Sugar and Snails by Anne Goodwin

SaS-WebCover-200x300

At fifteen, Diana Dodworth took the opportunity to radically alter the trajectory of her life, and escape the constraints of her small-town existence. Thirty years on, she can’t help scratching at her teenage decision like a scabbed wound.

To safeguard her secret, she’s kept other people at a distance… until Simon Jenkins sweeps in on a cloud of promise and possibility. But his work is taking him to Cairo, and he expects Di to fly out for a visit. She daren’t return to the city that changed her life; nor can she tell Simon the reason why.

Sugar and Snails takes the reader on a poignant journey from Diana’s misfit childhood, through tortured adolescence to a triumphant mid-life coming-of-age that challenges preconceptions about bridging the gap between who we are and who we feel we ought to be.

inspired-quill.com

I want to start by thanking Anne Goodwin for asking me to review Sugar and Snails. It’s the first book I’ve read in a long time that provoked the words ‘I can’t actually believe that just happened’; ‘I did NOT see that coming’; ‘Orange is the New Black can WAIT! I HAVE to read the next chapter’ exit my mouth. For these reasons and some others, it’s one of the books that I have been most excited about reviewing since starting out on my little reviewing sideline. Its one of those books that I want to talk and talk about but because of my religious beliefs (Thou Shalt Not Provide Spoilers) its the one book that I can’t talk about at all! Because much like the classic Bruce Willis thriller The Sixth Sense, once you know the twist, you’ll never see it the same again. But I’ll give it a go…

Sugar and Snails follows Diana, a middle aged, moderately successful psychology lecturer. Despite her good education and a position at one of the top universities in the country, her head is firmly stuck in the sand, but is at serious risk of being dislodged through the efforts of an ever helpful friend and a prospective love interest.  The story is told through Diana’s voice. I’m not often a fan of books with a single voice, but I can’t imagine Diana’s story being told any other way. She narrates her life in the first person, with a graceful poise that transcends the upheaval that she has encountered on her journey. Goodwin delicately navigates through Diana’s memories and emotions with a nimble dexterity, gently guiding the reader as we plunge into Diana’s psyche with a tenderness that was never afforded our heroine. That is until we discover Diana’s secret around half way through when it feels as though we’ve sidestepped into a raging torrent of ice; not because of what the secret is, but because of Goodwin’s sudden shift from softly subtle to pointedly direct.

It is around this point that I realised how perfectly this book is written. With one sentence, Goodwin forced me to simultaneously question all preceding events while doubting my expectations for the remainder of the book. It felt like being frozen in a tangled crossroads of possibilities; a deer caught in the headlights moment, if you will, which is how I imagine Diana must have felt more than once throughout her life.

Anne Goodwin

The Author, Anne Goodwin

annegoodwin.weebly.com

Sugar and Snails is the  classic example of why one should absolutely never begin writing a book review before the reading of said book is finished. When reviewing, I always make a few mental notes as I read, thinking about what I’ll say about the book, themes I’ve picked up on etc. Inevitably, very few of my Sugar and Snails notes have proved useful due to the surprising turn of events circa 56% in (thank you Kindle with your ever precise page counting techniques), but there is one such note that I think is still valid. It is this: The book’s main focus is a decision made by a 15 year old, and the consequential lifestyle and doctorate research led by Diana about the ability of adolescents to make meaningful decisions. In real life, adolescents are made to make some of the most important decisions of their lives, especially with regards to their education and future careers. They also think that they are the only ones having to make these decisions and that nothing will ever be simple again and the world will probably end next Wednesday. I’m sure we can all agree that for the most part, these are all very correct and reasonable observations for teenagers to make. I therefore think it would be very useful to have this book available in all high schools. Either in the library or as part of a lesson taught by an open minded teacher who is not easily embarrassed. Because despite some controversial topics, or maybe because of said controversy, and while not everyone faces Diana’s dilemma, we could all be better rounded people for learning about said dilemma in order to support those who do have such a decision to make.

Sugar and Snails deserves to be pushed to the front of the queue in all book club reading lists. The depth of the characters and the intricate problems that they face will provide so many discussion points. Now that I know the twist, I am excited to reread Sugar and Snails and to pick up on the many muted clues sprinkled throughout the text.  So please, for me, read this book. If you can’t do it for me (rude) do it for you. Just go now. Buy it. Read it. Then come talk to me about it. Because it is absurdly brilliant.

iq

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

circus

 The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. Within the black-and-white striped canvas tents is an utterly unique experience full of breathtaking amazements. It is called Le Cirque des Rêves, and it is only open at night.

But behind the scenes, a fierce competition is underway—a duel between two young magicians, Celia and Marco, who have been trained since childhood expressly for this purpose by their mercurial instructors. Unbeknownst to them, this is a game in which only one can be left standing, and the circus is but the stage for a remarkable battle of imagination and will. Despite themselves, however, Celia and Marco tumble headfirst into love—a deep, magical love that makes the lights flicker and the room grow warm whenever they so much as brush hands.

True love or not, the game must play out, and the fates of everyone involved, from the cast of extraordinary circus per­formers to the patrons, hang in the balance, suspended as precariously as the daring acrobats overhead.

http://erinmorgenstern.com/

Erin Morgenstern is a talented writer lady living in Manhattan where she is currently working on her next masterpiece. Her debut novel needs no introduction, I’m sure, but tough you’re getting one anyway.

The Night Circus is, as it says on the tin about a circus. That only happens at night. It follows said circus on its global adventures, whose multiple stages provide lavish entertainment. The stage (s) has more than one purpose. Of course it entertains, but it also plays host to an intense competition with a sprinkling of peril and a dash of amour.

I don’t want to give anything away, so I’ll keep it short and sweet. But I will say this if you don’t mind. I wanted to hate this book. I really did. With all my heart and soul. I don’t know why exactly; its immense popularity, overnight success or the fact that the author has achieved that which I never will – that’s right people, she’s a NaNoWriMo winner. I am highly distrustful and/ or envious of anyone who can write a novel the month before Christmas. When does she shop please?!

Anyway, I wanted to hate it, but its no use. It’s far too charming, the characters too adorable and the story too intriguing. The more I attempted to rip it to shreds and the harder I pulled downwards, the higher it flung me in all sorts of directions like a somersaulting acrobat a la Cirque des Reves.  It has everything; fairy tale love, adventure, a duel to the end, a circus, magic, train journeys, red scarves, dresses that repel rainwater (can someone get the scientists working on that one).  I love this book.

If you haven’t already read it, as I suspect many of you have, go read it now.

The Taxidermist’s Daughter by Kate Mosse

taxi

Sussex, 1912.

In a churchyard, villagers gather on the night when the ghosts of those who will die in the coming year are thought to walk. Here, where the estuary leads out to the sea, superstitions still hold sway.

Standing alone is the taxidermist’s daughter. At twenty-two, Constantia Gifford lives with her father in a decaying house: it contains all that is left of Gifford’s once world-famous museum of taxidermy. The stuffed birds that used to grace every parlour are out of fashion, leaving Gifford a disgraced and bitter man. The string of events that led to the museum’s closure are never spoken of and an accident has robbed Connie of any memory of those days.

The bell begins to toll and all eyes are fixed on the church. No one sees the gloved hands holding a garotte. As the last notes fade into the dark, a woman lies dead.

While the village braces itself against rising waters and the highest tide of the season, Connie struggles to discover who is responsible – and why the incident is causing memories to surface from her own vanished years. Does she know the figure she sees watching from the marshes? Who is the mysterious caller that leaves a note without being seen? And what is the secret that lies at the heart of Blackthorn House, hidden among the bell jars of her father’s workshop?

orionbooks.co.uk

Greetings book fans!

After an excellent week in Crete, I can think of no better way of re-submerging into real life than sharing a book review with you lovely people. So here is my review of Kate Mosse‘s The Taxidermist’s Daughter.

As per a previous post re holiday reads, I wanted a ‘once you pop you just can’t stop’ kind of book to accompany my holiday.  It had to be intriguing enough to keep my attention on a long flight (which began BEFORE the hour of 7am) but be accessible enough that I could  dip in and out throughout a busy week. Said week involved blood vessel bursting bike rides, thunder storms, bandaging fiance’s gross foot wound (true love), watching friends get engaged in the mountains, enjoying a spot of sunstroke, being embraced by an old Greek man with particularly moist arm pits that emitted a particularly pungent scent, drinking pina coladas and getting caught in the rain. (All of those things really happened). In addition, thanks to Mosse’s clever writing, I got some avian taxidermy and very strange murders thrown into the mix.

birds

Mosse said that she wrote this book after a long fascination with Taxidermy and I can see why. It certainly aroused a morbid curiosity in me. Mosse very neatly describes all the intricacies of the art of Taxidermy, unraveling each of the painstaking and often gruesome processes that makes a lifeless bird breathe again.  Mosse clearly has a high respect and interest in Taxidermy and she uses it beautifully as a metaphor for the life cycle of humans. The theme wraps around the characters, revealing their outwardly idyllic lives to be nothing short of a horror story. At the climax of the story, Mosse skilfully strips away the dead flesh and rebuilds the character’s lives into a beautiful tableaux, complete with a church wedding on a sunny day in which the characters can finally play happy families.  Just like the tableaux of birds that once sat in Gifford’s museum; finally resplendent even after the effects of death.

The quest for beauty is clearly an important theme in this novel. As well as the taxidermists in the story who aim to achieve beauty in their work, there is a portrait painter who loves to capture the beauty of his subjects.  All of this is set against a beautiful, if volatile country backdrop.  When I saw Mosse speaking at Harrogate History Festival a couple of years back, she talked about how her stories emerge from landscape. In Labyrinth, Sepulche and Citadel Mosse her inspiration was the Languedoc region in the south of France, which is described in some detail. Here, Mosse paints a vivid picture of the Sussex countryside out of which she draws her characters in such a way that they couldn’t possibly be anywhere else.

I am always a fan of Kate Mosse’s work and she has not let me down yet. If you haven’t tried her books before, or you found The Languedoc Trilogy not quite to your taste, I would most definitely recommend The Taxidermist’s Daughter. It’s a similar style to her previous work in that the voice changes chapter to chapter, but the theme is much darker than anything she’s done before; even counting The Mistletoe Bride.

Let me know what you think.

Alicia

Storytime with Joanne Harris at Huddersfield Literature Festival

Joanne Harris HLF2015 image c. Kyte

Photo by Kyte Photography

Its Huddersfield Literature Festival time again! Yay! On Friday 6th March my excellent friend Ben and I visited the cellar of the Lawrence Batley Theatre where  Joanne Harris made her contribution to the festival with a new and exciting project, which she called Storytime.

Joanne began the evening by introducing the concept of her Storytime. She had joined Twitter a few years ago and started telling stories on it because that’s what she does; tells stories. If you are a twitterer I’m sure you’ve experienced these bursts of stories of a slow day at work, while “researching” that important thing you were supposed to be working on ….

IMG_0954

 Joanne was not alone on her stage in the cellar of the LBT. As well as a range of lighting and colourful projections to accompany each story, she had a band of helpers. Literally. Her stories were accompanied by a drum set, guitar, keyboard, bass, a flute and other miscellaneous percussive instruments.

Following Joanne’s introduction, we were treated to a musical introduction from the band. They played a beautiful song including the lyrics ‘There is a story the bees used to tell, long ago, long ago…’. This is how Joanne begins each of her twitter stories. The music, composed I believe by Joanne’s husband, was rather haunting. The melody was calm and lilting but with a dark edge to it. It was almost like accepting a warm invitation but once inside, a minor sequential cadence tinged with a sceptical coolness wrapped around the room, trapping us all inside. ‘…long ago, long ago, which makes it hard to disbelieve.’

storytime

Photo by @Cat_Lumb

Each story once told was summarised in musical form by a song or an instrumental. Who knew that Joanne Harris was such a talented flautist? As a writer and flautist myself (show off) I have never considered putting the two together. But that’s what the whole evening was about; challenging storytelling norms. There was one point when Joanne leaned towards the mic without her flute where I was worried that she was going to sing. Then she did. And I was pleasantly surprised. What a beautiful voice. But writers aren’t supposed to be singers. Writers are solitary creatures who only surface once in a while to sign a few books and push the boundaries of blood to caffeine ratio.

I think there’s often a supposition about what people should be and how we identify with them. This is a philosophy that Joanne is trying to dispel. A lady in the audience asked the question “In your short stories tonight and actually in many of your novels, there is a feeling of ‘seize the day’. Would you agree?” Joanne did agree and she talked about this at some length.

When I saw her at the Huddersfield lit fest last year (where she was talking about her excellent book The Gospel of Loki) she made the point of saying that she didn’t subscribe her writing to any particular genre, preferring instead to tell her stories and letting them land where they land.  So it is with her Storytime on Twitter. The stories had been ephemeral in nature, flying through the twittersphere and being sporadically caught by readers. Now the stories are being saved and collated and are even being published soon in a book titled Honeycomb. But that all came from sitting down and telling a story in a different way.

The stories themselves were often quite dark, again belying the apparently safe, cosy nature of ‘Storytime’. My favourite was about a toymaker (I think he was a toymaker. Or a carpenter. He was a handsy sort of person anyway) who one day, noticing that his once lovely wife is no longer perfect, sets about fixing her to his satisfaction. A poignant parable about the struggle for unattainable perfection and (as my friend Ben surmised) the throwaway, consumeristic way that many of us live our lives. Thought provoking stuff.

All in all, Storytime was a magical evening. It was very refreshing to see a writer not only thinking outside the box, but dispelling said box altogether. An amalgamation of stories, music and theatre, Storytime with Joanne Harris and friends is something that I would certainly like to see more of.

There are still many fun events to get involved with in the Huddersfield Literature Festival. You can find out about it here.

 

P.S. Joanne, it was very lovely to meet you again. Thank you for signing one of your books for me. Should you need an additional flautist and/ or keyboardist for your future projects, I am always available. I’m really good. And sometimes modest.

P.P.S It was also very lovely to meet Jennifer and Lynne of Kyte Photography. You should check out their book of famous people from Yorkshire ‘Yorkshire Made Me‘.

Celebrating the Freedom to Read in Banned Books Week – “Lolita” review

Banned Books Week is a time to celebrate the banned books of the world. According to the Banned Books Week website, this is what Banned Books Week is all about:

Banned Books Week is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. Held during the last week of September, it highlights the value of free and open access to information. Banned Books Week brings together the entire book community –- librarians, booksellers, publishers, journalists, teachers, and readers of all types –- in shared support of the freedom to seek and to express ideas, even those some consider unorthodox or unpopular.

What a brilliant idea. Joining in with the festivities, I scanned through a list of banned tomes. I eventually plumbed for one that has been described as controversial, a masterpiece, as a classic and as one that has polarized opinions. It’s Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, 1955.

lolita

Poet and pervert, Humbert Humbert becomes obsessed by twelve-year-old Lolita and seeks to possess her, first carnally and then artistically, out of love, ‘to fix once for all the perilous magic of nymphets’. Is he in love or insane? A silver-tongued poet or a pervert? A tortured soul or a monster? Or is he all of these? Humbert Humbert’s seduction is one of many dimensions in Nabokov’s dizzying masterpiece, which is suffused with a savage humour and rich, elaborate verbal textures.

Martin Amis, Observer 

Written in America in the late 1940s-early 1950s, Lolita was rejected by several publishers before finally reaching print in 1955 across the pond in France. When considering the subject matter and the time that it was written, this is perhaps understandable. I suspect it would suffer a similar reaction today.

Along with the controversial themes within this story, there is a streak of comedy, which necessitates the prefix of ‘dark’.  There are several comical scenes and interactions woven into the book’s disturbing events. This is all tied in with Humbert’s personality. Child molesting and severe manipulation aside, Humbert is quite the wit. I get the feeling that had our protagonist been of a less sordid persuasion, he would have endeared himself very well to the reader. But, just as his relationship with Lolita, his relationship with the reader is one of lulling them into a false sense of security before revealing his true colours, by which time it is too late. (Cue horrific evil laugh emanating from Humbert. Horrible, creepy man.)

Humbert has been interpreted as an “unreliable narrator” by most readers but I’m not sure that he deserves this accolade. True, he is the sole narrator; he is on trial for murder; he has interfered quite heavily with a child and he has manipulated those around him all his life.  All of these things do not inspire confidence. There is no precedence for his reliability but this is a man who is sitting in prison, looking back over his life, trying to make sense of it. Who could be a more reliable narrator of his own life than Humbert himself? Even through his descriptions of past events, the reader can easily determine the tone and the implications of his actions on those around him. So in terms of narrating, despite his (many) faults, Humbert is as reliable a chap as any in my view.

I think what makes this book even more chilling is Nabokov’s flamboyant use of language. Once you get past the fact that you’re witnessing the ugly inner workings of a paedophile’s brain, you realise that the language is contrastingly quite beautiful. For me, this realization did not materialize until the second part. That first half was a real struggle, let me tell you. I even considered giving up. But no book has beaten me yet!

Plot wise, the first section drags a little. There doesn’t seem to be much going on apart from Humbert’s ogling of “nymphets” (prepubescent girls between the ages of 9 and 14. Yep. Pretty grim.) and a distinct wallowing in self-indulgence and narcissism. It is worth pushing through this, skim read here if you must, to get to the latter stages of the story. It doesn’t get any less disturbing but we do learn a lot more about Humbert’s state of mind as well as the fate of Lolita.

I’ve always been intrigued by books that are banned, especially those that are marginalized by specific cultural groups or countries, for example Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses being banned in India and the consequent drama around that. As horrific as that surely was for Rushdie, it does give him a certain attractive edge as a writer. Imagine writing something that creates such a strong impact. Amazing.

But why ban books? What are the parameters in which these books are judged?  Are we protecting people from certain themes? If so why is this, when we are exposed to them in real life and in the media anyway? And who gets to ban books and what is their angle? Is it political? Is it personal taste? Is it because their mum wouldn’t like it therefore no one should read it? Grow up people. We are all very capable of choosing what we would like to read. Stop this censoring madness. Banning something is not going to stop people wanting it.

Have you read Lolita or any other “banned books” recently? What did you think? Here’s a shortlist of banned books for you to peruse. (As if The Perks of Being a Wallflower is on there?!!)

 

 

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill

only

I seem to be on a bit of a roll with feminist inspired novels recently. I was introduced to my latest read, Only Ever Yours by this article from the author of said novel, Louise O’Neill.

Only Ever Yours is a dark tale of a dystopian world in which “eves” are designed in order to satisfy the reproductive and sexual needs of the “inheritants”.

Its vaguely the premise of The Handmaid’s Tale with a heavy dollop of the bitchiness of Mean Girls.  If you haven’t experienced these classics, picture an oppressive patriarchal society.  Women’s rights are limited to the maintenance of their looks and/ or wombs, while an expiration date with a disturbing finality hangs over them.

O’Neill really captures the voice of the insecure teenager, trapped in an image obsessed world.  Where the winner never gets there by being a nice or considerate person.  Selfishness and vanity prevails.  Any hint of intelligence or doubt will render you useless in this world and get you thrown on the pyre. Literally.  Because girls are meant to be seen, never heard.  And not all girls. Just the perfect ones.  All the rest will be hidden.  Sounds familiar, no?

We see the entire story unfold through one eve’s perspective.  I don’t usually enjoy novels with a sole narrator.  I like to hear other characters’ voices and see the story from different angles.  However, I don’t think this novel would have worked any other way.  Through Frieda’s solitary voice, O’Neill channels the isolation and uncertainty that all of the eves must have felt.

Only Ever Yours has been billed as a YA novel. Again, not something that would usually attract me to a story.  But I’m so glad I read it.  The only reasons I can think of for it being a YA novel is that the protagonist is a teenage girl, and it is an easy read.  But otherwise, the themes are very relevant no matter what age/gender you are.  The implications presented in this book are very dark and scarier still, not all that unfamiliar.

As well as the whole production of eves as men-pleasin’ objects, Only Ever Yours explores friendship and rivalry.  I think most of us can testify to the fact that teenage friendships can be toxic, particularly within a group of girls.  It might be well into your twenties before you can shake off a venomous friendship.  The eves however do not have this luxury.  Just as with their bodies, the eves have no say in their social standing. This includes being victims of degradation and humility from all angles.

On the whole, I like this book.  But I did want a bit more from it.  Maybe to see a little more of the world that O’Neill had created outside of Frieda’s confined parameters.  I’d really like to see a sequel based on the life of an inheritant, just to get another perspective on the story.  Because, like all good feminist writing, Only Ever Yours highlights the pressure put on men, as well as women, to perform in a certain way in society.

Only Every Yours is available in real life bookshops as well as online for your electronical reading device.

Let me know what you think!

“The New Mrs D” by Heather Hill

I’ve been following the very chuckle worthy Heather Hill for a while now.  Not in a real life stalker way, you understand.  Just on the internet.  That sounds worse.  I just read her tweets and her blogs. Nothing weird.  I first came across this funny lady last year and have been enjoying her posts every since.  So, when I discovered that she was publishing her debut novel, I jumped at the chance to have a sneaky pre-published peek to review for her.

mrsd

The New Mrs D, or Binnie, is a happy go lucky kind of gal who finally finds herself, despite growing up with a narcissistic mother and living with a porn-obsessed husband.  She waits until the second day of her honeymoon to discover all of this, and then sends her new hubby packing, but that’s Binnie!

Ms Hill whisks off to the Greek Islands for a colourful adventure.  She plonks us right in the middle of the beautiful scenery, taking us on a sensory journey where we soak up the hot sun, drink in the fragrant wine, bask in the explosion of a fish and cradle our temples as Binnie flings her flip flop at us, from a speeding scooter.  I said colourful adventure, not safe adventure.

During Binnie’s antics, we come to learn more about our heroine and the struggles she has faced in her past that have led her to where she is now.  Binnie seems to be magnetically drawn to the outrageous, which makes for some lovely slapstick moments.  Despite spending her honeymoon sans new husband, she certainly isn’t lonely or bored.  She makes lifelong friends and dares herself to do something that terrifies her every day.

Amongst the frivolities, there is a deeper message within this book.  It is somewhat of a survivor’s story. We see this in the friends that Binnie makes.  All of them have their own story and their own survival including broken hearts, cancer, widowhood, betrayal.  In comparison, Binnie is worried that people will find her story ludicrous and embarrassing.  Because of this, she talks herself in and out of forgiving her errant husband for his dalliances with his internet fantasies, mainly because she is worried what people will think of her.  No woman should be made to feel that way, not least by her husband!

Ms Hill celebrates the strong, funny woman.  Binnie is certainly both those things.  Read this book and you will:

  1. Consider what it is to be a strong, independent lady
  2. Learn that it is never too late
  3. Understand that you should enjoy being you, because, in the words of Binnie, “there will never be another you”.

You can buy Heather Hill’s debut novel here.

Enjoy!