Book Review: The Ladybird Book of the Nerd

My husband reads special interest magazines, and blogs that encourage him to believe his point of view is valid and widely held. I was therefore surprised last week when he announced he had bought a book – until he showed it to me. He believes this is the perfect Secret Santa gift for a colleague. Given his line of work I suspect he may be correct – in this at least. Before wrapping, I decided to slip in a quick review.

The Ladybird Book of the Nerd, by JA Hazely and JP Morris (illustrated by various artists), is one of the latest offerings from the Ladybird Books for Grown-ups series (you may read my review of The Ladybird Book of The Meeting here). These pithy and amusing little hardbacks offer clear and entertaining text alongside original artwork from the Ladybird series’ that the grown-up readers may remember from their childhoods. To gain a flavour I offer some examples from its pages.

   

   

I ponder what it says about me that I recognise friends and acquaintances in each of these, and many more from the remaining pages. The third made me laugh especially. How must teachers regard the parents of such children, unless of course they share the interests.

Although quickly read The Nerd still entertained. That it got my husband to spend his money in a bookshop is also a big win.

Ladybird Books for grown-ups are published by Michael Joseph.

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Book Review: Tinderbox

Tinderbox, by Megan Dunn, is a book about the author’s failure to write a book, and how this led to her writing this one. It provides a window into the creative process and much else besides.

In November 2013 Dunn set out to participate in NaNoWriMo. The premise for her novel was a rewrite of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 from the perspective of Clarisse McClellan, the teenager who befriends the fireman in Bradbury’s work. Dunn intended to produce a homage to the book, which she had studied in High School. Things didn’t quite go to plan.

Dunn decides to reread the novel but ends up taking much of her material from Sparks Notes (a study guide) and the 1966 film version of the book, featuring Julie Christie. Dunn admires how Christie dresses and looks. She is also fascinated by the film making process detailed in the DVD extras. She is easily distracted when writing which provides for entertaining asides.

By 2013 Dunn had left behind her career as a bookseller at Borders, a chain of bookshops that went into administration in the UK in 2009. She recounts episodes from her experiences in the various branches where she worked, and of being made redundant. Her recollections are honest and lacking the usual sentiment book lovers apply to booksellers. As an aspiring author she had hoped that inspiration would seep from the pages of the stock she handled but this wasn’t to be.

Dunn struggles to churn out the words required to meet the NaNoWriMo target. She ponders Bradbury’s creative process, how he wrote Fahrenheit 451 on a library typewriter hired by the hour, completing the first draft in nine days. Her own writing refuses to flow.

Dunn reflects on the books that sell well; on culture snobs and the popularity of reality TV; on the rise of Amazon and growth of on-line retail; on Kindles and other eReaders. She studies the future as imagined by Bradbury and observes the habits and technology of today.

The writing is sharp and contemporary. There is no shying away from such issues as the prevalence of downloading digital content illegally. Dunn admits to drug taking and reflects on the breakup of her marriage. She mentions the large number of creative writing courses she enrolled in over the years. It is refreshing to find an autobiographical account of failure that is unapologetic and makes no attempt to garner pity.

I haven’t read Fahrenheit 451 or watched the film referenced but this didn’t detract from my enjoyment. Dunn’s portrayal of book selling was of particular interest. The writing throughout is droll and pithy, the existence of this book an against the odds achievement. It should be recommended reading for aspiring authors everywhere.

Tinderbox is published by Galley Beggar Press.

Book Review: Enemies of the People

Are you happy with the way our current crop of politicians and their influencers are running the world? Do you believe Brexit will make Britain Great, that Trump is good for the USA? If so then this book may not be for you, unless you wish to gain a better understanding. It offers, in bite sized chunks, key facts about those who helped create the situation in which we find ourselves today.

Enemies of the People, by Sam Jordison, is divided into fifty short chapters dedicated to those who have worked tirelessly to further their personal agendas at such potentially devastating cost. These include the usual subjects – Vladimir Putin, Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, Nigel Farage, Ronald Reagan, Donald Trump – as well as the men and women who inspired their skewed ways of thinking. There are unexpected names – Pepe the Frog, Jesus Christ, Chris Martin, Mel Gibson, Simon Cowell, Your Granny. Although dealing with weighty subjects the content is not entirely sober and serious.

I was familiar with the majority of the names but not all of the information included. This is an important point to make. Although partisan in presentation the information has been verifiably sourced and makes for interesting reading, even for someone who tries to keep up with current affairs.

I learned that there is an inheritance of ideas, cherry picked and repolished but undoubtedly affecting decision making over decades. Country-wide catastrophe means little when personal power is at stake, when there are private fortunes to be made. Who says we learn nothing from history? These people have learned plenty from their predecessors and don’t care that their actions cause untold damage to those they purport to represent.

As well as politicians there are economists, religious leaders, writers, advisers and media figures. The common thread is the impact of their actions on the general population, and how most have got away with such behaviour. Methods of manipulating public thinking are among the most valued of skills. Wider suffering is shown to be of little interest to the perpetrators.

I bought this book for my seventeen year old son who is developing his own political views. The historical perspective, accessible language and concise structure will, I hope, offer him a wider perspective than he is picking up from popular web-sites, YouTube channels and the family influenced conversations of his peers. The book is witty without being bland, angry but on point. It does not attempt to offer answers but encourages readers to pay more attention, and not just to the dead cat on the table or Kim Kardashian West’s shoes.

Intended to provide a snapshot of our times rather than a roll call of evil the author states:

“I can’t pretend to be objective. In fact, I can’t pretend to be anything other than royally cheesed off. I’ve seen the world I love torn to shreds and I wish it hadn’t happened.”

If the enemies listed here can learn from history, so too can readers. This perfectly sized stocking filler offers as good a place as any to begin the conversation.

Enemies of the People is published by Harper Collins.

Book Review: The Second Body

This review was written for and originally published by Bookmunch.

The premise of this essay by Daisy Hildyard is that every living being has two bodies – the physical body that can eat, drink and rest, and a body embedded in a worldwide network of ecosystems. Its purpose is to explore what the author calls the second body, and the alleged boundaries between all kinds of life on earth. It is not altogether clear if she is attempting to prove a conclusion she has already reached or to discover something new.

Her musings and anecdotes are wrapped around interviews with a number of individuals: staff working in a butcher’s shop; a criminologist specialising in wildlife crime; a PhD candidate working on micro biology; a senior researcher studying bio information; an evolutionary biologist. The author admits that she does not always fully understand the detail what these experts in their fields tell her.

There are repeated references to an Earthrise image which the author credits with making people consider the world as a single entity, something she appreciates herself when flying to a holiday destination. She also brings up climate change but does not make clear the point this raises, other than when she blames it for the flooding of her home.

“The river was in my house but my house was also in the river.”

To be clear, I make no argument against climate change but its inclusion in this essay comes across as a throw in.

There are mentions of the ordinary in her interviewees’ lives – opera, gaming, washing dishes – as if there is a need to prove empathetic aspects of the human condition. The author is seeking a definition yet fails to make clear the reasons for inclusion of certain subjects along the way.

She comes at the same points from numerous directions.

Each human being, as an entity, is made up of the same parts. However they look, when cut they bleed. The same could be said of other beings. Defining the boundaries between species can at times appear arbitrary. Each takes inside itself parts of others in food, air particles, water. A body expels skin, hair and other substances which are inhaled, absorbed or fertilise other living things. Around the world this process has an effect. Everything is in a relationship with everything else.

An individual’s impact on the world is consumption of resources and expenditure of waste, not what their life story may be. The human body replaces itself over time, shedding and renewing cells, yet each body is regarded as one separate being.

“This critical tradition speaks of psychology, the unfathomable depths of the individual, cultural identity and private individuality.”

There is symbiosis between cells, animals, people. Not everything acts purely in its own best interests. There is invasion, dependence and loss. Even amongst bacteria there is collaboration.

The author explores the boundaries between our first and second bodies as she seeks her definition. Interspersed with her commentary are musings on personal experiences, on Shakespeare, on death.

Any Cop?: There were interesting aspects but overall the essay lacked coherency and innovation. I expected something more than a somewhat rambling discourse on man’s place within the natural world.

 

Jackie Law

Book Review: The Book of Forgotten Authors

The Book of Forgotten Authors, by Christopher Fowler, is a book for bibliophiles. It offers the reader details and anecdotes on ninety-nine authors who were once hugely popular and are now no longer in print. It is a very personal selection. The author admits that some of those chosen produced work that was predictable and not particularly well written, yet it has a charm that he finds appealing. Others he dismisses. Of Georgette Heyer and Eleanor Hibbert he opines that they wrote novels packaged in

“the kind of pastel covers no man would ever pick up.”

Really?

Each author listed is necessarily given just a few pages. Although superficial this is enough to provide a flavour of why they became popular before sinking into obscurity. Interspersed with the listings are commentaries such as ‘The Forgotten Books of Charles Dickens’ and ‘The Forgotten Booker Winners’. Although esoteric in places these make for interesting reading.

From some of the quotes provided I would suggest many of these authors deserve to stay forgotten, yet this reaction demonstrates just how personal individual reading experiences can be. In talking of the suspense writer Charlotte Armstrong:

“sometimes you want to wring the necks of her protagonists for picking the one option that will get them into deeper trouble. But hey, bad choices make good stories.”

I’m not sure that I agree.

The book is written with a deft and humorous touch. It is also moving in places. The chapter on Polly Hope was a particular favourite.

It is not so much the quality of the literature produced by these forgotten authors as their passing popularity that warrants their inclusion. Tastes change over time as do readers’ offence radars; authors can be sidelined when their evocative voice grates modern sensibilities.

I did not always agree with the conclusions the author reaches. The Forgotten Queens of Suspense opens with

“Ignored, underrated, overlooked or taken for granted, the women who wrote popular fiction for a living were often simply grateful to be published at all.”

This sounded familiar. The author is more generous suggesting

“Today women read more than men, and female authors have finally been accorded the prestige they always deserved.”

If only this were truly the case.

The output of many of the authors listed was prodigious, especially compared to current expectations. Like today some was also abtruse. Thomas Love Peacock is described as an acquired taste, seemingly for good reason. In writing of his tome Nightmare Abbey:

“it seems best to stumble from one page to the next and merely enjoy the juxtaposition of words”

“the book doesn’t so much end as stop. My paperback version is so old that some of the pages fell out, and it didn’t feel entirely necessary to put them back in the right order.”

Do authors such as this deserve a reprint?

There are scathing comments about readers who are described as ‘intellectually inert’. As an example, the author clearly dislikes the once popular little book, Jonathan Livingston Seagull. When a teenager I found this uplifting. Perhaps my more jaded, aged eye would not agree but at the time of reading it did its job and connected.

The author writes kinder words on the renowned Dan Brown:

“The real sin of bad writing is being boring, and Mr Brown is certainly never that.”

Well, he bored me.

Of course, agreeing with the author’s point of view is not the point. What this book offers is a window into the vagaries of the publishing world and its readership, the changing tastes and fickle loyalties. It is packaged in a way that makes it perfect for dipping into and refering back to over time.

I welcomed the insights into the ever evolving literary world, its discoveries and appropriations, pretensions and fads. So much has changed and yet much remains the same. As a great author, who has not been forgotten, once wrote: a man is not dead while his name is still spoken. For these ninety-nine, Mr Fowler could be a lifesaver.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the author, riverrun.

This post is a stop on The Book of Forgotten Authors Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Interview with Piu Eatwell, author of Black Dahlia Red Rose

Author Photo by Carsten Wilde

Today I am delighted to welcome true crime writer Piu Eatwell to my blog. Piu’s latest novel, Black Dahlia Red Rose, solves the seventy year old mystery of who murdered aspiring starlet Elizabeth Short, whose body was found dumped on waste ground in a Los Angeles suburb in January 1947 (you may read my review of the book here). Piu has provided fascinating answers to the questions I sent her for this post. I hope that you enjoy reading them as much as I did.

 

1. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background? 

Hard to know where to start on that one! Well, I’m British but have lived in Paris, France, for over ten years now.  I’m married to an Englishman, with three children who were born in France and are growing up here.  I started off writing books about life as an English woman in France, but have moved on to crime writing as it’s where I see my true vocation as a writer. Black Dahlia, Red Rose is my fifth book: my last was a real-life Edwardian thriller and detective story, The Dead Duke

2. Can you tell us about Black Dahlia Red Rose? 

Black Dahlia, Red Rose is the true-life story of one of the most famous unsolved murders of all time: the murder of 22 year old Hollywood starlet Elizabeth Short, whose bisected body was found tossed on a pavement in Los Angeles in January 1947.  In writing the book I went back to original sources – contemporary newspaper reports and police files – to reconstruct what I believe really happened in this case. 

3. What inspired the book? 

I have been long interested in Hollywood and crime, ever since researching a film for Channel 4 television about the Manson murders a while back.  In order to make that film, I spent almost a year in Los Angeles and learned a lot about the recent history of the city.  I decided I wanted to investigate another famous crime that took place in LA, and of course, the Dahlia murder must be one of the most notorious and intriguing of them all.   

 4. Your true crime books are written as stories. How much leeway do you allow yourself when documenting the facts to ensure the storytelling remains engaging? 

This is something that gives rise to misunderstanding, because a lot of people think that – because my books are written like fiction – that I am therefore making things up.  In fact, this is not at all the case.  Everything that is between quotation marks is accurately reported dialogue, taken from contemporary sources such as police interviews or memoirs.  If I describe the weather on a particular day, it is because I looked up the historical weather reports.  As such, my books are as completely accurate as more conventional non-fiction – but because they read like a novel, a lot of people don’t realize this.  It is something that I therefore explained in the introduction to Black Dahlia, Red Rose. 

5. What is your favourite part of being a writer? 

Being totally immersed in another world – and this is the case whether I am writing fiction or non-fiction.  Also, I love the process of constructing the story or plot – again, essentially the same with fiction and non-fiction, except that with non-fiction the events have already been determined, you have to decide how you are going to present them, or put them together.   

6. And your least favourite? 

I dislike the “in-between times” – as now – when I have just finished a book, and have therefore been forced to tear myself away from that world.  Until I get my next project, I feel bereft and rather lost without the magic, inner world that always accompanies me whenever I am working on a book.   

7. Do you enjoy social media? 

I think social media is a mixed blessing in that it can be a wonderful tool to reach out to readers and also to keep up with what is going on in the world of books, but it is also a dreadful distraction that often keeps me from working!  Also, one thing I dislike about social media is the culture it has fostered by which people feel they have the right to say what they like, without any of the boundaries of politeness that govern more conventional discourse, leading to trolling, harassing, etc of writers and other public figures.  Politeness is something that should be universal and from which no forum should be exempt. 

8. Do you seek out reviews of your books? 

I am always happy to encourage honest reviews of my books because that, after all, is the point of writing: it’s a form of communication, and if a book is not being discussed, it’s no longer a living thing.  Having said that, I don’t see the value to anybody of reviews that merely trash books in a thoughtless way, or the kind of Amazon review that gives a book one star because it ‘arrived late.’  Again, as I said above, social media gives everybody enormous privileges and powers, in giving each of us a voice; but along with that voice, in my view, comes a certain amount of responsibility.  

9. What do you do when you wish to treat yourself? 

Lots of things!  A glass of champagne is my unfailing treat to myself when a manuscript is finally finished and sent off to the publisher.  I also love English pork pies, Marmite, and cheddar cheese (which are difficult to find in France!!), and reading books that are not directly connected with my research (a rare treat). 

10. What books have you read and enjoyed recently? 

A very wide range: the ghost stories of M.R. James; a wonderful book on the history of ghosts and ghost-hunting called A Natural History of Ghosts by Roger Clarke (Penguin, 2012); and a powerful recent speculative horror novel, Hex by the Dutch writer Thomas Olde Heuvelt (Hodder & Stoughton, 2016) – the story of a seventeeth-century witch trapped in a New England town.  

11. Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction? 

That’s a difficult one, but I suppose if I had to choose, it would be Sherlock Holmes, as I would love to figure out how his brain ticks! 

12. What question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would? 

What my guilty pleasure is.  And in case you’re interested, it’s – of all things – renovating my children’s dolls’ house!  I have everything there in miniature 1/12th scale: right down to original paintings in the hall and tiny reproductions of my own books and those of my favourite authors in the library.  A psychologist could probably get quite Freudian about it – the search for a perfect miniature world, etc….. I find it incredibly calming. 

 

This post is a stop on the Black Dahlia, Red Rose Blog Tour. Do check out the other blogs taking part, detailed below.

Black Dahlia, Red Rose is published by Coronet and is available to buy now.

Book Review: My Shitty Twenties

My Shitty Twenties, by Emily Morris, is a memoir focusing on the author’s pregnancy and early years of motherhood. At twenty-two years of age, having just completed her second year of a three year degree course at Manchester University, the author was horrified to discover that she was pregnant. Nevertheless she decided to keep the baby. The father had no interest in either her or his child.

The book recounts how this party loving, messy living student had to defer the university life she loved and work full time whilst continuing to live in shared digs with students. Her mother offered her a room in her childhood home but Emily was reluctant to leave Manchester. Friends and family were supportive but she felt guilty at the prospect of single motherhood instead of a degree.

The account is searingly honest. There is none of the rose tinted, sugar coated wonder prevalent in typical tales of growing a child. This is the reality of a cessation of activities most regard as fun. Emily gave up cigarettes and alcohol. She discovered the long list of banned foods for mothers-to-be, and strangers all too eager to share with her their toxic views on a young, single woman bringing a child into the world alone. Whilst her friends continued to party, Emily grew fat and joined the on line forums frequented by opinionated women, where she learned the passive aggressive language of well-meaning advice.

When the baby was due Emily realised that she would have to move in with her mother. After the euphoria of escape to university this was difficult for all concerned. She would not bow to the popular notion that women should give birth as naturally as possible. She stayed in hospital for as long as they would keep her, eager for the medical professionals’ support.

Once home with her baby Emily endured the loneliness of early motherhood, the difficulties in simply leaving the house with a young child. Health Visitors pressured her into joining mother and baby groups; her experiences of these are painfully recounted. She now had little in common with many of her old friends.

Reluctant to conform to the widely derided stereotype of single mother on benefits, Emily was determined to find a job and fund her own place to live. She learned that employers regard mothers of young children as unreliable, especially when they have no partner to share the burden of the inevitable childhood sicknesses.

When her baby became a toddler Emily decided to use a small inheritance to prove to herself she could still enjoy life despite having a child. She started to find ways to take pride in what she could achieve.

This is not a book about a baby but rather a young woman becoming a mother, who would have preferred not to be single but just about coped anyway. The open and honest style of writing is refreshing and a welcome addition to the often infuriatingly upbeat accounts of parenting, a task that may be rewarding but is rarely easy. Emily’s treatment by the smug mums, signaling their virtues in the guise of advice or minor complaints, reminded me of my own experiences. Guilt and pressure to conform are ever present demons.

Around half of the book recounts the author’s pregnancy with the remainder focusing on the eighteen months after. Although I just occasionally lost engagement, and felt minor irritation when a recollection did not follow the mainly linear construction, this remained an empathetic read that many will relate to.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Salt.