Tag Archives: London

Book Review: Ten Days by Gillian Slovo

ten days

Overall I enjoyed this book but a felt it needed more work and didn’t reach its full potential.

The book is about some fictional London riots, it is inspired by the real riots in 2011.  We follow a cast of characters involved in various ways: a family who live on the estate at the heart of the riots, the chief of police, the ambitious Home Secretary and his scheming entourage.

Some of the characters are more engaging and convincing than others.  My favourite was Peter, the Home Secretary, had the whole book been about him and his plotting for power I think I would have enjoyed it much more.  The least convincing I found was Cathy, who lived on the Lovelace estate with her teenage daughter.  Her character felt very two dimensional and also not very entertaining, I mean you could say that a scheming politician is a two dimensional cliché – but at least they are fun to read!  Cathy is a sort of dull too-good-to-be-true do-gooder, she cares deeply about her community but seems like an outsider too, no real explanation is given as to why she is living in relative squalor on a estate that is about to be demolished.  The book doesn’t tell us her background but she doesn’t seem to originate from that estate which makes you ask “how did she end up there?”  It was interesting that I had a chance to go to an event where Gillian Slovo was talking about her work, one of the audience asked her what Cathy does for a living (the book mentions her coming and going from work) and Gillian said that she didn’t know, she hadn’t given her fictional character a job.  Now I think some novels go into too much detail about each character, leaving nothing to the reader’s imagination, so I don’t think we have to know every detail – but I think the author should know!  Perhaps because Gillian’s past work has often involved adapting other people’s words for the stage she hasn’t gotten into the habit of creating her own characters in detail, she says she doesn’t work that way – but I think she should try it, the novel was weaker because some of the characters felt half formed.

London riots

 

Apart from following Peter’s sordid tale my other favourite part of the novel was the build up to the riot.  It occurred during a boiling hot early summer and you can almost feel the heat coming off the pages as you read.  Slovo skilfully captures a tense overheated atmosphere of something about to erupt.  Unfortunately the scenes describing the actual riot didn’t live up to the early promise as they felt flat and unconvincing to me, I tried to picture what she was describing (considering I’ve never been in a riot of any kind!) but nothing realistic came into my mind – was this down to bad writing or my lack of imagination?  Not sure.

I felt the novel could have scored an extra point if it had just had another thorough edit or two.

3.5/5

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What are you missing?

So far this year I’ve been reading lots of books, fiction and non-fiction, about missing people. That is, about people who go missing, and the people who miss them. Mostly the cause is abduction. I have a fairly good idea about why I chose these, though I can verify that it hasn’t been a purely conscious choice, I just, as is usual for me, went by books that caught my mind. Since this is Mental Health Awareness Week, the topic is very pertinent. As others who also have mental health that can be fragile will likely verify, at the peak of most severe illness, one’s very self feels to go missing. The theme of MHAW this year is Relationships, so a poignant and raw topic all round. When your self/mind/psyche/being feels to be AWOL, how on earth do you maintain the relationships you have, never mind cultivate new ones – having a relationship with your own self at those times can be even too much to bear. But it has to be done to survive, and such is the work of psychotherapy – and reading carefully chosen [whether by the conscious or subconscious mind!] books can indeed be part of this.

“What is this thing that happens? When disaster strikes and women come, with their cakes and their bandages, with their cups of tea and their soothing fingers. It’s the complicity of the birthing chamber, the laying out of the dead. They pick the bits of tragedy up off the floor and try to knit them together in some shape, the way I’d felt I could knit Carmel back to life. Not the way they were before, something lumpy and misshapen – but so there’s a whole again.”

The girl in the red coat by Kate Hamer

the-girl-in-the-red-coat-kate-hamerA few days ago I finished reading The girl in the red coat. It’s a seemingly understated book about loss. A mother loses her daughter, the daughter loses herself, the mother has lost her husband, the couple who abduct the daughter lose their way. Does the mother find her daughter? Does the daughter find herself? It is a novel about hidden powers, and the energy of love, betrayal and connection. It is rather a profound novel, and the quote above spoke to me deeply. It is highly resonant of a fairy tale, and if you’ve ever read Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola-Estes you are likely to be moved by this book.

TAsylumWhat happens when ideas of safety, freedom, longing, sanity and damage collide? The Asylum, a strong thriller by Johan Theorin attempts to address these conflicts in a labyrinth of twists and turns. The protagonist, Jan, is missing someone from his troubled childhood. He is a staff member of a nursery attached to a secure psychiatric hospital, where children of the patients receive care. This, in a different way, is also about relationships and grief.DeepShelter

Right now I’m coming to the end of Deep Shelter by Oliver Harris. It’s set in London, which for me is always a win for bringing things close to home – psychologically speaking that is. It reminds me, in a way, of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Here we enter the literal underworld, a parallel world of fear and power beneath our very feet, our very heart. When we search for love and human connection, power can stand in its way, and ideas of freedom and responsibility seep in, too. There’s a deeper theme of loss in there as well, and but I will leave that to you to discover.

The damage that can ensue from someone going missing, whether physically or psychically – or both, transcends time and rationality. It threads into not only our relationship with those around us, but with the very self. It is a common theme in literature, as in life. Authors tackle it with depth and sensitivity. We see the scars on the psyche in glittering sore technicolour. Yet, it seems terribly hard for many people to actually talk about these kinds of themes with their nearest and dearest. That profound distress, that is often seen clinically as a ‘Mental Health Condition’, attracts such stigma in society, still. Many cases of such illness, however, and I count myself in this, are a result of the trauma of loss on all kinds of levels. The mind can break down under such despair and loneliness.

This Mental Health Awareness Week, therefore, perhaps take some time to ponder those times when you have experienced a sense of loss of self and/or loss of another, and open your heart to that and to the world.

Katie

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Book Review: Diamonds are a Girls Best Friend by Jenny Colgan

 

This novel follows the adventures of Sophie, a spoilt but relatively likeable rich girl.  Thanks to her wealthy father she has everything she could ever wish for materially and spends her time shopping and partying and socialising with equally privileged friends.  Then her world is turned upside down by a series of dramatic events and she is suddenly forced to stand on her own two feet and support herself – this is the tale of how she copes with this new reality.Diamonds

This is a jolly very readable story that I would recommend for escapism.  I think it deals relatively well with the subject of modern life on a low income, it can be a tricky subject that is not always dealt sensitively with in Chick Lit (see my comments on Sophie Kinsella).  I was a little concerned on beginning the novel that the heroine would learn some trite lesson that it’s better to be poor (which really irritates me as it’s blatantly not true!) or that Sophie would find success with ease and find standing on her own two feet easy due to hard work and spirit – but the novel doesn’t take either of these approaches and manages to remain light without being insulting to anyone struggling to get by!

I suppose by way of criticism I would say that the novel lacks any emotional depth.  Even when dealing with serious subjects like bereavement and poverty the novel remains frothy and there are no tear jerking moments when you really feel for the characters.  But this is OK, as it’s in keeping with the style, just don’t pick this up if you are looking for an emotional roller-coaster that will have you laughing then crying then pulling out your hair – this is light hearted fun to be read on a day when you don’t want to engage you heart or brain too deeply.

2.5/5

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Book Review: The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

This is a very good book but the plot took a direction midway through that I really wasn’t keen on.

The book set a little after the first world war and is about a well to do mother and daughter (Frances) who have fallen on financial hard times so decide to take in lodgers – The Paying Guests.  A young couple, Lilian and Leonard, move in and the first half of the novel is about this slightly uneasy living arrangement.

PayingGuest

I found this first half of the novel utterly sublime, there is so much in there even though relatively little happens.  It’s riddled with tension around class, sexuality, the role of women, the generation divide.  The living arrangements form a fascinating dynamic, the mother and daughter are from upper society but now have no money, Lilian and Leonard are from working class backgrounds but Leonard has found a good job in insurance so have much more cash and better prospects than their well to do landlords, so where does the power lie?  Frances’ mother is old fashioned and is very embarrassed by her daughter doing housework, but they can’t afford servants any more so what choice do they have?  Frances, a formed suffragette, longs to embrace the new opportunities for independence that are becoming available to women but feels morally obliged to keep house for her mother, especially as her mother is still grief stricken by the lost of her two sons in the trenches.  There is tension between the young couple, they married partly because Lilian was pregnant but the baby died leaving them tied to each other with neither entirely happy in their marriage.  Like I say, there is so much going on and all of it subtly played out through little moments; an awkward conversation in the scullery, a passing on the stairs, an overheard hushed argument in the parlour.

The novel changes around the midway point.  Things become much more melodramatic and the subtlety is all lost.  I personally did not enjoy this change, the novel doesn’t become bad but I would have preferred it to continue as a story of human relationships amid massive social changes not a story of passion and violence.  I won’t go into detail of what happens as you may wish to find out for yourself, and I would still recommend this novel even though I found it somewhat disappointing.

4/5

Zoe

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Event: The Sign of Sherlock

Sherlock Holmes could be said to be the world’s greatest multimedia star. But he never even existed. In stories, plays, musicals, movies, not to mention TV and radio, he’s been played by over 70 actors from countries across the globe. The magic is that we all feel we know the character, he’s as ubiquitous as The Beatles or Father Christmas in popular culture and adored by even those who’ve never read a word of Arthur Conan Doyle’s original books. How did this happen? And how has a very Victorian character endured and thrived in the modern, digital world?

Sherlock on sofa

Tomorrow night amateur sleuth and Holmes buff WJ Bird be appearing at The Library at Willesden Green to take you on a journey from Baker Street to the bright lights of Hollywood and beyond to answer these questions.

The first Sherlock Holmes film was made in 1900, the latest just last year. His author died in 1930 but new stories about his most famous creation are still being written. Sherlock Holmes himself was killed off in a story in 1893 but returned from the dead in 1901 so perhaps his immortality was assured back then!

I met up with Will to ask him a few questions about his relationship with the great  fictional detective.

Q. What’s Your favourite Sherlock Homes story and why?

“The Red Headed League” is a personal favourite as it is such a bizarre case and a lovely depiction of working life in Victorian London. Like many of the early short stories, nobody dies either. “The Musgrave Ritual” too is interesting as it’s a historical case that Holmes himself narrates – it’s set before he met Watson.

 

red headed league

Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes in the ITV version of The Red Headed League.

Q. Why do you think Sherlock Holmes captured the public’s imagination?

Come to the talk to find out my theories on this! But it’s mainly down to 1) the spread of popular media like magazines, cinema, TV and radio and 2) the creativity and passion of a lot of talented people over the past century, not just Arthur Conan Doyle!

Q. How has Sherlock Holmes influenced modern detectives on TV and in fiction?

Difficult question, but I guess being the first popular detective in English fiction means that he’s influenced them all. The detective as a maverick, not an establishment figure, has become a common theme, as has the importance of the more approachable “sidekick”. Conan Doyle also helped establish the idea of exposing the criminal underworld of a modern city through sometimes shocking tales, setting the template for Raymond Chandler and his like.

Big screen sherlock

Sherlock Holmes has appeared many times on the big screen

Q. Will Sherlock Homes still be in the public consciousness in 100 years?

As he keeps being reinvented then absolutely yes. As I say in my talk he’s gone in and out of fashion in popular culture over the decades, but the stories have never been out of print. But he’s becoming almost a mythical figure like Robin Hood now, not merely a literary one.

To hear more from Will do please come along to our free talk at The Library at Willesden Green, 6.30pm, 18 November.  (They’ll even be free wine and mince pies!)

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Book Review: The Modigliani Scandal by Ken Follett

modigliani scandal

This book follows the adventures of a large cast of characters who are all connected to the art world. There are forgers, dealers, artists, art historians, gallery owners and art thieves. They each have their own story and then the individual stories also clash or overlap. I guess the main thrust of the novel, the thread that brings the cast together, is the search of a lost masterpiece by turn of the century Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani.

I have read Ken Follett before, I have read his doorstop medieval epics Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. I enjoyed them both, they had exciting stories and interesting characters and were pacey enough to make getting through 900 or so pages a breeze. This was different; much shorter, a thriller/crime genre not a saga, written and set in the 1970s but the main difference was that is was awful!

When I first started reading it I thought it was OK. Follett introduces us to a selection of utterly unlikeable characters, which I thought in a way was refreshing. I think I have complained in a previous review about characters being too perfect – this lot were the opposite; nasty, spoiled, petulant, lazy, stupid, bitter – a real rubbish bunch. But then the reader was left not rooting for anyone and the storyline was rather weak, it weaved between the threads in a way that made you ask “which one was he again?” and then realising you didn’t care enough to look back to a previous chapter to work out who was doing what. There was the occasional pleasing scene but overall this felt more like a piece of experimental writing Follett might have done as an exercise to hone his craft rather than a finished novel. Particularly bad was the climax to the search for the lost piece of art which, if you do decide to read this novel against my advice, will leave your mouth hanging opening in disbelief (and not in a good way).

0.75/5

Zoe

Amedeo Modigliani painted in Paris in the 1900s, he dies young and his work did not begin to sell well until after his death.  The fact that some great artist only sell work after they've died is a theme explored by the book.

Amedeo Modigliani painted in Paris in the 1900s, he died young and his work did not begin to sell well until after his death. The fact that some great artist only sell work after they’ve died is a theme explored by the book.

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Our Artist in Residence

Jared Louche PBW

Great blog from our wonderful Artist in Residence Jared Louche.  He’s doing some fantastic work with young people and Brent Libraries feel very lucky to be working with him!

He’s been with us for a month already but there are still plenty of workshops to come at Harlesden Library, please see our online calendar for times and dates.

That’s all from me, here’s what Jared has to say about the project:

I’m currently involved in the Apples&Snakes SPINE Festival as artist-in-residence based in Harlesden Library. I’m a poet, performer, rock star, writer, photographer and workshop facilitator. For the past fifteen years I’ve been working at the nexus of the Arts, Education and Health Care. I facilitate writing, art and performance workshops in schools, prisons, hospitals, museums and libraries, using creativity as a way to excite people to better command the language and their ideas. Creativity’s a thrilling tool of empowerment that helps people release their imaginations and express things they might never dare tackle and I love to help midwife that creation.
This is an exciting and important project that highlights a collection of London libraries. With the explosive growth of the internet as a research tool, combined with extensive government cutbacks to library funding, libraries are currently fighting a battle to remain relevant in the 21st century. One of the things that I’m constantly fascinated by is creatively exploring people and buildings that are marginalized in society, those who (for whatever reasons) can’t tell their own story or whose stories aren’t seen as important by the society around them. We place value on the young, on the new, on the freshly rearranged. In doing so though we seem to feel that importance can’t simultaneously be placed upon the elders of our communities, upon older buildings and older traditions. There’s much that’s lost because of this and many voices that are no longer heard, fading as mist before a too-bright sun.
Libraries are the perfect illustration of this; every library has gone through countless changes, alterations and renovations. They’ve seen war and peace, busy times and slow, and down the years they’ve watched the community around them shift and change. Despite being the richest realm of words though, the one thing that no library has ever been able to do is to find its unique voice and be able to tell the story of its life. No library has ever been able to tell us its experiences, what its greatest fear and proudest moment might have been or what it dreams about when the last librarian has locked up, the stacks are still and the lights are finally out. The only way to hear that hidden voice is with your creative ears.Jared table
At Harlesden I’ll be working creatively with a broad spectrum of the local community, developing stories from the library’s perspective as well as looking at language and books in alternate ways. We’ll be developing Haiku-brief poems about secrets and hiding them in books throughout the library. We’ll also be creating and binding our own books. I’ll be running workshops with groups from schools as well as in a much more guerilla context with people who have come to borrow books and unwittingly wander into my orbit.
With children from local Primary Schools, I’m unleashing creative writing and creative thinking workshops to look differently at the amazing things the language can do. The ancient, universal language of poetry is the most phenominal spade with which to dig into the loamy soil of language and ideas. This helps expose children to the delights their library contains and allows them to see the space as both useful as well as exciting. Although the project only just launched last week, we’ve had lots of excited school children writing and talking about the language, and the library staff have been inundated with gleeful waves of children clamouring for library cards.
This is exactly the sort of project I love being involved in; one that allows for broad conceptual interpretation, that pushes at the membrane between the Known and the Unknown, that involves both the local community and Primary School children. Art may not change the world, but I’ve watched it change individual lives and I’m honoured to be able to be a part of SPINE.
Thanks Apples. This is already an excellent project. As usual, you rock!

 

Jared

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What is Urban Fantasy?

Rivers_of_London

Next month Brent Libraries are joining in with a fantastic scheme to encourage reading called Cityread London.  Have you heard of it?  It’s been running for a few years now and is basically like an absolutely massive book group.  Everyone in the city is encouraged to read the same book in the month of April and discuss it, attend related events etc.  You can read more about it on the Cityread London website.

This year’s chosen books is Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch which is described as ‘urban fantasy’, we started telling our library users about this book but many of them asked “What’s Urban Fantasy?” – and we found we weren’t sure how to define it!  Luckily for us Paulo who works in Lewisham Libraries, who are also part of the scheme, has provided a wonderfully comprehensive definition.  And here it is…

“Since ancient times, the supernatural has captivated storytellers and their audiences. Some of the earliest WIZARDsurviving literary forms—myths and folktales—feature such preternatural beings as wizards, ghosts, fairies, or vampires living among humans. Today, this fascination exists in the current boom in urban fantasy, a genre defined as texts where fantasy and the mundane world interact, intersect, and interweave throughout a tale which is significantly about a real city.

Urban fantasy’s roots date back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when readers were introduced to the possibility of supernatural, fantastic beings in modern settings, and later authors contributed to the development of what is now identified as “traditional urban fantasy”.

Buffy-the-Vampire-SlayerUrban fantasy describes a work that is set primarily in the real world and contains aspects of fantasy. These matters may involve the arrivals of alien races, the discovery of earthbound mythological creatures, coexistence between humans and paranormal beings, conflicts between humans and malicious paranormals, and subsequent changes to city management. The protagonists are often under a responsibility or in a position to help others survive or get justice from a world even more bizarre than our own.

Many urban fantasy novels geared toward adults are told via a first-person narrative, and Brooklyn Knightoften feature supernatural beings, protagonists who are involved in law enforcement or vigilantism. There has always been a strong noir element to adult urban fantasy, as there is often an underlying mystery to be solved in the books, even if the protagonist is not technically on the side of the police. The characters’ struggles to manage both the extraordinary and mundane sides of their lives tend to be difficult, especially when family or romance is involved, drawing a parallel with the general difficulties of adult life.

TwilightbookOn the other hand, teen urban fantasy novels often follow inexperienced protagonists who are unexpectedly drawn into paranormal struggles. Amidst these conflicts, characters often gain allies, find romance, and, in some cases, develop or discover supernatural abilities of their own. A common thread running through almost all teen urban fantasy is that as well as dealing with the fantasy element, they’re also coming into their own and learning who they are. These coming-of-age themes and a teen ‘voice’ are what distinguish young adult urban fantasy from adult books in the genre.”

So there you are – thanks Paulo!

Please join in with Cityread by reading the book this April.  You can also meet the author at Kilburn Library on 20th April – please see our website for details of this and other Cityread events.

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Book Review: City of Sin by Catharine Arnold

City of sinCatharine Arnold has written several books on London, generally looking at the darker side of London life. In Underworld London she looks at crime and punishment, Bedlam: London and its Mad looks at insanity and it’s treatment and Necropolis looks at the very dark subject of death in the city. In this volume Arnold turns to the naughtier side of the underworld and examines the history of sex in London, or more precisely the history of any kind sex regarded as illicit, now or in the past – adultery, prostitution, homosexuality, pornography.

 

A Victorian warning that prostitution did not often bring wealth and sexual freedom.

A Victorian warning that prostitution did not often bring wealth and sexual freedom.

This book has a lot going for it. It covers a huge swath of history beginning our story with Roman slave girls imported to Britain to entertain the troops stationed here to the age of confessional blogs from London call girls. It also has a wide reach in terms of the themes it covers and its tone. Arnold is a skilled writer managing to seamlessly move between harrowing tales of forced prostitution to amusing anecdotes of drunken unsuccessful would-be –philanderers. She doesn’t shy away from either the dark side of the sex industry or the amusing side and she is non-judgmental – we have stories of the Georgian working girls who climbed the ranks to become Duchesses along side the tales of those who committed suicide in poverty, disease and despair. It’s a very interesting subject and an interesting survey of changing attitudes – in the modern day we often feel attitudes to sex have steadily become more relaxed but this book shows that attitudes change in waves rather than as a steady movement, for example the harsh puritan times were followed by the rather debauched restoration period and then moralist Victorian values were rejected by many in the 20th century.

Did he have syphilis?  I believe there's significant doubt.

Did he have syphilis? I believe there’s significant doubt.

I very much enjoyed this book and can’t find much to criticise. I did spot a couple of historical errors, she says Edward IV succeeded his father Henry VI – the truth is Edward IV defeated his cousin Henry VI in battle during the Wars of the Roses. She also states as a fact that Henry VIII had syphilis, I was taught during my A-levels that there was considerable historical evidence to suggest this was not the case! Later she talks about the Duke of Clarence ‘younger son of Queen Victoria’ being a suspect in the Jack the Ripper case but my history tells me he was her grandson. Gosh, don’t I sound pedantic! But errors like this make me nervous that some of the unfamiliar stuff I’m reading might also be inaccurate.

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Overall a very interesting and entertaining read. I recommend it only with a warning though – it is at times really very rude! I’m not sure what I was expecting from a book about the history of sex, but at times it really did make me blush – particularly some of the naughty Restoration Poetry! But if you’re not too easily shocked or upset it is certainly worth a read.

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4.5/5 (half a point off for the little errors).

Hogarth charts the rise and fall of a 18th century prostitute in a series of famous illustrations called - A Harlot's Progress.

Hogarth charts the rise and fall of a 18th century prostitute in a series of famous illustrations called – A Harlot’s Progress.

Zoe

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