Book Review: Z by Therese Anne Fowler

Z

This is a fictional account for the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, focused, as you’d expect, on her marriage to F. Scott Fitzgerald.  It takes us though the gay years of their time as the darlings of the Jazz Age, through their financial problems and Scott’s literary triumphs and failures on to alcoholism and mental illness.

I think the strongest parts of the novel came at the beginning and the end.  The establishment of their relationship and its eventual decline, there are parts of the mid-section that become a little dull, a little ‘…and then we went here, and then we went there and then we did this…’ in style but that is my only real criticism of the novel as overall it is a very good read.

“For days, while at my morning and afternoon dance classes, while I ate, while I bathed, while I tried but failed to sleep, I considered how I might become more like the woman I respected and admired.  Surrounded as I was by such ambitious, accomplished women, I couldn’t ignore the little voice in my head that said maybe I was supposed to shed halfway and do something significant.  Contribute something.  Accomplish something.  Choose.  Be. “

A running theme throughout the novel is Zelda’s conflict with her role in life as a wife, a sidekick if you like, Mrs F. Scott Fitzgerald, merely an extension of her famous successful husband.  There are times when she enjoys the luxury Scott’s earnings bring and enjoys spending without having to earn and basking in his reflected glory, she enjoys helping with his novels and short stories without the credit.  But there are other times when she feels a niggling dissatisfaction with the life she has and wants to achieve more herself and explore her own creative talents.

It is well written because the author is not implying she is any kind of feminist heroine, Zelda doesn’t particularly have any interest in feminism or campaigning for women’s rights.  Zelda is an imperfect confused character who could perhaps be accused of wanting it all – but then who doesn’t?  It is a very human portrait and so is Fowler’s writing of Scott.  He can be quite controlling of Zelda and jealous of any attention she gets independent of him but we also see that he is sensitive and insecure and can be a loving and generous husband when at his best.

An interesting tale of two flawed people in a flawed marriage.

3.5/5

(This novel was made into a TV series, Z: The Beginning of Everything with Christina Ricci on Amazon.  I recommend this very highly and in some ways found the adaptation more insightful and entertaining than the novel itself).

Zoe

Z poster

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LGBT History Month at Wembley Library

February is LGBT History Month in the UK, a month long observance of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender histories, civil rights movements, achievements, cultures and rememberances. It is held in February in the UK to coincide with the anniversary of the abolition of Section 28, which was a clause that banned schools from ‘promoting’ homosexuality in schools.

The painful history of Section 28 specifically concerns books – the rising support for it in the parliament and public came from fears that books promoting homosexuality were present in schools and around young children, and they would encourage ‘abnormal’ ‘bad habits’.

Sappho

Ancient Greek poet Sappho

It feels especially fitting then to celebrate literature about and by LGBT people in Wembley Library this month. Countless well known authors from around the world have been gay, bisexual and / or trans throughout history, sometimes written out of history and therefore hiding in plain sight. Historical examples are TS Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin, Audre Lorde (whose birthday coincides with both LGBT History Month and Toni Morrison’s birthday!), Leslie Feinberg, June Jordan and Sappho. More modern day examples are Juno Dawson, Jeanette Winterson, Paula Gunn Allen, Roxane Gay, Jack Monroe, and Sarah Waters. Much famous literature can be read under an LGBT lens – for example Shakespeare, or Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. The endless list spans centuries, races, ethnicities and religions, a testament to the enduring desire of people to speak and hear and see themselves through the written word.

It was important to choose literature for the display that ranged in genre, tone, target age group, time period, and author. LGBT literature often gets sidelined in publishing houses and bookshelves. Publishing rates are limited, and historically in LGBT films and books, storylines have been confined to negative stereotypes and unhappy endings. The books in the display do reflect that aspect of LGBT literature, but also encompass literature with positive depictions and happy endings, which are a becoming more popular in mass media. Importantly, there is also a section of LGBT literature for young people, who may be searching for visions of themselves in literature in a formative period of their lives.

The books in the display encompass just a small section of the memoirs, fiction, poetrty, plays and non fiction written by and about LGBT people in Brent Libraries. I would encourage staff and borrowers to have a look at the display, which is arranged by genre, and grab anything that attracts them, but also to peruse other books in the library with an open mind, because people might find that more authors, characters, themes and subtexts related to LGBT history and culture are weaved into the fabric of libraries and literature than they realise.

LGBT display

Wembley Library’s LGBT display

Alternatively if you want to buy copies for yourself, Gay’s the Word in Marchmont Street (near King’s Cross) is the UK’s oldest LGBT bookshop and offers a range of LGBT fiction and non fiction. It’s holding a range of events for LGBT History Month.

To end, I’d like to recommend my personal top favourites in LGBT literature and film: Zami, by Audre Lorde, The Handmaiden by Park Chan Wook (a film adaptation of Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith), and Heather Has Two Mommies, an iconic children’s picture book by Leslea Newman.

Happy LGBT History Month and Happy Reading!

Neelam

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Book Review: The Dark Flood Rises by Margaret Drabble

She had thought that ageing would bring calm and indifference and impersonality.

This is basically a novel about a bunch of posh people dealing with ageing and mortality.

The main character is Fran.  She is fairly obsessed with death and ageing.  And it’s not surprising!  Not only is she facing her own old age but she works as a consultant on the design of retirement homes.  Her long term partner has died quite recently.  Her ex-husband, who she still sees frequently, is becoming increasingly infirm and is almost bed ridden.  Her closest friend has just moved into an old people’s sheltered accommodation, even though she in excellent health, in preparation for expected infirmity laying ahead.  Fran’s oldest childhood friend is dying of cancer.  Her son’s girlfriend has just died suddenly of a severe allergic reaction.  Death and ageing are all around Fran.

We follow Fran and her friends, family and acquaintances over the course of a month or so as they all deal with ageing and mortality in different ways with differing concerns and approaches.  That is about it really, there isn’t a whole lot in the way of plot, it’s more of a reflective thoughtful piece of writing.

It is quite enjoyable and has nice moments.  But it is never gripping (and probably isn’t supposed to be).  None of the characters really engaged me and I didn’t feel much of a connection or affinity with any of them.  It sort of just drifts along and is well written I guess, there’s just no real impact and I doubt I’ll think of it again once I have returned the book to the library and posted this review.

3/5

Zoe

dark flood

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Book Review: Code of the Woosters by PG Wodehouse

What O, Jolly Old Fellow Bookworms,

One always loves to curl up with a tale from good old Wodehouse, and the Code of the Woosters is not the least ripe of his narratives. In fact, were a chap to inform me that he was entirely unfamiliar with the work of PGW, then I could do much worse than recommend this particular adventure to him. It’s a topping way to get to know Bertie and some of his friends and foes.

Old Pelham’s plots are always predictable once one becomes familiar with his modus operandi, yet somehow this makes them more rather than less amusing. Lacking a brain like that of Jeeves, I don’t know why this should be the case, but I maintain in the face of many a naysayer that it is. We begin with Bertie refusing to accede to a request from his faithful servant (in this case to undertake a world cruise) only to find himself embroiled in a sticky situation. His attempts to disentangle himself from the thicket succeed only to make him more entangled. Displaying the feudal spirit, Jeeves comes to the rescue, but there’s inevitably a price to pay. The master is made to look a silly ass and he grants the request made by fish-eating valet at the start of the saga. All this the experienced reader knows, but the enjoyment of the journey is the thing don’t you know?

More important than plot are the characters. Girls who can twist Bertie round their little fingers, fat-headed friends who fall in love with them, aunts who demand a nephew’s obedience and authority figures who instil terror until Jeeves spikes their guns. More than anything though there’s Bertram himself and his gentleman’s gentleman, who must be one of the great creations of English literature.

Best of all though is Old Pop Wodehouse’s use of language; what a magnificent wordsmith! Somehow he always finds the something juste, as I’ve heard Jeeves describe it. I think it’s the marriage of exquisite language to farcical plot that creates the magic.

Anyway, such are my feeble thoughts for what they’re worth.

Toodle pip,

Karl

code of the woosters

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Book Review: The Muse by Jessie Burton

The Muse

This was a pretty good book, the downside is that I felt it should have been even better.

The action of the story is divided between 1960s London and 1930s Spain.

We begin in London where we meet Odelle.  Odelle is an aspiring writer who has immigrated to London from the West Indies.  After a few unsatisfying years working in a shoe shop she gets a better job as a typist at a top art dealers.  Here she meets the enigmatic and charismatic Marjorie Quick.  The arrival of a mysterious painting upsets Quick and awakens Odelle’s curiosity about both the painting and Quick’s relation to it.  The story then jumps back to 1930s Spain on the eve of Civil War where we find out about the creation of the painting.

In 1930s rural Southern Spain we meet the Schloss family and their brother and sister Spanish servants Teresa and Isaac.  The Schloss family are parents Sarah and Harold and teenage daughter Olive, they are from a British and Austrian background and have just arrived in Spain.  There are a myriad of tensions in this household: Olive is attracted to Isaac and they share an ambition to become artists, Harold is conducting a secret affair that young Teresa accidentally discovers, beautiful and glamourous Sarah suffers from depression and possibly alcoholism, Teresa is drawn to Olive and is jealous of the attention Olive is giving her brother…and on top of all this Civil war is brewing…basically there is a lot going on!

This is quite a plot driven piece and it’s hard to say more without risking spoilers (which I don’t want to do as this is definitely worth reading for yourselves).  The Spanish plot is compelling and keeps you wanting to know what happens next.  But we keep jumping back to the 1960s which is a bit irritating as it is rather dull in comparison.  I don’t think Burton convinced me at any stage of the necessity for Odelle to be in this story, we don’t need her to reveal the 1930s action as the author can tell us that without Odelle discovering clues to what did or didn’t happen.  Odelle has potentially a good story of her own, coming to Britain, facing racism and struggle to establish herself, but this story does not really get room to breathe – if Burton wants to tell that story she should have given Odelle her own book and not tried to shoehorn her into to a story mainly about art and the Spanish Civil War.  Burton tries to imply that the stories of Olive and Odelle are linked as they are both creative young women struggling with their art in different times, but I think each story was strong enough to stand alone and the piece is weakened by trying to slot them together somehow.

I think Burton introduces an interesting situation in Spain with intriguing characters but doesn’t quite develop either characters or plot quite fully enough (I had a similar criticism of the Miniaturist, although I think The Muse is much better).  I felt the book could have been longer and more detailed (not something I often say as I am generally a fan of short books).  It is good, but felt a little rushed and underdone.  Jessie Burton is a good writer through and imaginative – I would definitely read more of her work, I just think she should be more ambitious, there were all the ingredients for a great epic tale here rather than just an enjoyable OK story.

4/5

Zoe

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Book Review: Concentr8 by William Sutcliffe

Concentr8

This young adult novel is set in London in the near future.  Teenagers across the capital have been given a new drug called Concentr8 officially to treat ADHD, but many believe it is actually to control the behaviour of healthy but boisterous young people.  The drug becomes controversial and is withdrawn suddenly.  This leads to young people rioting across the city, is this because the drug was controlling their behaviour and the control is now gone, or is it withdrawal side effects, or is the rioting not directly related to the drug?  We don’t know.

The story focuses on a small group of five teenagers who break away from the main riots and kidnap a GLA clerical worker (this isn’t a spoiler I hope as it occurs very early in the book).  They go on to hold this man hostage in a warehouse.

There is some fantastic tension in the book as the point of view shifts each chapter between the different teenagers who all have a different take on the situation, the hostage, the officials and police working to free the hostage and the journalist reporting on the situation.  There is edge of the seat stuff as you wonder if the hostage will be harmed or killed and if the teenagers will turn on each other.  But as the novel reaches its final chapters and conclusion all this tension fizzles out rather.  It almost feels like Sutcliffe didn’t really know how to finish things and so rushed the end a bit because he was starting to get bored with his own story!  This is a shame as the set up was so very promising.

3/5

Zoe

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Guest blog – Healthy Chocolate

Ahead of her event for Brent Libraries next month Aneta Grabiec tells us more about her mission to inform the world about the benefits of raw chocolate.

I Love chocolate and chocolate loves me back!  It all started with the Mayans in Mexico where they would use cacao as medicine, and modern science agrees – chocolate can be good for you!

green chocolate

Let’s get things straight linguistically here: chocolate is the product of cacao (raw cacao powder is made by cold-pressing unroasted cocoa beans). ‘Cocoa product’ is a sugary powdered milk substitute of chocolate.

Cacao has nearly twice the antioxidants found in red wine and almost triple the antioxidants of green tea. Most people know that dark chocolate contains magnesium, and most of us don’t get enough of it. But there are many other nutrients in cacao, including vitamins A, B1, B2, B3, B5, C, D, E; and minerals such as calcium, iron, zinc, copper, potassium, and phosphorus.

To extract the health benefits from every bite, I recommend dark chocolate. Dark chocolate falls into the category of healthy monounsaturated fats—along with avocados, nuts, and seeds. Milk chocolate contains milk, which counters the benefit of the flavanols, a type of flavonoid (phytonutrient) in cacao. For example, one flavanol in chocolate is epicatechin, which acts as an antioxidant and supports insulin sensitivity. (Insulin imbalance causes diabetes type 2 and overweight).

What’s more: Dark chocolate made with at least 70 percent cacao has been proven to lower cortisol, the body’s main stress hormone. Another molecule in chocolate called phenylethylamine acts like a gentle antidepressant. Dark chocolate raises serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical in charge of mood, sleep, and appetite. Do I need to say more?

Research shows that subjects who had 40 grams (1.5 ounces) of dark chocolate per day, for two weeks, showed lowered cortisol levels.

Dark chocolate has been shown to lower blood pressure. It reduces cholesterol and lowers your risk of heart disease.

It increases blood flow to the brain, which helps the brain remain neuroplastic and young. It improves executive functioning—including attention, working memory, cognitive flexibility, problem-solving, and planning.

Many people speak about the medicinal properties of chocolate, particularly because it provides an antioxidant boost that counters the stress of aging and modern life. From a nutrigenomic perspective, cacao interrupts the motor pathway, which helps to slow down aging. It reduces the inflammation associated with acute stress.

Read the labels!

Extra dark chocolate—at least 80 percent cacao or higher, is ideal. When chocolate has higher cacao content, it has more health benefits, in part because there are more flavanols and in part because there is less sugar. I recommend organic, soy-free, dairy-free, gluten-free chocolate. If you want to cut out sugar altogether, there are some options sweetened with stevia and coconut sugar. Avoid chocolate with 5 grams of sugar or more (per recommended portion of 25g)

I feel that the best and healthiest way to enjoy the chocolate is to make it! I praise and promote raw chocolate due its exceptional medicinal content (the ingredients don’t get heated up to high temperature, therefore, most beneficial nutrients of the ingredients remain in the chocolate). Come along to my fun and informative raw chocolate making workshop on 6 December where I will be sharing the knowledge and creating dark delicious superfood out of best quality ingredients.

Come and join me for the Healthy chocolate workshop, at The Library at Willesden Green, 6 December 6.15-7.30pm.  £2 – book here.

Aneta

Aneta Grabiec,

The Wellness Designer, http://www.thewellnessdesigner.com

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Book Review: In a Dark Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

in a dark dark wood

A very creepy story with lots of great tension!

This is the story of Nora, a twenty something novelist living a rather isolated but fairly contented existence in a studio flat in London.  She has her routines: going for a run, checking her emails, researching and writing her crime novels.  Her life is regular, rather dull, a bit lonely, but OK, until she is shaken from this by a blast from the past!

She receives an unexpected email from Flo, a stranger claiming to be the maid of honour for Nora’s childhood best friend Clare.  She is invited to Clare’s hen do, a weekend in a cottage deep in the Northumberland countryside (in mid-November!).  Her reluctance to accept tells the reader that there is something dark in her past she doesn’t want to confront, she hasn’t been in touch with Clare since she was 16.  Flo manages to guilt trip Nora into making the journey North by claiming Clare really wants her there.

She arrives at the dark lonely cottage along with three strangers and one other girl she knew from school – and no Clare.  The atmosphere isn’t right from the off.  The organiser, Flo, seems weirdly desperate for it to go well and be the perfect hen weekend, everyone else seems reluctant to be there almost as if they all have something to hide…

I won’t tell you more as I don’t want to give away any spoilers.  The best bit of the novel is the building tension, you know something dramatic is going to happen and when it does it doesn’t disappoint!  The only real downside of the novel is that after the big action bit there is a bit of a lull, most readers who have been paying any attention will have worked out the twist by ¾ of the way through (which is good, as a good crime/thriller writer should drop enough clues for the observant reader to work it out) but then it takes soooo long for the characters to catch up that it gets a bit dull towards the end.  Overall though a great thriller.

4/5

Zoe

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Laurel and Hardy: Another Nice Mess

via Laurel and Hardy: Another Nice Mess

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October 22, 2018 · 4:38 pm

Book Review: The Break Down by B. A. Paris

This is a great exciting read, hard to put down once you get into it.

The main character is Cass, she is a teacher living with her new husband in rural England.  One night she is driving home from work in a heavy storm after an end of term celebration with colleagues.  Against her husband’s strict advice she takes a short cut down a quiet lonely stretch of road close to her home.  She sees a car parked with a woman in it, she hesitates but doesn’t stop as the woman doesn’t indicate she is in trouble.  Has the woman broken down?  Is she unwell?  Or is she up to no good?!  Cass doesn’t know but is too nervous to stop in case it’s a trick, also it’s late and throwing it down with rain.  She just wants to get home and also feels a little guilty about fibbing to her husband about her route – if she stops and gets involved there’s more chance he might find out she lied to him.  So she goes home to bed.

The next day she is horrified to hear on the news that a young woman has been brutally murdered in the spot where she saw the woman parked.  Now is the moment to come forward and go to the police as a witness and own up to her husband.  But she doesn’t, she is overcome with guilt and shame, wondering if she could have save the woman, so she continues with the lie that she did not take that route home and quickly it feels too late to confess the truth.

After this incident Cass’ life begins to unravel.  The guilt and lies seem to drag her down, she becomes stressed and forgetful and starts to wonder if she is developing the Early Onset Dementia that killed her mother.  Around this time strange things begin to happen – she starts getting silent phone calls and sensing someone is watching her and believes someone has been in her house and moved things around while she has been out.  Is it the killer taunting her because he knows she is a potential witness or is it all part of her mental problems and possibly a serious illness?  We don’t know and nor does Cass!

I can’t say much more without getting into spoiler territory – so I will stop there with describing the plot.  I hope I have said enough to get you interested as this is certainly worth reading if you want something exciting and mysterious without being too challenging or gory.  This is my kind of thriller.

As to down sides, I did find Cass and her lifestyle a bit dull at times.  She is only in her early 30s but for ‘fun’ all she does is potter in the garden wearing her special gardening shoes, for a treat she might nip into the nearest market town for a coffee or to wander round the shops.  She and her husband are young and well off with a large inheritance from her mother as well as two professional salaries but their lifestyle reminds me of my late grandparents!  (Probably me just being judgemental because I am such a trendy urbanite myself).  With reflection though I think her slightly dull character and lifestyle work for the plot, and they make sense as she was a carer for her sick mother from her teens to around 30 so probably never had chance to develop her own interests or find an circle of exciting, varied friends.  A wild, flamboyant character would probably have felt a bit much with the dramatic plot and Cass is actually a nice source of calm at the centre of things.

Another slight issue I had was that the climax seems to arrive in a bit of a rushed manner…but that is possibly just because I was turning the pages so fast when I was so eager to find out what was going to happen!  Occasionally I also felt the characters behaviour didn’t quite ring true, though this may have been deliberate from the author as we were seeing the plot from Cass’ point of view and a lot of the time she wasn’t thinking clearly and perhaps not reporting things accurately to us the reader.

Highly recommended.  I’m looking forward to reading more from B. A. Paris.

4/5

Zoe

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