], given that his siblings were in it, but, as he said to Konttinen, ‘that was probably because I was looting your studio’. As far as I know, there aren’t any plans to tour this film outside Newcastle at the moment, which is a shame – it’s really worth seeing.

I’ve also been watching Bake Off, like everyone else – my favourite is Rahul.

Thinking

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I’m a bit tired of thinking at the moment as I’m finishing up the initial draft of my academic monograph, A Progressive Education? How Childhood Changed in Mid-Twentieth-Century English and Welsh Schools, and so have been doing a lot of thinking about that. It’s been good to get a break from cogitation by going wild swimming with my mum and sister in the Brecon Beacons; we swam in some waterfall pools and a tarn [pictured above]. I’m a big fan of wild swimming but rarely get the chance to do it; I think a proper wetsuit might be a sensible investment next spring, as the sea near Newcastle is COLD all year round. The following weekend, my sister and I rode a working fireboat in Bristol that protected Bristol docks during the Blitz, and saw it shooting water from its water cannons. This was also a very welcome respite from work.

Tag: How I Choose My Books

Borrowed from Hannah at I Have Thoughts on Books.

Find a book on your shelves with a pink cover. What made you pick up the  book in the first place?

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When I was seventeen, my youth theatre group took part in the initial stages of the National Theatre Connections project, which commissions ten new plays from well-known playwrights for young people to perform. We got together with the National Theatre’s youth theatre group, all the potential directors and the playwrights to workshop the plays. I was picked to workshop Ali Smith’s Just (which is an amazing play that I still think about today) and, like the committed young person I was, decided that I also had to read one of her novels in preparation. My school library had Hotel World. Alas, Ali wasn’t able to make it to the workshop after all, but I loved Hotel World – I’d never read anything like it at that age – and we had a fab two days with Jeremy Stockwell instead, who was mad and brilliant.

Think of a book you didn’t expect to enjoy but did. Why did you read it in the first place?

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As I said in my review of The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obrecht, ‘I almost didn’t read this book because I thought it was going to be a story about a boy meeting a magical tiger.’ I found out that it was nothing of the kind – and it ended up being possibly my favourite Orange Prize winner ever. (I read it in the first place because it was on the Orange Prize shortlist.) I have also now read and enjoyed Yann Martel’s Life of Pi – which was the first book I ever read on a Kindle – which could arguably be said to be about a boy meeting a magical tiger, so I’m not sure what my problem with boys and magical tigers was in the first place.

Stand in front of your bookshelf with your eyes closed and pick up a book at random. How did you discover this book?

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I read Suzanna Clarke’s collection of short stories, The Ladies of Grace Adieu, in 2007, after reading Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I can’t remember much about it now, other than, like all Clarke’s work, it’s long on charming detail and a little short on satisfying storytelling (Jonathan Strange is so long for such a simple plot – and I was annoyed that Clarke went for such black-and-white characterisation – Mr Norrell will always be my favourite). The question here is really how I discovered Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell in the first place, but I can’t remember. I must have read it before I went to university, because footnotes still seemed very novel.

To go off on a tangent, I heard Clarke talk about Jonathan Strange in 2005 and she told a story that I still use when I want to argue that striving for perfect historical accuracy in historical novels is a losing game. The novel begins in 1806 in York Minster, which the book refers to as York Cathedral. Clarke received many letters telling her that York Cathedral is always known as York Minster. She explained that this is the case, except at the precise time Jonathan Strange is set, when it was not. However, this still sounds ‘wrong’ to modern readers. On the other hand, Clarke did admit that she used Jane Austen’s spelling in the book because she thought it was authentically Regency, then realised that Austen’s spelling is quite specific to Austen…

Pick a book that someone personally recommended to you. What did you think of it?

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My dad recommended Restless, William Boyd’s novel about espionage during the Second World War, and it has become one of the elite number of books that my dad and I both really like (I think all these books are by either William Boyd, Bernard Cornwell or George R.R. Martin). It’s also the only spy novel I’ve ever read that I’ve liked.

Pick a book you discovered through book blogs. Did it live up to the hype?

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I discover most books through book blogs these days, but back in the day, I was impressed by George Mackay Brown’s Vinland, a modern Viking saga, after reading Victoria’s review on Eve’s Alexandria – one of many Eve’s Alexandria-inspired reads. My review is here on my old blog.

Find a book on your shelves with a one word title. What drew you to this book?

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I was drawn to Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley because it was by Robin McKinley, with whom I am obsessed. This book, about a boy living in a dragon sanctuary, is not one of her best, but luckily she’s also written lots of other excellent books with one-word titles, including Deerskin, Chalice, Beauty and Sunshine, as well as some other excellent books with slightly longer titles, such as The Hero and the Crown, Spindle’s End and Rose Daughter.

What book did you discover through a film/TV adaptation?

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A really tricky category, as I don’t watch very many films or much TV, so it normally goes the other way. The only example I can think of is Lynn Barber’s memoir An Education, which I came to through the Carey Mulligan film. I was amused to find out that some of the dodgy dealings in this memoir took place on a street I used to live on in Cambridge!

Is anyone else keen to do this tag? Would love to hear other people’s answers!

The Bookish Naughty List Tag

This tag was originally created by A Page of Jenniely, and I’ve borrowed it from Elle.

1. Received an ARC and not reviewed it?

Yes; I think only one to date (Howard Jacobson’s J, which I didn’t dislike but had nothing at all to say about).

2. Have less than 60% feedback rating on NetGalley?

My feedback rating is currently 83%, which I think is the lowest ever (I went on a bit of a requesting spree and have five outstanding titles at the moment). I feel too guilty to let it drop too low!

3. Rated a book on Goodreads and promised a full review was to come on your blog (and never did)?

Oh yes.

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4. Folded down the page of a book?

Yes, it belongs to me, why not? Now this will make anyone who likes to keep their books pristine very unhappy: when I was a teenager, I liked my books to look battered, so I deliberately creased spines, folded down corners and dented covers. I avoided hardbacks because they were more difficult to spoil.

5. Skim read a book?

Absolutely. I have skim read the last bits of many books that I was not enjoying (and by ‘last bits’, I probably mean anything up to the last third). I don’t mind abandoning books in the early stages, but I like the sense of completion once I get past 66%. (I’m not just using % because Kindle, when I was a child I actually used to work out the % of a book I had remaining if I was really enjoying it and didn’t want it to finish. I was a strange child).

6. DNF a book this year?

Yes: Tiffany Mc Daniel’s The Summer That Melted Everything. I bought it at an event run in Durham by an independent bookshop because I felt sorry for them that nobody was buying anything, and after the first few pages, I decided it wasn’t for me.

7. Bought a book purely because it was pretty with no intention of reading it?

No; I hate having unread books (see above). I have, however, wished I could buy pretty new editions of novels I really like, although I try to give them to other people rather than keeping. The novel I’ve probably bought the most copies of is Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle.

The cover I own (L) versus the pretty cover I want and have bought for others (R).

8. Read whilst you were meant to be doing something else?

Yes. Who hasn’t?

9. Accidentally spilled on a book

I’ve dropped a number of books in the bath. My friend and I once enjoyed drying out a library book page by page with a hairdryer after this fate (you need two people to do this properly). Unfortunately, the book was James S.A. Corey’s Cibola Burn, which has a lot of pages.

10. Completely missed your Goodreads goal?

I’ve only set a Goodreads goal for one year and massively exceeded it! But I think this will happen in the future.

11. Borrowed a book and not returned it?

No, I am the victim rather than the perpetrator here (still missing BSC #43: Stacey’s Emergency which I lent out in Year Eight…)

12. Broke a book buying ban?

Yes, though I really try not to. I love buying books that I can read right away without the guilt of knowing I have a big TBR pile.

13. Started a review, left it for ages then forgot what the book was about?

Not really. If this happens I turn it into a mini-review where I can be more vague…

14. Wrote in a book you were reading?

I’m a historian. I don’t write in fiction or in other people’s history books though.

15. Finished a book and not added it to your Goodreads?

I LOVE updating my Goodreads. I sometimes update it when I know I’m about to finish a book. So this would never happen.

Anyone else fancy this tag?

My Life In Books, 2017

30965704I did a version of this in 2011, 2012 and 2015 as well, but it’s nice to try a new one! Borrowed from Jessie at Dwell in Possibility.

Using only books you have read this year (2017), answer these questions. Try not to repeat a book title.

In high school I was one of The Lauras (Sara Taylor)

People might be surprised by Seven Brief Lessons on Physics (Carlo Rovelli)

 I will never be Respectable (Lynsey Hanley)

My fantasy job is Time Travel (James Gleick)

At the end of a long day I need Home Fire (Kamila Shamsie)

I hate it when Men Explain Things To Me (Rebecca Solnit)

Wish I had Intuition (Allegra Goodman)

My family reunions are Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Elena Ferrante)

At a party you’d find me with Outliers (Malcolm Gladwell)

I’ve never been to Paradise (Toni Morrison)

A happy day includes Art and Fear (David Bayles)

Motto I live by is Year of Yes (Shonda Rhimes)

On my bucket list is The Ice (Laline Paull)

In my next life, I want to have Days Without End (Sebastian Barry)