‘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!

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‘Hex’ by Thomas Olde Heuvelt or curses are just a matter of perspective…

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After provoking her so, I had to find some way to contain her!

After so thoroughly enjoying ‘My Best Friends Exorcism’, I didn’t think it possible that any other recent entrant into the horror canon could possibly measure up. Admittedly, I am a hard customer to please. The ability of such books to scare, has been somewhat blunted by persistent exposure. That withstanding the excellence of MBFE, I thought, would completely overshadow any competitors. Little did I know that it would be me that would be overshadowed. By dark and menacing images. And unsettling thoughts. The kind that stop you sleeping….

If, like me, you frequent Twitter and Instagram to connect with fellow bookworms then ‘Hex’ will already have been planted in your subconscious mind. Thanks to some very clever marketing (hands up who doesn’t wish they had been graced with the proof copy, resplendent with needle and thread) and a savvy author that knows how to connect with his audience, this book will have been on the literary radar of many, for quite some time. I admit that this hype swept me along and I also admit wondering whether said hype would result in disappointment (as sometimes it does). Luckily, ‘Hex’: exceeds all expectation and supplants itself ominently in the minds eye of sacrificial readers, like myself.

Hex begins innocently enough. Our sympathies fully aligned with the teens of Black Spring ( once we untwist our minds from the confusing introductory paragraphs that force us to reread and resettle our understanding over). In an act of great mental distortion, the Black Spring Witch is introduced as a character being run over by an antique Dutch barrel organ. While this disturbing image assaults us, we are forced to confront illusion and question what reality is right from the outset. I should have paid more attention, as important clues were there to see, right from the first page. Instead my confusion barrelled me forward from this sensory assault, aligning me with the emerging distrust of the youth- despite it manifesting as an ugly outpouring via their secretive (and ironic) OPEN YOUR EYES social media project.
The story continues, riddled with injustices and sadness. Probing actions and consequences. All the while our fears are heightened and exploited. Imagine being confined to life in Black Spring forever more (horror). Imagine a decaying, malevolent, eyes stitched shut, resurrected witch appearing and hovering at will wherever she feels like. Even the thought of that, in the corner of your bedroom, is enough terror for anyone to endure. No dishcloth can cover that indelible stain! Not knowing what she is thinking, or planning, or muttering is unbearable. No wonder Tyler and his merry band of mischief makers wish to provoke and explore the restrictive boundaries she holds over their lives..

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There is no escape from the opening of her eyes…

Yet, at what cost? For one Owls and Peacocks are now infused with malevolence. Woods are not serene and peaceful. Books can contain untold menace. The Internet, cameras and social media are poor imitators of order and control. Some things are beyond control. We are not safe. Our behaviours have untold consequences. Especially when we do no consider the motivations or influences of others.

Don’t read this book, take up sewing instead!

I have said too much.

Rest forever disturbed, it is my duty to pass this curse on to you: I hope you are ready for the malign influences of Katherine van Wyler….

‘My Best Friend’s Exorcism’ by Grady Hendrix or a bad trip you want to turn around from?

Before I start writing this blog post, I just have to release the urge to burst into song.. ūüé§ ‘I wanna dance with someboooody’ūüé∂. Yes, I have been possessed by Grady Hendrixs’ writing. It is the only thing that can explain exactly why I would feel like busting out cheesy 80s songs, of the likes of Whitney Houston (sorry Whitney fans, but it makes me cringe). Nonetheless, my memory has been ignited and the sounds of my youth are now everywhere! And thank goodness it is, because something is needed to offset the abject terror that this natty new novel pulls off. How many times do you read a novel that makes you feel warm and fuzzy, whilst also scaring the bejeezus out of you?

This book has been on my radar for quite some time. The premise sounded like just my kind of read- spooky, quirky and a little bit unusual. Heathers crossed with The Exorcist (whatever, Heather). Needless to say, I have been waiting patiently for release date. Imagine my delight, then, when the lovely @cyn_murphy of Twitter and Point Horror appreciation fame pointed me in the direction of an ARC (advanced reader copy). Our shared love of teen horror could only lead to one logical conclusion, in this current nostalgic climate towards such things : a shared read-along! Like a mini-book club via the Internet we simultaneously tweeted our fear and joy as we worked through its glittering pages. What a delight it was to know that someone else was also feeling the same way I was about this brilliant book! Grady Hendrix even tagged along with a few choice comments (book God, that he has now become). I hope he realises what gold he has produced and continues to create, in the same vein. Can I get an ‘I ‚̧ԳŹ Grady Hendrix’ badge please..

While it is difficult to pin down exactly what it is that makes this book so magical, with its unusual blend of ingredients (without spoiling the plot), what is apparent is that Hendrix must be a very insightful writer to draw such unexpected elements together and to make them sing. By his own admission, he used his wife’s letters, in order to understand more closely the precise nature of teenage female friendship and perhaps this is what speaks the most to me when I read it. The intensity. The love. The fallings out. All the pent up angst. Heightened sensitivity and emotion. The struggle to find yourself and your place in the world. It all translates to the experience, bourne forth and lightly worn throughout the narrative. It feels genuine and this marks the skill of a great writer: he stands in someone else’s shoes and makes us believe what they see and experience. I take my lace- gloves off to him.

One thing I will say is this, Grady Hendrix has pulled off an endearingly ambiguous read, full of latent hormones and repressed emotions. He knows how to alternate abject fear with laugh out loud moments- enhancing both for the better. I wanted to hide under my duvet at pivotal moments, shake my fist with rage and rub my mascara- streaked face clean and crimp my hair, sneak out of my house for a nighttime adventure in my local woods (not really) and wonder what had happened in the morning. He has made the 80s cool again and banished all of the negative associations our youths hold, by showing us the great bits and the things we have built from these times (thinking of my own enduring friendships, with people that have grown with me). Perms are no longer the living embodiment of hell! However, you will never be able to listen ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ by Tiffany again, may want to ditch your phone and here more will NEVER want to speak to anyone called Andy ever again.

By the power of Genesis!

‘Frenchman’s Creek’ by Daphne Du Maurier or get me out of here I’m sick of domesticity…

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Freedom and escape are not all they promise?

Following on with the notion of making quiet books ‘noisy’, I thought I would turn my attention to my favourite Du Maurier work, who is in some ways a ‘quiet writer’, in that she was seen as a popular writer (which kind of detracts from her talent). Popular is often synonymous with generic, lightweight writing- as if voraciously writing a mass of work somehow diminishes your writing ability. It is a shame we cannot disassociate these concepts, in the public domain, as sometimes there is a reason a piece of writing is popular. Books have merit in their pages no matter if the writer is a heavyweight, writes quickly and frequently or is relatively unheard of. In any case, I think the idea behind ‘quiet books’ is that for whatever reason they are not currently topical, or perhaps did not receive wider acclaim or readership when published or are just not current titles. Promoting such books is about ensuring such books are read/heard and enriching the recommendations we all have at our disposal. It is about sharing books we have loved from our past reading repertoires. For this reason and because it is Daphne Du Maurier’s birthday, I thought it would be fitting to turn to the slightly overshadowed ‘Frenchman’s Creek’, because ‘Rebecca’ gets all the press ¬†and accolade (I do love this title too).

While it is several years since I read this novel, it is fitting that I read it whilst pregnant- at a time when domesticity felt oppressive. While many women embrace pregnancy, I found it challenging. Mobility was restricted, blood pressure was up. Bed rest was necessary, yet impossible with the demands of school run and a young child to take care of. Everything felt difficult and restrictive. My solace came, as it often does, in the written form. Reading was my escape. Imagine the synchronicity of discovering the world of Dona St Columb- who although not pregnant seemed to mirror my dismay and dare I say it offer a cathartic escape from the drudgery of my daily life. Through Dona my fantasies could be realised vicariously! Who wouldn’t rather be escaping with a handsome and dangerous pirate, than cooking bland dinners and sticking to a religious regimen. There is not much room for spontaneity when you are laid up after a 10 minute walk, in agony.

While the daily monotony, waiting for the pregnancy to end and life to get easier again was stifling -‘Frenchman’s Creek’ offered an altogether more alluring and exciting domain. The landscape was rich and inviting- the elements combining to conjure some magical haven (much like the healing waters of ¬†‘A Year of Marvellous Ways’) where the senses are envigorated and problems washed away. I wished I had a Cornish retreat to escape my own drudgery from, like Dona, who escapes her boring husband by holidaying at the family pile Navron, far from the Restoration Court she must endure in her daily life. Oh to shake those shackles off, like Dona. Yet while we felt restricted for different reasons (she for having to put a societal mask on and not be able to show her true feelings, or relax and be her own person, not what was expected of her due to her societal standing- me for health reasons) the release I felt at immersing in her own stand against her pressures was immensely healing for me. It allowed me to release some of my fear and to gain some perspective.

Jean Aubrey, dashing pirate that he is, becomes a symbol of abandon, a ‘life of continual escape’. In some ways his danger heightens the excitement felt at the potential for escape (although I am not so sure about the kidnapping part). The overwhelming desire for adventure somehow outweighs many glaring inadequacies, in the part of her ‘saviour’. Calling his behaviour colourful, would be polite to say the least. Yet the malaise released via Du Maurier’s writing is easily forgotten as we enjoy Dona’s freedom when she ventures out to sea. Restrictions are lifted and mirrored in its vast expanse, and that of the pirate lover. Their solitude equals abandon- the shedding of responsibility without reprisal or judgement. The space to be yourself and be free of duty. I suspect this need speaks to every one of us at some time, or for some reason or another. Why do any of us read, after all, but to escape to other lives and see other worlds? I suspect it also explains why so many of us are drawn towards the idea of a swashbuckling pirate (the original bad-boys).

Yet no escape is forever, and it is this reality that ‘Frenchman’s Creek’ eventually embraces. We do have responsibilities as adults. Difficult times do end (as did my pregnancy). The clear message, to me anyway, was that you have to find ways to honour your own spirit and wishes within the structures you have encased yourself in, in the life you have built. Duty should not mean you lose yourself. Find a balance, as Dona does by choosing to end her adventure as clearly as the coming day showed them that it ‘had a whiteness and cold clarity about it they had never known before’ , but not to return to the restriction of Court as before. So remember your adventures. Envelope them in rich mental pictures, that soak up their surroundings and engage all the senses like Du Maurier’s prose does. Cherish them as each story ends and find a way of your own to honour them safely, in the life you have chosen. Like Dona, your frustration may be misdirected and easily eased if you tackle the right issues.

‘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.

‘Dark Matter’ by Michelle Paver or avoid isolated cabins if you know what is good for you…

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Icier climes have always held me in their magnetic sway. Whether this is because the thought of being wrapped up in thick woolly jumpers and multitudinous layers, to repeal the biting cold, makes me feel reassured that I will soon be safe and warming when I return indoors. Or whether it is because the thought of them evokes the idea of magnificent beauty with all the ice, clear skies and dancing light shows they offer, thanks to the Northern Lights. Or indeed whether Narnia, Frankenstein, Captain Scott and the sinking of the Titanic have all impressed their magic in my minds eye… One thing is certain. The reading of any book that promises to evoke such a setting will immediately take preference when it comes to selecting titles that I would like to read (just ask my groaning TBR pile).

‘Dark Matter’ clearly offers such a setting. It also offers up a ghost story. If you know anything about me by now, then you know I am a sucker for a such works! As I am sure any reader will attest though, sometimes great premises do not always live up to the hype. Not so with this tome. It delivers with a strange, pared-back abundance of brilliance. Much like Susan Hill, Michelle Paver knows how to craft a gripping ghost story. It wears its mastery lightly, building its tension slowly in a measured fashion that allows your fear to ratchet to unbearable heights without any obvious awareness of how this is achieved. It is genuinely chilling. My senses were heightened and I was transported to the overwhelming isolation that the location, emotional state of the central protagonist and the solitude that the circumstances of the plot afforded. It also factored in just the right amount of ambiguity necessary, for the eventual denouement of this sorry tale.

Otherness was key to this story, on many levels. Societally. Individually. Alien landscapes. They all added to the unraveling of this unsettling story (of the deliberate sort- as this is what Michelle Paver clearly intends so that we truly feel the fear of the central character). What was surprising to me, was the detail with which she explores the reality of living in Artic Lands as we confront our fears, through the eyes of Jack Miller. While our imaginations conjure giant icebergs, crisp sub-zero temperatures and eternal winter, what we don’t allow for are the massive swings between hours of daylight or darkness that also occur. How distressing must it be to be plunged into either mostly daylight or mostly darkness (emphasis on the latter). This must surely add to any escalating departure from sanity, merely from the difference of experience that it offers someone used to less extreme daily oscillations of light. The acute, accompanying isolation that adjoins this sensory- depravation must be every but as horrific as Paver conveys. I have chills just thinking about it.

While this icy fear is all consuming, and a barometer of great success, in terms of the effect that a well executed ghost story will muster, we must also give pause to the structural mastery used to mirror it’s very tight plotting. I found the use of a journal, as a means of delivering this story with further incremented fear, to be an astute addition. Not only did it frame the fear, by allowing us to access Jack’s vulnerability and unease but it also was a nod to that other Artic horror, ‘Frankenstein’. This subtle association adds another layer of meaning to our understanding of ‘Dark Matter’ as it links the desperate, lonely, hopelessness conveyed by Mary Shelly in her work in a subliminal way. It also reminded me of Sarah Moss’ ‘Cold Earth’ (which is Scandi-crime before it was ever a popular cultural theme) and it’s equally barren and relentless plot/landscape. All this hopelessness is foreshadowed, and I think exploited by Paver to great effect while we edge toward the climax of this gripping ghostly tale. My only caveat is this: think very carefully about where you read this story, as it will transport you. Make sure you have something warm and comforting to hand, to reacclimatise you once you have finished- or your own sleepless nights will follow…..

You have been warned

‘Spellbound’ by Christopher Pike or what we really need to do is go back, way back!

InstagramCapture_70a4f4cf-d0ee-4991-8263-7cc0ec4cbd3aNostalgia seems to be everywhere. Goosebumps has made a resurgence. Lego Dimensions has made franchises such as Back to the Future super-cool once more. Even Ghostbusters has a big re-boot out this summer. If all of this favour towards the best elements of our ‘retro’ pasts wasn’t enough- imagine my delight when I stumbled across a resurgence of ‘Point Horror’ on Twitter!!! ¬†Man, too much excitement. As if by magic, I discovered that other tweeters/bloggers such as @georgia_bowers and @Cyn_Murphy ¬†shared my love for Point Horror and even Christopher Pike (the next logical step if, like me, it is all about The Lost Boys, Critters and Stephen King). Cyn had even written the brilliant¬†Point Horror in 10 Steps¬†(click through to acquaint yourself with this lost art form). To top this off, if this¬†surge of nostalgia towards such teen- horror fodder weren’t enough, my clearly intuitive fellow book-blogger @chelletoy from Twitter and ¬†Tales Of Yesterday¬†ran a monthly ‘Point Horror’ book club!

Nostalgia had officially hit my awkward teenage self square-on. The angst. The rebellion. The awkwardness. I’m such a relic that we didn’t have iPhones or laptops or DVDs to occupy our time, or blind us with alternatives to the daily hells I am sure we were all living through. No Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. We had Smash Hits and a couple of cheesy TV shows on terrestrial TV (BBC, ITV and Channel 4). If you were lucky (or your parents didn’t keep that close an eye) you could sneak a watch of Twin Peaks- or pretend you were 18 and sneak into the cinema to watch Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Such pleasures were few and far between- and really there was one main way we could escape the real horrors of our daily lives: CHRISTOPHER PIKE.

To my teenaged-self, Christopher Pike was godlike. His stories offered central protagonists that were cool, but slightly set back from the off putting in-crowd. They were rocking their own beat and not occupied with whether they had the right amount of orange foundation on or whether they had applied enough Sun-In. Hallelulia! Beam me up Scotty. Was I the only one who didn’t want to cough myself into oblivion by smoking at the top of the school fields, just out of the view of the pouncing teachers? Not that I wished to conform- black tights were my stance, I mean who wants to wear navy blue ones? I had my own mind and wanted to do my own thing. Pike’s horrors all seemed to affirm this burgeoning view and bolster my confidence. Standing to the side was now validated. Standing to the side was now also reignited, thanks to current trends. But, where were these former badges of teendom lingering?

Appetite whetted, rabid search completed, prime Pike collection dusted. ‘Spellbound’ selected from amongst the familiar old covers (which still held the same mesmerising appeal-like anchors for the imagination). I vaguely recalled its position of favour along with ‘Scavenger Hunt’ and ‘Witch’. A new fear crept over me, than the ones I remember them holding (other than the ones that used to keep me reading deep into the forbidden night). Would they have changed over time, like films are wont to do- because we have changed? ¬†Would it be disappointing? Would it render their power obsolete like that of shredded bank statements? Honestly, these books are of an era. I am not an angsty teen girl anymore so some of its power is lost to adult me. That isn’t to say I don’t appreciate its particular appeal, or that their appeal would be lost to generations anew being exposed to them as a direct result of this latest cultural resurgence. Far from it. Characters like the sceptical and questioning Cindy Jones have much to say to any teens- giving them the required space to realise it is ok to be different, to not blindly follow your peers: to have your own opinions and to make your own decisions. You can and should question if something seems suspect- just like Cindy does about Karen Holly’s impossible sounding death and the mysterious, alluring Joni with the flat eyes. You should also make your own mind up based on your own analysis of the information available to you- not judging or scorning others just because it is the ‘popular’ decision or will give you kudos amongst potentially shallow peers.

My rereading had truly reminded me of the real power of Pike, of his understanding of teens and their needs and feelings. He always had just the right amount of lusty leaning, so as not to become smutty- just enough to retain our interest and make the stories seem true to our experiences- or let’s be honest the experiences we dreamed of having! Who didn’t want to be a couple of years older with a hunky boyfriend to eat the face off. Even here Pike gives us examples that encourage us all to respect ourselves. Cindy’s message is to ditch any male that tries to force you into doing something you are not comfortable with or ready for. Pike you are a public service provider! Reaching teenagers in a way parents and sex education lessons don’t. All under the guise of some seriously unsettling stories, with just the right amount of supernatural menace to mirror the real life menace hinted at and denounced within these pages. As the cover promises, with its eagle-like, expansive power watching omnipotently over an unsuspecting couple, dangers are all around you. If you want to survive you need to explore suspicions and act on them, if necessary.

While I relished the supernatural element (key driver of any Pike work): here shamanism and animal totems, it was the setting that truly ensnared my imagination with its promise of freedom. The Rockies, with its cerulean blue skies and fresh mountain air. It’s aptly named Crystal Falls and Snake Tail River looming up above with its deceptive air of purity. Who wouldn’t want to be up there on a moonlight wander. Midnight feasts for adolescents! ¬†Couple this with an unexpected twist, that even a monster can have redeeming features and the exploration of gray spaces is complete. Yet another important lesson is assimilated: life is not black and white. In short, I hope this resurgence affords Christopher Pike a just share of this new attention- he moves beyond stereotypes with some very natty lessons embedded in his own interpretation of this genre, one that travels beyond the effective employment of the tropes we have come to expect. So get on eBay, browse second hand book shops- get some Christopher Pike. I am keeping mine forevermore!

‘Get in Trouble’ by Kelly Link or prepare to have your senses exploded like a jar of pickle

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A strange kaleidoscope, full of societal interactions giving validation to the marginalised

Kelly Link has been on my radar for quite a few years, ever since noticing her short-story collection, ‘Pretty Monsters’ on the Canongate website. While I should have just gone with my instincts and ordered a copy, the fact that I hadn’t heard about her from anyone else kind of made me hold back (stupidly). I am sure we have all found reassurance from, and been swayed by the kind of enthusiasm espoused by a fellow book-loving compadre, that follows when they have discovered a new author and sing their praises from the rooftops- the kind that infuses you with same said enthusiasm and hurtles you out the door to the nearest bookshop to secure your own copy. Through my then clearly limited literary circles, this had not yet crept onto my bookish radar- so any inklings I had weren’t verified or acted upon. Fast forward a few years and the bookish world has become much more global and open, with bookish communities on Twitter, Instagram, WordPress and You Tube. Now here is something a literary purist, like me, never¬†thought they would be saying- thanks to such sites and being opened up to a much broader pool of recommendations, new titles and authors are springing up and grabbing my attention all over the place.

Step forward Kelly Link. One fateful day, guided by some unseen force (Canongate Books Twitter feed) a poor, neglected author weaselled her way to the front of my readerly awareness. Call it fate. Call it luck. Call it clever marketing. Whatever it was it worked! Canongate were offering to send out promotional copies of ‘The Summer People’, so of course I intervened and saw this as the opportune time to become more intimately acquainted with her talents. Like an over enthusiastic school-girl, hand straight up, I jumped the queue and got my hands on said copy and was immediately enamoured. Couple this with reading ‘The Specialist’s Hat’ in Audrey Niffeneger’s ‘Ghostly’ and it was pretty apparent I had made a grave error in ignoring my initial instincts *note to self- be bolder in your textual selections and don’t seek reassurance in future*. Purchase of ‘Get in Trouble’ swiftly followed, to join my ridiculously large to read pile, vying for pole-position with several other urgent reads- because, well aren’t all reads urgent?

Luckily for Kelly Link, her curious cover kept winking at me ensuring she didn’t have to wait long. Good old fate also somehow entwined this process with the announcement she had been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize, should such validation really be necessary. I’m sure Kelly Link, would give no never mind judging by the curious and singular approach she brings to each and every story. She gives the impression that she is all about the process and the creativity that seams through each one like a particularly zingy lemon. You get the impression that she really enjoys her writing, and just like her title, ‘Get in Trouble’ implies really isn’t all that interested in conforming. You only have to look at the surreal blends that take place in her stories. It is almost like she has a giant jar of random story ideas that she dives in to to gain inspiration and mould her ideas together in response to. In a less masterful writer, juxtaposing subterranean pyramids with some kind of weird Stepford children vibe could fail dismally. Instead, Link takes our puzzled curiosity and makes us examine the consequences of this universal drive for perfection and makes us start thinking about how this is detrimental in our own lives.

Yet this dysfunction also takes us to more unsettling places, like in ‘The Summer People’. Right off the bat we are disoriented as we try to make sense of what is happening, through the flu- addled eyes of the central character: home alone Fran. Through her delirium we try to work out who the Summer People are; this is more dark fairytale than the sanitised Disney versions we expect. You almost wonder who you should be feeling sorry for. Or take the unsettling premise of ‘Secret Identity’ where a 15 year old girl has snuck away to meet with a man in his 30s, that she has met in a chat room. With all this latent subtext, you await exploitation- yet it is the reader whom is exploited when the plot takes an entirely different direction: exploding your expectation. Both stories contain delightfully imaginative elements, whether it is the world of superhero comic cons and a greasy fight or the miniature battle reenactments with unseen enactors and dangerous weapons! Both stories transcend their hybrid structures by making you use their fantastical material to consider much deeper (albeit disturbing and unsettling) questions. Particularly, ‘Secret Identity’ made me wonder about who people really are, who they show to each other and whether any of us really know each other. Is life really just about a series of characters interacting with each other?

Throughout this collection, which is full of similarly intriguing and enchanting tales, we get glimpses beyond such clever story-moulding and character realisation as to precisely why Kelly Link garnered a much deserved Pulitzer nomination. Here is a writer so in control of what she wishes to say and with such confidence in her use of language that she can afford to be quirky. She can pepper together ideas that should not work in combination. She can play with our perceptions via her structural choices ( such as in ‘I Can See Right Through You’ where the narrative is sliced like an editors cut- like a disappointed lover seeking the perfect memories- wow this works in so many ways) to add further meaning than the main narrative drive. She can just delight us with chilling or laden images, such as ‘everyone who is alive has a ghost inside them, don’t they’ or ‘muddy violet clouds, silver veils of rain’ like an ingognito poet. What she always does is intrigue us and make us work for the meaning that we come away with:through a surreal psychedelic labrynth that can only be Kelly Link!

I for one will be revisiting these stories and devouring her back catalogue. I will be singing her praises from the rooftops. She had moved to pre-order territory! Roll on this novel she is working on.

Shakespeare and me or why I love the Bard and I cannot lie..

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The Bard- still electrifying after 400 years

 

My first encounter with Shakespeare must have been when I was around age 6, when I was given a picture book of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. In theory it should have engaged me and captured my interest, with its comic strip approach and the option to select different outcomes (choose your own story books were popular at the time) but I just couldn’t understand why two young people would want to kill themselves or why their families were so mean- but I guess that was kind of the point! Without realising, I had grasped the key to any reading of Shakespeare: injustice, unfairness and the devastation that can follow as a result of prejudice or corruption. I did enjoy being able to select different courses and seeing how choices could influence different outcomes ( again this puts us in the shoes of director- whose interpretations influence the meaning a particular performance imparts to its viewers) which again must have planted an understanding of one of the key strengths of Shakespeare’s works: their ambiguity and adaptability.

Fast forward to my 14th year on this earth: that painful teen period that we have all gone through. All angst, full of hormones and struggling to work out who you are and your place in the world you see before you. A shining light was my GCSE English class. Here a deep love of books and a burgeoning realisation that analysis could unlock untold meaning and understanding was fluttering into existence. ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ had already tapped into our collective taste for the unjust and unfair. ‘Macbeth’ swiftly followed and capitalised on this enthusiasm and our secret desire to put right our own injustices and to triumph, in the midst of all our unspoken and unshared insecurities. What better introduction to Shakespeare than a power-driven couple on a path to self-destruction. Corrupt, bloody, murderous, dark and brooding. Here we had writ large, the consequences of choices and actions driven by such senses of unfairness and injustice that we ourselves were feeling. Macbeth encouraged us to look beyond our own feelings and consider those of others- that reflection had to outweigh any desires or drives we had to put things right. Essentially that there was a right way to go about things: that you don’t have to kill people that get in your way (that last part is a joke, for those that don’t know me). Along the way, we learnt about irony and insanity, the power of language to convey a whole host of meaning if the right words are selected and not to be afraid of archaic language. We learnt that we could each interpret a passage or phrase in slightly differing ways and that listening to each other could allow us to reach even greater insights, or see things our own experiences had not yet brought to us. We loved the eerie spell cast over the play by the malign influence of the witches; how their passages were much more lyrical than that of other characters and held us in sway much like the effect that they roused in terms of the plot (thus introducing us to the concept of layers of meaning). We were absorbed by the psychology abundant in the text- discussion on motivations were electrifying. Hallucinations became outward manifestations of conscience: ‘is this a dagger I see before me’ and ‘out damned spot’ being two key phrases that grabbed us. We wondered how Shakespeare could have understood such psychological symptoms so long ago, before the advent of modern psychology- thus holding him in a new sense of respect and reverence removed from our initial disdain. No longer was he a fusty, archaic figure but one who fired us up and excited us. In fairness, our teacher must have been some genius/director managing to orchestrate all of this. Her knowledge, insight and passion for her subject was passed on to all of us lucky recipients. It could have been very different if we had studied ‘Romeo and Juliet’ or ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at this point: she knew that we needed the gore, drama and horror of ‘that Scottish play’ to get the point of Shakespeare. She knew her audience and she knew her writers! Thanks Mrs Hiskens, wherever you are.

Having had an English teacher such as Mrs H, it will come as no surprise that I signed up for A Level English! Rebellion and indifference were key facets of my outward expression to the world, yet in books I was allowed access to a rich and fertile plain: here I could see beyond my own experiences into the thoughts and experiences of others. This is something that those who are not keen readers may miss out on and it remains an ardent belief of mine, that to give others the gift of reading gives them to key to understanding themselves and the world that they live in. Books help us to understand that we are not imprisoned: feelings and situations can be changed. Studying Shakespeare, again, was a master-key that helped me unlock my own personal propensity for reflection: ‘Hamlet’ being the game changer. He is the ultimate, disaffected youth struggling with his grief and behaviour from responsible adults that he does not yet understand. He is plagued by his Mothers’ speedy remarriage to his Uncle Claudius, after the death of his beloved father also Hamlet (deceased King). I am sure a lot of teens can relate to his depressed melancholy, and indeed having to adapt to new family situations that they are not happy with. What was surprising, to me anyway, was the consideration that it had always been thus: the modern family may not be so modern after all (again drawing my burgeoning understanding and appreciation of the big Bard to who is universality- speaking to all across time and experience). Here I learnt the appreciation of staging and a carefully timed plot device- what more dramatic start can there be than a ghost luring soldiers across a cold, isolated battlement on a starless night? It gives me chills just thinking about it! This eerie portent, not only focuses its audiences attention by heightening their senses but by also causing us to question why a ghost might need to appear? All is clearly not right and we are set firmly to question all events put before us. My teen eyes alighned me squarely with Hamlet’s sense of indignation and allowed me to gloss over his own selfish actions- he shuns poor Ophelia who is then driven mad to end up floating face-down in a pool of flowers. It is not until much later ( a re-reading at university) that I grasped the true art of Shakespeare’s multi-faceted writing: Hamlet too was an orchestrator of destruction because he only thinks of himself (stereotypical selfish-teen behaviour). So here we have a tragedy filled with flawed characters that will speak to different members of its audience in different ways, at different points in their lives AND in different eras: mind blown. No wonder the plays hold such universal and enduring appeal. No wonder directors can draw such different things out of them. No wonder he still holds court 400 years later.

But then, he has always held court. While he deserves to be revered for his linguistic and literary mastery: for his beautiful prose and dramatic ability, he also should be recognised as an extremely savvy pioneer- or as one Lecturer facetiously referred to him as ‘a Brummie on the make’! A bit like a Richard Branson of his day, he recognised an opportunity to make money and he seized it- setting up a collective to perform plays outside the boundaries of the city, to circumvent strict censorship- culminating in the founding of ‘The Globe’ theatre. Opinions of Shakespeare continue to ebb and flow, evolving to their contextual perameters. To me he is a brilliant, subversive pioneer full of insight and word play and wit- something I only truly comprehended once I began honing my analysis at undergraduate level. Here contextual understandings added a new layer of meaning to my interpretations. I appreciated Shakespeare’s comedies all the more, because I saw that they allowed greater subversion of extant social mores, thus enabling audiences to question the structures within which they existed. The Fool in ‘King Lear’ becomes wise, when considered this way. The cross-dressing confusion and displacement in ‘Twelfth Night’ allows us to question the identity and position of those in society: does their position mean we should blindly accept them and follow their word without question? Here Malvolio (my favourite comic character) postulates round like some self-important social climber misenterpreting a letter from his mistress to be encoded to express her secret love for him, causing him to proclaim; ‘some of us are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em’ to no doubt raucous effect on the audience of the time! It’s bawdy thrusting would have implied a sexual element to his meaning, further undermining his ardent declarations. All of the layers of humour, draw the audience into a conspiratorial understanding of the true meaning behind the words- that we shouldn’t feel limited by the position in society, from which we are born into. Like Shakespeare, we can overcome the cultural imperialism that still abounds today (look at the ridiculous insistence that the Department of Education has today that Primary children MUST know parts of speech, such as subordinate clauses, or they will not meet the required grade or are somehow lesser because they don’t- like that is a measure of your ability to write or communicate) we can use our initiative, work hard, be creative, NOT conform. We can have a goal and find our own way there. What this phrase conveys to this audience (or any audience) is the ridiculousness of these perameters, within which we are judged and constrained. We all need to bust loose.

This complexity, and ability to frame ideas in such a clever and probing way, is precisely why I love the great Bard in the sky above all over writers. I could tell you about the many things I have learnt from studying his plays and sonnets over the years- but this would detract from the overall point. Don’t listen to people who assuage him as a boring, irrelevant, fusty, archaic relic (Google theories of his dark lady or gay lover). Don’t let a bad first experience of his work put you off- you may have been put off by being introduced to a particular play at the wrong time in your life, or by someone who was not the masterful director I was fortunate to have. No, get out there and WATCH a performance or DVD of one of his works, because after all they were written to be performed and this is how you will understand them best. Don’t delay, you are missing out on Magic. He is¬†a paragon of Englishness- but not in the way the real fusty, stuffy, archaic ‘members’ of our society would like to impart. He is a rebel, an innovator, a creative genius and someone that allows us all to open our minds and to question. All this 400 years later. William Shakespeare, I salute you.

‘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