Sugar and Snails by Anne Goodwin

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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.

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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

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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.

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Bouncers by John Godber

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Directed by its writer John Godber and featuring a frightening array of northern talent, the definitive production of multi award-winning hit comedy BOUNCERS follows 2014 revival of Teechers to the LBT stage.

Lucky Eric, Judd, Les and Ralph are the original men in black, portraying an astonishing range of characters over the course of one eventful night in a Yorkshire disco in the 80s. All the gang are out on the town: the boys, the girls, the cheesy DJ, the late-night kebab man and the taxi home, all under the watchful eyes of the bouncers.

Sad, hilarious and full of humanity, BOUNCERS won the Los Angeles Drama Critics’ Circle Award an amazing seven times, and was named as one of the top 100 plays of the 20thcentury by the National Theatre.

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On Wednesday evening I visited my beloved Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield for to watch a performance of John Godber’s Bouncers. Having watched Teechers last year I was very excited to see another of Godber’s plays. I can confirm that I was not disappointed!

The four main characters, Lucky Eric, Judd, Les and Ralph, are played by four very talented actors. We duck and weave with them as they become the various groups of intoxicated clubbers of a Saturday eve. The whole play is very fun and chuckle worthy, but particular hilarity ensues when the fellas don their sparkly handbags and became the  young girls out for Rosie’s 21st. Tres amusement.

As the play is set in the 80s the music is obviously amazing. You’ve got your thriller, you’ve got you spin me round, round baby right round like a record baby …. Plus other classics that will be firmly lodged in your head until the very moment that you need to remember them for when you’re writing a review about them. *severe eye roll*

As previously stated, this play is v funny. However, before I recommend that you immediately purchase tickets for this play I feel it is my duty to warn you of one very disturbing toilet scene. Now, as a former bar attendant (Lloyds No.1 Bar, Huddersfield circa 2005-2007 before the indoors smoking ban. I smelled just wonderful after those shifts) I am under no illusions as to the thoroughly disgusting nature of the men’s toilets. It is only now that I have witnessed this particular scene in Bouncers, along with acknowledging sniggers from male members of the audience, that the full picture has been revealed to me. I have learned how truly grotesque men can be. I fear I can never unlearn this. There. You have been warned.

If you haven’t seen Bouncers, don’t panic! There is a list of remaining tour dates here.

Six Short Stories by Jack Croxall

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A collection of six incidents, memories and curiosities. Some of these short stories are happy, some of them are not so happy. It’s difficult to tell whether any of them are related, such quandaries are never resolved easily. 

Includes the 2014 eFestival of Words Best Short Story, X.

Jack Croxall is a most industrious chap. He trained as an Environmental Scientist and now utilses his sciencey knowledge in his YA fiction and other writing adventures.  His latest YA publication, Six Short Stories, is a collection of, well, six short stories … does what it says on the tin.

There is a lovely range of narrative style and subject from ghostly happenings in the 1800’s to a post apocalyptic nightmare somewhere in the future and other charming tales in between.

I don’t want to give too much away, but here’s a little snapshot from each story:

1. Guardian angel. This is an uplifting tale that highlights that things are not always as bad as they seem. When all hope is lost there is always another option. And don’t be so sure about what you want; be flexible; be kind; be generous. Nice.
2. Rose Root. This a haunting tale about a rumoured ghost. Its told in the style of a newspaper article. The use of language is particularly evocative of the 19th century in which it is set. Spooky and realistic in its delivery. I like this one a lot.
3. Scruffy. This reminds me a little of the style of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. There’s something quite bittersweet about hearing a deeply tragic story from an innocent voice.
4. Space dementia. Jack takes us into deep space to talk about the importance of mental health. It’s about sharing, not bottling up feelings or secrets and standing up for what you believe in. A good story with a good message.
5. Tethered. Like Rose Root, this is another late 19th century setting. It is a short newspaper article that tells a big story.
6. X. A zombie story with a tragic twist. The hero is an unnamed teenage girl. We follow her in the final weeks of her life during an invasion of ‘uglies’. This was named Best Short Story in the 2014 eFestival of Words.

Six Short Stories showcases Jack’s ability to manipulate language to fit the story.  He goes from very traditional English to a child’s voice to a counselling session in outer space. Each story is wrapped up in the language used and each character feels genuine. I’m always so impressed with writers of short stories in how they can create whole worlds with so few words. Amazing.

I very much enjoyed Jack’s collection of short stories. I recommend reading in conjunction with a cuppa and a [barrel of] biscuit[s] of a lazy afternoon. Perfection.

Six Short Stories is available to download on 8th February 2015 for UK readers here, for readers across the pond here and for all peoples here.

Enjoy!

p.s. Thank you Mr Croxall for letting me read and review Six Short Stories.

 

 

Piano From a 4th Storey Window by Jenny Morton Potts

Right, everybody. Cease what you are doing immediately. Buy this book. Read it. This is a direct order. ‘Piano from a 4th Storey Window’ is stupendously brilliant. You need it in your life. And here’s for why.

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Lawrence Fyre and Marin Strang aren’t like other people.

He is the eccentric owner of failing Sargosso Books in the Brighton Lanes. She is an ex-Jehovah’s Witness and isolated Spanish teacher. If they live together in his illegal, beautiful, rope laddered lock-up, can their love overcome their losses?

Original, sexy, very funny and deeply moving. An author in complete control of a number of unforgettable characters and emotional highs and lows. Jenny Morton Potts leaves the reader breathless, and wanting more

The central characters, theme and plot are centred on relationships. Specifically, the relationship between Marin and Lawrence. We see the cross section of the whole thing from beginning to end and beyond. Marin is immediately intriguing in the opening pages. It is clear she has a past that even she is unsure what to make of. Throughout the book, Marin grows as she discovers the answers to some necessary questions. Meanwhile Lawrence is a relentlessly optimistic constant despite some rough patches along the way.  Together, they are perfection. Until they are not.

Much of the story deals with what it means to conform in today’s society. Jenny asks questions that I think we must all wonder about from time to time; is it ok to abandon one’s family religion if it means getting them in trouble? Is it ok to be friends with an ex? Is it ok to be friends with your partner’s ex? Is it ok to live in a lock up on an industrial estate without heating? (I think this is a standard no. By law). Is it ok to go for a very long jog on Christmas Day while the turkey goes cold (ABSOLUTELY NEVER).

Ms Morton Potts has such a beautiful way of neatly placing her characters into the world. The story is based mostly in Brighton and a little bit in the Orkney Islands. Then something happens about halfway through and the paradigm shifts so that while most of the story is still in Brighton, a large part of your consciousness is still floating around in upper Scotland. The two places couldn’t be more different and so perfectly complimentary of each other. So it is with Marin and Lawrence. If only they would realise this sooner!

What makes this book stand out for me is the obvious amount of research that has gone into it. There are quotes galore from all sorts of people and books. If you are a Jean Rhys and/ or Diana Athill fan, I guarantee that you will adore this book.

I really don’t want to say too much more. So much of the magic of this book comes from the little surprises that spring up from page to page.

I love reading and reviewing books by new authors. There are no expectations. To paraphrase Mrs Gump, reviewing new books is like a box of chocolates; you never know whatcha gunna get. I love it even more when a new author approaches me with a book she knows I’ll love. Jenny Morton Potts is one such author. I now bequeath her book to you dear readers, because I know you’ll love it too. I’m going to use a chocolate analogy now (mmm). Like the much coveted hazelnut whirl off of a Cadbury’s Roses box, ‘Piano From a 4th Storey Window’ will melt you inside and make you see that there is so much joy in the world. But! Out of the blue, you will bite down on a crunchy bit that you knew was there but had forgotten about, which will cause a little pain and make you want to cry. Anybody else experience these extreme emotions when rummaging around a box of chocolates? No? Just me?

You can (and should) purchase Jenny Morton Potts brilliant book here and here.

Let me know what you think. Enjoy!

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P.s. It is generally safe to read this book in public but I would recommend avoiding people in all quantities circa page 231. You will be a mess and you shouldn’t inflict yourself on anyone in this state. You. Are. Welcome.

P.p.s Thank you Jenny for sending me a paperback copy of your beautiful book for to read and review. Love it. More like this please!

Shadow and Shade by Matt Gerrard

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Matt Gerrard is a blogger from Boston. On his blog, The Daily 400, Matt sets himself the impressive challenge to write 400 words every day. His first novel, ‘Shadow and Shade’ is a heady mix of fantasy, sci-fi, romance, wolves and mayhem with a few slitherings of the real world about it.

Here’s what you need to know about ‘Shadow and Shade’ (taken from The Daily 400):

Logan doesn’t just hunt with wolves. He talks with them. He can also see in the dark, heal, and feel the emotions of the forest itself. If only dating were so easy.

Marissa, the missionary’s stepdaughter, captivates him with her fiery spirit. Logan’s taste for trouble and strange ways fascinate her. Marissa’s stepfather fears that Logan will drag her into darkness with his heathen ways. Logan’s mother is outraged because she thinks Logan is abandoning the blood of their people.

Angry words turn to vengeful deeds. Logan and Marissa become ensnared in a web of bitterness that was spun hundreds of years before they were born. Blood demands blood, and it refuses to be denied.

The book is described as a fantasy novel with supernatural themes and otherworldly experiences. I found this to be accurate but it sometimes got a little bogged down with belief systems of the real world, particularly with reference to organised religion and the prejudices that it emanates into a community that doesn’t follow its rules. There are some very big themes in this book; religion, belief, love, being caught in a witch hunt (literally) and family all wrapped up in the workings of a community.

I enjoy the themes within the book; Gerrard talks about some important issues within his fantasy novel, but for me, this is eclipsed a little by the presentation.   This is definitely a YA book. Regular readers (hello to you) will know that I’m not a huge fan of this genre. To me, the simplicity of the language used can come across a little patronising. Events are often over-explained, leaving little for the reader to discern for themselves. I think particularly in ‘Shadow and Shade’ some of the themes are a little laboured. For example Marissa’s choice of living arrangements or Jon’s control issues. But then other more serious areas involving life and death (I won’t drop a spoiler) seem to be lightly skimmed over. This is not a personal attack on Gerrard’s writing, it’s just my opinion on the genre. Although I do think there is an over-use of the word ‘lad’ here. Also, it read more like a screenplay to me than a novel. There is too much dialogue, peppered with stage directions rather than prose. But don’t take my word for it, give it a read and see what you think.

If you enjoy your fantasy hero caked in mud and always ready for a fight, then ‘Shadow and Shade’ is for you. Its a good story, with a bitter sweet ending that resonates with real life.

Thank you to Matt Gerrard for sending me a copy of his book straight to my kindle. ‘Shadow and Shade’ is now available for you lovely readers to snap up here. Enjoy.

“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

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“The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt won the Pulitzer Prize in 2014. In need of some direction for my next read, I turned to the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction 2014 which is where I found it short-listed. Along with some others from the short-list, I ordered “The Goldfinch”. Eventually I picked it up, which after dabbling in kindle reading was quite a shock to my weakened arm muscles (its really big. 864 pages big).

I had no idea what it was about. Baileys told me it was good so I bought it. Before delving in, I gave the dust jacket a cursory glance to prepare my brain for what was to come. This is what I read:

“Aged thirteen, Theo Decker, son of a devoted mother and an absent father, miraculously survives a catastrophe that otherwise tears his life apart. Alone and rudderless in New York, he is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Theo is tormented by longing for his mother and down the years he clings to the thing that most reminds him of her: a small, captivating painting that ultimately draws him into the criminal underworld.”

If I had read this in the mellow light of a bookshop, I most likely would have put it down as it doesn’t sound like my usual cup of coffee (black no sugar in case anyone’s taking notes). But I had it so I read it anyway.

Since finishing the book, I’ve had a look at some reviews and am surprised by the polarity of opinions about it. Vanity Fair give far too much of the story away before giving Tartt some backhanded compliments, followed by some outright insults. The Sunday Times is also fairly mean. The Guardian is much more upbeat about the whole thing. I’m not going to tell you what happens. Tartt does that very well all on her own. I do want to talk about her characters, her voice and some themes that I took away from the book.

I’ll start with our tragically naive protagonist, Theo Decker. What a guy. Its been 11 years since her last book so I imagine that Theo Decker has been with Tartt for some time. In a 800+ page book with a single narrator, I don’t doubt that he’ll be sticking around a little longer. We meet Theo in his 20s before hurtling back in time to 13 year old Theo.  Because of what happens, the novel deals a lot with “what ifs”. When looking through Theo’s eyes, its hard not to constantly ask this question regarding him as a person. In some ways, when comparing 20 something Theo to his younger self, despite everything that he’s been through, he’s still exactly the same naive little boy. Its almost as if his personal growth was stunted that day in New York.

The relationship between Theo and Boris is essentially harnessed in “bad” things. Drugs, truanting, theft etc. Many more “what if” questions arise around this friendship. Boris is the antithesis of Theo and exactly what the book needed, if not Theo himself, who arguably would have done very well without Boris. In a much different way. If Theo is stunted and naive, Boris is worldly wise and fearless. Boris is also quite fun to read with his myriad of accents from his wandering childhood.

There are many other characters of course, which don’t take up too much airtime but nevertheless perform prominent and pivotal roles within the plot. Most of these characters are physically absent throughout the narrative, being abroad, away at school or dead. But Theo still carries them with him. The most striking example of this is on page 783 (I’m now going to tell you something that happens in the book even though I said I wouldn’t do that) when Theo is holed up in an Amsterdam hotel room. He is in trouble. He’s done some terrible things. He’s full of fever and other questionable substances. He’s alone and doesn’t know what to do. He flicks through the channels on the TV and this happens:

“I stopped astonished at the sight of my twenty-five-year-old father: one of his many non-speaking roles, a yes-man hovering behind a political candidate at a press conference, nodding at the guy’s campaign promises and for one eerie blink glancing into the camera and straight across the ocean and into the future, at me. The multiple ironies of this were so layered and uncanny that I gaped in horror.”

There are many more examples of weird coincidences throughout the novel. Not only that but it is so visual, that all along I kept saying how great this story would be for a film and/or TV show. And now The Hollywood Reporter tells us that it’s happening!! Very exciting! I feel I should get some kind of cut. No?

The main lesson that I took from “The Goldfinch” is that good can come from bad. Its so simple and yet so powerful. You might argue that it was unnecessary for Tartt to pre-empt this pearl of wisdom with 835 pages, but I would disagree. Theo’s realisation at this point throws a whole new light on all that has passed. It ultimately allows him to feel acceptance and move forward philosophically rather than look back in anger (I heard you say…little Oasis kicker for you there). While reading the closing pages, it is difficult to decipher Theo’s voice from Tartt’s. It is clearly Theo speaking, but what he says is clearly very important to Tartt, or she would not have devoted a whole novel to illustrating the points that she lays out here.

I don’t say this about many characters, but since I’ve finished “The Goldfinch”, I miss Theo. I’m used to his voice and his tone. But because I am a 100% certified bookaholic and must therefore be holding and/ or be near a book 24/7, I confess that the “The Goldfinch” was still warm when I reached for the next one. Oh the shame. While this is good for my book addiction, it does not allow me to forget Theo. This morning I found myself reading “Lolita” in Theo’s voice, which is all sorts of wrong. But that is testament to Tartt’s creation.

Tartt has created a masterpiece not unlike its namesake painting. In it she champions the importance of the Arts. This is seen in the dangerous lengths that her characters go to, to protect Art as well as portraying the black hole that it leaves once its gone.

There are so many other things I could say about this book but the wordcount is bordering on silly and you probably have a life to be getting on with, so I’ll leave it with this: yes, its big and bulky and yes, it is mostly very deeply sad, but a good book is worth sticking with. There will be moments when you think, “C’mon Tartt! Lighten up!”, but then, 800 pages later, you’ll read a line. And that line will put it all into perspective. A light bulb will flicker on above your head and you will feel so very wise. I can’t tell you which line that will be because it will most likely be different to the one I picked out.

And then, when you’ve read that big book all by yourself, you can treat yourself with some sort of delicious cake. There you go. Cake. You deserve it.