My new ‘favourite book’. Angel by Elizabeth Taylor…

 

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

Angel by Elizabeth Taylor

I always find the question ‘what is your favourite book?’ a difficult one.

A few titles spring to mind, and I soon find myself in a tangle. Lionel Shriver’s ‘We Need to Talk About Kevin’ is a stand-out because the story was so ‘disturbing’ I had to stop reading for a little while. Anything that makes me feel that much always prompts my admiration. David Nicholls’ beautiful ‘One Day’ pretty much inspired me to write my first novel ‘This is a Love Story’‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal’, by Jeanette Winterson had me in tears of awe on several occasions. I could list many more.

In short, I have read a number of stunning novels that all compete with each other in the ‘favourite book’ stakes, and when asked in the past, I’d rather not wanted to commit to one. Until now.

This morning I was snug as a bug in a rug, curled up in bed with several cups of coffee, finishing ‘Angel’ by Elizabeth Taylor. I discovered this novel because I’m collecting the gorgeous VMC Designer Collection, and Angel is a part of it. Its cover design (pictured) has been beautifully crafted by Celia Birtwell, (responsible for a popular range in Topshop a few years ago).

The novel was first published in the UK back in 1957, and this celebratory VMC copy has an introduction by Hilary Mantel. When I was reading Mantel’s words, I already knew that this book could be quite special… Mantel says “… what Elizabeth Taylor does is to de-romanticise the process of writing and show it to us close up, so we are aware that if ten per cent of the process is exhilaration, the rest is tedium, backache, and the fear of failure.” She discusses the vanity required to keep this going, adding that writers are ‘monstrous’. My interest was well and truly sparked!

Angel’ follows novelist Angel Deverell from her petulant teenage years living in poverty, up until the last moments of her life, surrounded by the decaying trappings of her own success. Angel is a fascinating character. She is so stunningly written by Taylor that she feels real despite the passage of time that has slipped away since this story was penned. It’s rare that novels can conjure up this much imagery. It was as if there was a feature film flickering across my eyes as I read every word. I devoured paragraph after paragraph of delicious prose, descriptions so rich I found myself blown away by Taylor’s talent.

I must include a minor ***spoiler alert*** before I discuss this book in any more detail… Although there is so much more to this novel than my review reveals (for those who would like to read on), anyone who likes to go in ‘blind’ may want to stop here and come back later.

I will go on now, (if you are still with me…) Angel, in a nutshell, is pretty obnoxious. She can be strikingly cruel, and almost impervious to her vile behaviour towards the people around her who fawn over her every whim. Yet despite all this, she is somehow loveable (a nod to the author’s expert characterisation). Angel is courageous, and bold. She speaks up for herself in a world where everyone tries to control and undermine her. She believes in herself like nothing else. That is a rare quality to admire, however clumsy her ways of showing it. The result is a lead character who made me cringe with her bolshy ways, and who I also became more and more fond of, as the book progressed.

The reader is transported with Angel as she launches to fame as a young author. She is published in her teens by a company in London, who are baffled when she turns up in their office, a strange looking young girl with a chip on her shoulder. She refuses to make the changes to her novel demanded by the publisher, and yet they still print it. This says a lot about her relationship with the world.

Angel then enjoys unprecedented success, writing novel after novel, although her works (while popular) are mocked by critics, for whom she develops a venomous hatred towards (this made me giggle at times).

I don’t want to give too much away so I should stop now…

Essentially there are several reasons why I think this book may now be the best I have ever read. The first being that Taylor’s writing is so skilled – I agree with the sentiment of this article. Elizabeth Taylor is immensely underrated, described as “one of the best English novelists born of this century” and yet so few know of her now.

The next reason is how much the themes of the book meant to me. Being an writer, I read with fascination about Angel’s bizarre vanity and self adoration, but yet I still felt her struggles. I’m sure that legions of writers would be able to relate to the pressure she put on herself to write something bigger and better, and truly know how nerve-wracking this is. I was interested in her constant struggle to fulfil the demands of her own vanity and yet not alienate ‘her public’ as her publisher so elegantly put it. And then there were those terrifying moments of self-doubt, which still got to her despite her steely exterior… I related to all of it in some way, for writers very well might be ‘monsters’ as Mantel says, constantly in a battle between their own ambitions and dreams, and the inevitable criticism that comes with their territory, whether internal or external.

Angel is really a one-off. So representative, (however much an exaggeration), of the painful and yet wonderful reality of being a writer.. I am so glad I read this novel, and I hope you will too. It’s sharp, funny, and also heartbreakingly sad and it might just be my new favourite book…

 

 

A Boxing Day treat! My final interview with a book blogger…

Happy Christmas all! Are you having a relaxing Boxing Day or are you hitting the shops?

Whatever you are doing this afternoon, I hope you enjoy the final interview in my series with independent book bloggers. Today I’m talking to a lovely blogger from Northern Ireland… Do you know who she might be?

1) Hi Bronagh! Welcome:)  Please tell me more about yourself. What are your three favourite things?

Hello, my name is Bronagh, I live in Northern Ireland and I enjoy books, tea and new adventures.

2) Where can we find your blog and how long have you been reviewing? 

My book news, interviews and reviews site Handwritten Girl started during the hot summer of 2011 and has been growing ever since. Not only does the website include book reviews, it also features author interviews providing tips and advice for aspiring writers, which I hope readers of the website find useful and encouraging.

3) Nice one! Why did you start blogging?

I started reviewing for a number of reasons. As a reader I was constantly telling people about a great new book that I read or people were asking me for a recommendations so the website became a shortcut for this and appealed to a wider community.

4) What’s the best and worst thing about being a book reviewer?

The best thing is of course getting to read so many wonderful books and the worst is not always having the time to read them!

5) What’s your favourite book of all time and why?

I have never really had a favourite character of all time, but having just finished and loved Mhairi McFarlane’s new book ‘Here’s Looking At You’ I must admit I did love the female lead in the story. Her name was Anna and had quite a dark and witty sense of humour and a kind aura about her, she was the type of girl that you would like to have as a friend.

6) How do you feel about books being made into films. Do you think this is a good thing?

I used to be quite cynical about books being adapted for film as it’s hard to compress a whole book into a two hours or less. But, I’ve now come to the conclusion that for people who aren’t readers, if they see the film and enjoy it, then maybe they will seek out the book and experience the story in its original form. After all every film starts with a script, which isn’t to far removed from the format of the typical book.

7) How do you handle it when you have read a book you don’t like? Will you still review it? 

If I read a book and I don’t enjoy it and just like books I that I do enjoy, I still review it. As a writer myself, I appreciate the time and effort that an author has gone to write a book— just because the book isn’t for me, doesn’t mean that others won’t enjoy it, so it is worth pointing out the elements which do work, as well as do not, in those stories.

8) Do you read books quickly, or slowly?

The speed which I read is based purely on how much I like the story. If I think the story is brilliant and I can’t wait to see how it will end, I could easily devour it in a day. Well, as long as I don’t have any other distractions. Usually I read a book in two days.

9) Do you prefer a genre? If so, why?

I enjoy comedy, romance and you cant beat thrillers. Give me anything with a good narrative, regardless of the genre though, I will give it a go!

Thanks Bronagh!

You can connect with Bronagh on Twitter – @handwritten

 

Celebrating book bloggers part three: Kevin Loh

1) Hi Kevin! Welcome to my blog. Can you tell me more about yourself? What are your three favourite things?

Salutations! I am Kevin, 19, from Malaysia! A country where I am at a crossroads. I can freely choose between UK and US editions of books. Hurrah! My top three favourite things? Gosh, this is hard. I’ll go with chocolate, books and hoodies!

2) Nice! Where can we find your blog and how long have you been reviewing? 

I started I Heart.. Chick Lit in May 2012. So I guess I’ve been blogging for a year and a half? As of October 2013, I’ve reached my 100,000th pageview (not to gloat, but I am immensely proud and absolutely chuffed!).

3) So you should be, well done! Why did you start blogging?

Hmm. Blogging. I started blogging because I read, quite a lot. OK, I read a lot. I love reading. I figured if I could pen down my thoughts on a blog, I’d share book recommendations with the ‘blogosphere’. And blogging has been an amazing experience. I get to befriend authors, publishers, fellow bloggers and readers who are just like me! All in all, I wish I could read and review books for the rest of my life. Guess I should start investing in gold?

4) What’s the best and worst thing about being a book reviewer?

Well, the best thing about being a reviewer? *looks up at ceiling and thinks* I guess it’s the camaraderie you built with “bookish nerds” – that’s a good thing! And of course, the perks of the job: being sent books for review. It’s such a privilege to be sent books for review because the publishers trust you with honest reviews. I think I love what I do because I am able to be the bridge between authors and readers. I feel that by reviewing books, I can let people know about books that are worth reading.

Everything has a dark side, yes I know. The worst thing about blogging is.. reviewing a book you didn’t really enjoy. Hand on heart, I hate being rude to an author, but I find it the hardest to write a review on books I didn’t particularly enjoy. Other than that, I really encourage readers to give blogging a go. You might love it!

5) What’s your favourite book of all time and why?

Oh my, this is harder than deciding whether I want M&M’s or Snickers for a snack. If I have to pick ONE (I have more than 20!), then it would be The Secret Dreamworld of A Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella, my first chick lit book which sparked my passionate love affair with chick lit. I loved the book – I even bought two copies, both UK and US editions. I adored the plot and Sophie Kinsella’s writing style is as comforting and addictive as hot chocolate on a cold night (bad analogy, sorry..).

6) What do your family and friends think about your passion for books? Are they supportive?

Well, when I started blogging, none of my family and friends knew about it. Then when I started getting more and more books in the post they were amazed, and very supportive. I guess my parents are secretly pleased that I am not wandering around at 1AM with my friends in town, instead I’ll be reading in bed. Meep.

7) What is it about books that you love so much?

Books will always have a special place in my heart. Nothing gives me more satisfaction than reading. Oh, and lusting over gorgeous covers. When I read, I’m transported to a different places. A place where all my worries are forgotten and I am free to live vicariously through the characters. Books grant me the ability to dream and aspire and even inspire.

8) How do you feel about books being made into films. Do you think this is a good thing?

I don’t have any strong feelings against books made into films. I wouldn’t mind watching the film adaptation of books I’ve enjoyed. If you hate the film adaptation, stick to the book.

9) Do you prefer to read print books or ebooks and why?

Hands down, print books. I believe you can never get the same experience from reading an actual book when you read from an e-reader. I’m sorry to e-reader owners, but I’m sticking to print books. Here’s the reason why: you can NEVER take a delicious whiff of the book in between chapters. I do that ALL the time and I don’t plan to stop. And, it’s bad for your eyes to face the screen for too long, right? Print books, healthy and more real. Keep it real, lovelies!

10) Do you prefer a particular genre? If so, why?

Definitely chick lit. Hands down. The BEST genre there is. Chick lit is such a wide, versatile genre and the themes are often varied. You have the funny girl-about-town books, the weepy romantic comedies, and the darker side of chick lit, which is often more emotional. Let’s face it, there isn’t one genre which is as diverse as chick lit.

Celebrating book bloggers…

Google definitionOver the next couple of weeks I’m putting the spotlight on independent book bloggers.

I’m planning to publish some interviews with reviewers here. This time it will be me asking all the questions!

Have you ever wondered how many books reviewers read in a week?

What do they do when they don’t like a book very much?

Or perhaps you’d like to know which book they rate as their all-time favourite when they have so many to choose from?

With the internet being a huge part of our lives, and new social media outlets popping up everywhere, we can be whoever we want to be. Twitter and Facebook have turned us into poets, stylists, photographers and comedians… We can have what we want in seconds, and everything’s so fast and instantly gratifying. But there’s something really quite special about people who are keeping books in focus while technology flourishes around us and everything picks up speed. Book bloggers are taking the traditional medium of books into the future.

Book bloggers know how technology and books can complement each other – novels, reading and how we consume fiction has to move with the times, but we must also treasure the heart of it all, and where it came from. Simply being lost between the pages of a good book when there is so much to tempt our concentration elsewhere.

A lot of the book reviewers I speak to are so passionate about what they do it’s inspiring.

Most of them have a lot happening outside reviewing, and it can be tough going when they’ve set themselves a schedule of books to read around the twists and turns of their own lives. But most of them just do it for the sheer love of reading.

I would have loved to have asked all the reviewers I’ve got to know to over the last few years, but I could only pick a small selection of people to speak to.

Ultimately I want to say a big thank you to all of them.

Without independent book reviewers and bloggers I don’t think we’d have such a fantastic the sense of community that we have in the book world. That’s a difficult thing to achieve. I’m grateful to them for encouraging reading in the general chaos of our lives, where our attention spans are under more demand than they ever have been before. I’m also grateful to them for all the support they give to writers, and for opening up debate and conversation about books between people all over the globe who may never meet face-to-face.

The first interview will be published on my blog at midday on Monday December 9.

But who will it be?

Exciting!

Holiday reading – three little book reviews

I recently returned from a lovely holiday in the beautiful (and spectacularly hot) island of Rhodes in Greece. We stayed in a part of the island called Kiotari. If you haven’t been, I would highly recommend it. The scenery is gorgeous, the food is delicious and there is so much culture.

The best things about it were:

1) The gorgeous blue sea that was so clear I could see little fish swimming around my feet.

2) HALLOUMI CHEESE.

3) Most importantly…. Having lots of time to read beautiful books 🙂

The worst things about it were:

1) Trying to walk across the scorching hot sand to get a drink and feeling like my feet were actually on fire. (Ouch, ouch ouch!)

2) Thinking there was a bug in my dress and yelping/panicking loudly in front of fellow hotel guests, much to their amusement and delight.

3) Getting suncream in my contact lenses.

Relaxing on Kiotari beach, Rhodes, Greece.

Relaxing on Kiotari beach, Rhodes, Greece.

But stepping away from the joys and inevitable humiliations of holidays in the sun, I read some really fantastic books so I thought I’d do a triple book review. Here goes…

Quiet. The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking – by Susan Cain.

This isn’t the usual fictional novel that I go for. It was recommended by my mum and a colleague, they both said it really changed their outlook on life. I’m pleased to say it did the same for me.

Quiet celebrates introverts, not only explaining what an introvert is exactly (not what I originally thought… turns out I am one too) but also celebrating their achievements and how important they are in a world where it sometimes feels as if you can only get by if you are the loudest and brightest presence in the room.

I learnt a lot about myself and others through reading this book. I now know that I am a sensitive introvert, which explains why I very often feel hotter than other people do (I always wonder why office colleagues seem fine while I want to the open all the windows and buy a huge fan!!) and also why I find horror films absolutely unbearable. If you read this book, all of this will make sense…

Don’t think you are an introvert? You should still read it, because you will almost definitely know several, they may be your children, or you might be married to one. You will see them in a whole new light, and it will also show how your relationship can work in harmony with both personality types flourishing and all needs met.

Fantastic book for opening the mind and celebrating all people for their strengths. Loved it.

5/5

The Fault in Our Stars – by John Green.

Oh goodness. Where do I start.

What a beautiful book… Young Hazel meets Augustus Waters at the Cancer Kids Support Group and from then on unfolds a most devastatingly beautiful love story. Told from Hazel’s youthful voice, I found myself cackling out loud and then crying behind my sunglasses, absolutely heartbroken at this tale of young love in unusual circumstances.

How John Green has been able to write from the point of view of a teenage girl so effectively astounds me. Her outlook on the world and descriptions of the things and people around her were touching and memorable.

It’s the kind of book you can race through in a matter of hours, but be careful if you are on the bus or the train because you may well end up in tears!

I can’t believe it took me so long to get round to reading this, and I’m so glad I have.

5/5

Herd – by Mark Earls

Again, this isn’t a fictional book but another collection of facts and thoughts that blew my mind. Herd has attracted a strong following of marketers, business types, charity fundraisers, creatives and PR people through word of mouth recommendations and people generally raving about it – and that’s exactly what I am going to do.

Herd discusses human behaviour in the masses and then relates that back to the effective running of businesses and successful marketing. The book, which is a great introduction to the massive subject of social psychology is anything but dull, and includes studies and scientific information to back up some really inspiring points. Messages range from the importance of a belief system in business, to the brands that have taken on inspiring and successful campaigns, and all the while you learn about human nature as a whole that will make you look twice at some of the every day situations you might stumble upon.

The only slight downside was that occasionally I was desperate for the author to expand on some points he just mentioned briefly, but that only implies there is room for more work on the subject, which can only be a good thing.

It doesn’t matter what industry you work in really, there is always a lot to be learned from this book. Thank you Mr Earls for such an inspirational book.

4/5

Great films… 500 Days of Summer

Zooey Deschanel who plays Summer in 500 Days of Summer

Zooey Deschanel who plays Summer in 500 Days of Summer

This weekend I watched 500 Days of Summer.

Saturday’s viewing of this film was probably the 500th time I’ve seen it too… I have to be honest here, I’m a 500 Days of Summer geek. I know it well, too well. I know the words to each and every song as the film unfolds, I know what line is coming next, it’s all got a little out of hand.

I remember the first time I went to see this film at the cinema. For me, it was one of those rare times you watch a movie and feel so inspired by it that you want to write. I absolutely adored it, and still do.

It was a major inspiration to me when I wrote This is a Love Story, and as TIALS was the first novel I wrote, it brings about very fond memories.

There are so many reasons why I love this film, and here are some of them…

(***WARNING: May contain spoilers***)

1) The whimsical narrative: Richard McGonagle does a great job of saying sweet, simple, and beautiful things about Tom and Summer’s love story as it unfolds against the backdrop of some fabulous plinky plunky music. It’s so honest, well written, and gorgeously quirky. It just works. It’s always stuck in my mind as the kind of narrative voice that would work beautifully in fiction and a great example of the things you can learn while watching films and writing books.

2) Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt: She’s the non-committal, mixed-message giving, mesmerizingly beautiful heroine, he’s the good-looking, painfully shy, and totally adorable lead guy. They work so well together and I can’t imagine a better pairing for this movie. When Zooey and Joseph become Summer and Tom, they act out a story almost everyone can relate to. She’s everyone’s indie girl-crush, he’s so lovely you can’t help but feel she must be a little crazy, and you are desperate to find out how it ends.

3) The soundtrack: From Regina Spektor’s excitable and breathy ‘Us’ to ‘There Goes the Fear’ by Doves, the soundtrack oozes cool, and in my opinion the tracks couldn’t have been picked better for the film. The musical high for me is ‘You Make My Dreams’ by Hall and Oates, and THAT scene in the park (ohhh c’mon, everyone’s been so happy they’ve held a cartoon bluebird in their hand, right?).

4) The mystery: The film shows us enough about Summer to make her loveable and relatable, and yet we never really understand why she is how she is. It keeps you intrigued, while Tom is much more of a open book. The secrets she keeps are continually interesting. Why is she so hard to get close to? Why is she so unpredictable? Why can’t she see what she is doing to Tom?

5) It’s realistic: Tom has fallen in love with Summer. That’s the simple bit. But Summer is as easy to understand as a jigsaw puzzle with several pieces missing. So Tom does what most people do in his situation, he continually justifies it, despite fighting this inner gut feeling that something isn’t right. It’s so interesting how people do this, they hang on to any thread of positivity they can in the desperate hope that the outcome will be different. It’s common human behaviour, and it fascinates me.

6) The storytelling: 500 Days of Summer is played out in sections that don’t run in chronological order. You only know where you are at through the use of the numbered days in their love story. It’s a really cool way of unravelling a plot. There are hundreds of thousands of wonderful love stories out there, but I adored the style of this one.

7) The role reversal: This isn’t a movie about a neurotic woman crying into her cornflakes over an emotionally unavailable guy who doesn’t give a damn. This film turns all these all too common gender stereotypes upside down, and it’s refreshing. Despite all this, Tom isn’t left looking like an idiot. It’s well done, and it doesn’t make either gender look perpetually stupid. Yes, men do fall in love, and yes, men get upset and misread signals. It doesn’t just happen to women, and that’s absolutely ok.

8) It’s energising: Tom is consistently struggling with his suitcase full of broken dreams. A man who works in the greetings card industry who really wants to be doing something else. He’s clearly talented but it takes for something big to happen before he considers acting on it. Why leave it so long? It’s great to see the change in him, but it also prompts you to think about things you want to achieve and how things can get harder before they get better, and it’s inspiring.

9) The imagery: From Summer’s gorgeously decorated apartment to the places the pair hang out in during their dates, the film is loaded with lovely things to see. Ok, realistically, I don’t know how the characters could afford all the trappings of their beautiful homes given their circumstances, but it sure is inspiring to see. Warning. You may watch this film and have a strong desire to head to your local Ikea/Urban Outfitters/Zara Home and splash out on fabulous accessories.

10) Not all love stories work out as expected: Tom and Summer’s love story is unpredictable, but that’s ok because real life works like that sometimes. The romantic encounters that leave you temporarily suspended in grief and regret can be the ones that teach you the most, and this film encapsulates all that, and how there is always hope after heartbreak.

And there you have it, just some of the many reasons why 500 Days of Summer is one of my favourite films. If you haven’t watched it yet, you know what to do!

Beautiful books… Gone Girl

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Well, I have finally finished Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.

It took me ages, not because it wasn’t a gripping, brilliant read, but because life has been particularly busy recently. I had to take a break from it for a short while before returning, only to be totally hooked on it again as if I’d never stepped away from it.

Gone Girl is a fantastic read. The writing is consistently sharp and brilliant. Flynn’s ability to describe people, surroundings and feelings is quite remarkable, and yet again I have been totally inspired by the work of another author.

The descriptions are so good that at times they are hard to read, and I mean that in the best possible way. Sometimes the social observations of both narrators, Nick and Amy, are so grotesque and honest that it really gets to you… Some of it you will agree with, some of it you will feel strongly against, but that’s one of the reasons I loved it so much – it really made me think.

There are so many clever themes running through this novel. Now obviously everyone reads things differently and will draw varying elements from any one text. I picked out running commentaries ranging from Amy’s fear of ageing (and then on to a wider discussion about ageing and society), to how easily swayed people are by the media (and then on the question ‘can there ever be a fair trial?’) to the challenges and strains of human relationships (are people really meant to be monogamous? Is it really in our nature?). 

This book holds so many twists and turns it makes you positively dizzy, but those same twists and turns don’t alienate you as a reader. It’s digestible and it continues to make sense despite the incredibly complex plot. I am astounded by the amount of research and careful planning that must have gone into this novel.

Essentially I have been left thinking about this book long after reading the final page because it prompted me to question the way people are portrayed in the media, and how there is often so much more to a situation than meets the eye. I was a journalist for several years, and having covered a fair number of trials and stories during this time, this subject has always really interested me.

If you need to love characters throughout a story, I should warn you about Amy and Nick. They are not characters I could easily relate to our understand, but it was so well written that I was kind of hooked into needing to find out more about them. I wouldn’t say I loved either Amy or Nick, but I saw them from many different sides and angles, which is a sign of immensely good writing.

I would recommend Gone Girl to everyone. I’m usually a total wuss when it comes to thriller type stuff, but this wasn’t overpowering or gratuitously violent. I felt that it had just the right amount of everything. It touched me, disturbed me, and shocked me too. A thrilling tale of love-turned-ugly, and a real talking point for any book group looking for a new read.

Brilliant book.