‘Tuesday Nights in 1980’ by Molly Prentiss or open your eyes if you want your life to have art!

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Prepare for all of your senses to sing, thanks to this kaleidoscopic journey through the NY art scene…

I first came across mention of ‘Tuesday Nights in 1980’ on good old Instagram, where a thriving bookish community shares images and thoughts about books under hashtags such as #bookstagram and #instabooks. Curiosity piqued (as you should be if you like to hear of new titles to read), I searched for a copy and decided it was the sort of intriguing title that I would surely enjoy. However, I don’t seem to be seeing it and hearing about it widely, on either social media or in bookshops-online or real life. Hopefully this is not going to be a ‘quiet’title, as it really is deserving of a read- it certainly does not seem to be pulling the attention of other recent/ upcoming releases such as Jessie Burton’s ‘The Muse’ or even ‘Everyone Brave is Forgiven’ by Chris Cleave. I hope to readdress this by sharing my love for this clever story and sharing my views with you all (in the hope it will encourage some of you to read it).

Within the pages of ‘Tuesday Nights in 1980’, Molly Prentiss has achieved something quite extraordinary. Not only does she vividly paint the lives of her central protagonists and their supporting characters in some kind of glorious technicolour (largely in thanks to the merging senses of James the synasthesic Art- Critic) but she also somehow manages to cleverly structure this novel as some great homage to art, by relating it to art theorems and approaches at every stage. While I accept that enjoyment of this novel, will as ever be about the viewpoint from which you read it from (which is of course informed by who you are and the experiences you bring to the text) I am certain that at the very least you will enjoy the very different points of views and very differing characters she highlights, as she deliver and converges their very human stories. I was certainly left pondering the relationship between life and art- how they inform and reflect one another (which is certainly part of the overall message this story delivers).

Perspective aside, this is also a story full of heart. It is full of mistakes and some very human imperfections. As a reader, you cannot help but be reminded that the best of art draws from the raw feelings that arise from painful experience. Here we get a close ups of how art is created or realised, how it is inspired and how it is appreciated: they are not exclusive concepts and they do overlap (just like the lives of the characters that represent these ideas). We are painfully reminded that while the art we may enjoy remains largely static, the lives that surround them are constantly evolving for better or worse . I think it was this that resonated the most with me- we bring our experiences thus far to what we can see, hear, sense and feel. Art can elevate and inspire- it can lift desolation and despondency, but yet still that life is also art in motion.

While all of this clever structural interplay could be irritating and cliched (framing the story with the story of Raul’s sister- ultimate creator as mother at one end and the other containing the unifying and healing power of her son being one clear example) somehow all of the elements draw together and this approach acts like a giant canvas on which all of their stories combine to create a work of beauty. Prentiss really understand human motivations and carefully considers how certain characters are motivated and respond. She sensitively explores how people hurt themselves and those they care for, allowing us to appreciate characters that are flawed and imperfect, without completely despising them. Ultimately redemptive, you hope that their attempts to learn from their mistakes and to try and adapt/ make changes to difficult circumstances (even if they arise from their inability to see clearly) are successful.

Throughout all of this, the New York art scene arises like a beautiful sunset. It becomes a character all of its own: somewhere you wish you could occupy and certainly somewhere you enjoy escaping to thanks to the energy expressed through the pages of this book. Love and pain entwine with creativity and expression. Truth remains everything, even at great cost (and with the explicit reminder that the value of art remains not what it costs but what it offers). The overriding feeling left, once the book ends is that there is always hope and this is what all great art should offer us. In these terms this story is a great success, I just hope it reaches as many people as possible. It deserves to be noisy!

‘Beyond Black’ by Hilary Mantel or are we all mediums?Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Since joining in with the online book community (via WordPress, Pinterest, Twitter and Instagram) a whole new world of bookish inspiration has opened up to me. Not only do my feeds draw my attention to a much wider pool of potential reads than my previous haphazard methods allowed (because stumbling upon a title or hearing about it from someone you know only takes you so far) but they also introduce genius new ideas about how to share your bookish love. I am enjoying #tuvalusbookschallenge on Instagram because of the interesting places it takes me in my own reading repertoire (and of others) thus forging new bookish connection on lots of levels. I have been inspired by @georgia_bowers, @Cyn_Murphy and @ChelleyToy on Twitter to revisit my own teen reading, namely Christopher Pike, due to their enthusiasm and exploration of the Point Horror series (such an interesting prompt due to the reflection it provokes about how we and our taste/ understanding of books evolve throughout our lives). Yet it is my latest WordPress discovery that has completely fired me up, via two of the blogs I follow: Alifeinbooks and From First Page to Last.

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If your eyes are open, you may be surprised at what you see. Selective occlusion benefits no one.

Here a movement seems to be forming based around the notion that certain novels are ‘quiet’ and that for whatever reason escape wider readership. Maybe due to less airspace or share of their publishers’ limited marketing budgets and maybe because they then haven’t been noticed by readers much like myself, that have bumbled around in a haphazard manner inefficiently discovering books I may like to read (check out the brilliant ‘Under the Reader’s Radar- celebrating the quiet novel’or ‘Blasts from the Past:So Many Ways to Begin by Jon McGregor’ on these respective blogs for my precise inspiration). Either way, what an interesting idea. I for one am all in. Sharing books/writers of note from our shelves is something I will totally be endorsing.

Which brings us nicely to ‘Beyond Black’ by Hilary Mantel. While ‘Wolf Hall’ gets all the Booker praise, it is this Mantel tome that I nervously hold a candle up for (it is ‘Beyond Black’ after all). To me it overshadows its more favoured brother, in more ways than one. It exists in the dark, murky hinterlands of both our society and our consciousnesses. It remind us that we ignore much of what goes on around us- whether of the horrors lurking in grey, urban anonymous spaces or in the reasons behind people’s behaviour that we choose not to consider. It challenges us not to retreat into our own warm, santised havens and to instead be brave and look at such peripheral, uncomfortable matters more closely so that we may understand and then confront our fears for the benefit of all. This novel is acutely aware of all of the hidden layers that exist all around us that intersect our interactions. Masks come out. Personas are delivered. What we see is sometimes only very limited and certainly not the full picture. While I understand that this is perhaps necessary- connecting with such ‘blackness’ all the time would be exhausting, it is precisely because Hilary Mantel chooses to lift up this veil and direct us readers into such a world, and then engage wth such thought processes that I admire this work so ardently. We do all need to open our eyes, even if it is only to allow us more direct access to our humanity: to become more compassionate and understanding when we are confronted with something uncomfortable or ugly.

The vessel through which  Mantel chooses to disseminate these important ideas, is the thing that lifts this novel from merely preaching (which would switch anyone off) to engaged contemplation. It also showcases just how versatile and skilled she is as a writer. While there is much to appreciate in terms of literary ability- both in the prose and the characterisation- it is the plot execution that I admire the most. She  not only understands the perfect way to explore these personal and societal darkness eps (as demonstrated in the story concept- Alison Hart, shady medium, is plagued by ghosts from her past and the other side) but she also knows how to tightly order events in order to maximise the stories’ effect on us as readers. If she didn’t the novel would remain a blackly comic exploration of mediumship and the big-business world of making contact with departed loved ones for comfort, which in itself would be enough to enjoy this book! Sending up the likes of Derek Acorah, camp- pantomime ‘medium’ from the shambolic ‘Most Haunted’ (emphasis on sham) is genius, it tempers some of the darkness making it much easier to stomach. Relenting darkness is too much for most palettes. Like Shakespeare, Mantel clearly grasps this fact- if you want your audience to ruminate on difficult questions, some added humour is an effective lubricant. Having a flawed central characte fulfil this role just adds to the complexity of this novel- mirroring the complexity of thought required to consider the uncomfortable issues it seeks to address.

While I thoroughly enjoyed ‘Beyond Black’ it must be acknowledged that it is equally horrifying and scary. Any comfort drawn from thinking the dead or unknown cannot harm you, is soon blown out of the water. That there is no rest or comfort to be found anywhere is both bleak and necessary- for some place offer none and certain people cannot obtain any from the ghosts that haunt them (real or imaginary). Yet the really inspiring aspect of this novel is that Alison does begin to attempt to tackle hers- offering hope to us all. Perhaps we can all get a lid on the things that haunt us?  Perhaps we can find a comfortable place where we can at least fight the lid down on our internal monsters and get some peace. Even if we are all medium-not noticed, too mundane, not bright and sparkly and perfect enough to grab attention.

I urge you to grab this ‘blast from the past’, ‘this quiet novel’ and make its voice loud. Hilary Mantel is now a much deserved literary giant- she may well be on peoples’ radar- but I suspect it is ‘Wolf Hall’ that people reach for. Reach for this rich psychological exploration instead and learn something meaningful about the way we and our society avoid the difficulty and uncomfortable aspects it contains. Be brave! Slay your own Maurice.

‘The Seed Collectors’ by Scarlett Thomas or be careful where you plant things

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Are we all just propagation?  Or is there some higher meaning that eludes us on our journeys through life?

Scarlett Thomas, I salute you! I salute your mastery of our lexicon. I salute your dedication to the research process. I salute the big questions your books always ask. I salute your evolving and exploratory approach to your writing. I salute your storytelling skills! If writing stories was my talent, I would be learning from the best at the University of Kent.

Thankfully, you are writing the sort of stories I long to read. Ever since being mesmerised by ‘The End of Mr Y’, I have been savouring your works and recommending them to everyone and anyone: including my Mother. How often, as an adult, do you read a book in which your imagination is so ignited that you actually feel it with all of your senses? The pages literally fizzed and the edges faded into a brown, circular vortex- transporting me (via some sort of literary black- hole akin to the tunnel Alice enters wonderland via) to the troposphere. It is a rare and accomplished masterpiece. ‘Pop Co’ asked big questions about the way our consumerist, capitalist monstrosity of a society operates without losing an inch of the narrative pace it’s gripping plot presented. The non-story approach of ‘Our Tragic Universe’ delighted me in its delivery and in the way it framed questions about the meaning our lives hold: is everything meaningless in the end? While all of these books are unique, they share a sense of mystery and intrigue, an ability to expose us to new concepts and philosophies that challenge us as readers and leave us ruminating for a long time afterwards: they all delight. You always have something valid to say and you say it well.

While ‘The Seed Collectors’ is of course different to your preceding works (as of course it would be) it does not disappoint. It’s narrative flow reminded me a little of Woolf and her ‘stream of consciousness’ approach, something that really frees the writing up and allows you to deliver your meaning more effortlessly. Your study of ethnobotany infuses your writing on many levels. I am in awe of the many unusual and unexpected characteristics that plants manifest, in their battle to survive and how their deployment mirrors the human need to survive or perfect themselves as writ large in the vanishing nature of your generational protagonists. You do not shy away from exploring primal or base desires in your characters, despite the fact this may repel the audience- yet when you consider this more deeply, it mirrors the need we have to reproduce and propagate, which plants do unashamedly. Is the walking palm really so different to Charlie Gardner? Both are adapting to the challenges that are thrown their way.

Yet where plants are purely primal, the boundary that is created in contrast to human motivation is where the greatest opportunity for rumination occurs. In stages, the novel explores the secrets that all the characters hold: the private drives and insecurities that they manifest in their own destructive ways, instead allow us to transcend our human existence and consider even bigger questions relating to spirituality and enlightenment. This is tightly mirrored in the mystery surrounding the disappearance of the parents of the main protagonists and their quest for a pod of magical propensities.

This exploration of enlightenment blew my mind all the more, in light of the synchronicity it threw upon my own current experiences. A friend recently felt compelled to purchase us both a book, despite it creeping her out for reasons unfathomable: ‘The Autobiography of a Yogi’. She felt it was something to do with my deceased Gramphs- made all the more uncanny by the fact it was a book I had been thinking about, of his that I had perused many years before, one that felt like it spoke with some omnipresent voice in its exploration of enlightenment and had forgotten even what it was called.To my furtive imagination, this book feels like a gift from the other side: a focus from the most enlightened person I have ever encountered. I can imagine my yoga loving, Transendental Meditational Gramphs whispering ‘read this girl, it will put you on the right path’. Imagine the resonance then, of being stuck at the point of Yoganada’s work that states that life is an illusion (a maya), a prison of your own making that you must see beyond in order to reach enlightenment and immortality (not being distracted by the material world) when reading ‘The Seed Collectors’. Perhaps these books are my own mysterious pod, indeed missing manuscript and the key to my own enlightenment!

Perhaps I do have a story in me after all… An imperfect girl finding her way in an imperfect world, just like the Gardners. Namaste