The Girl in Between

by Sarah Carroll

Recommended to me by Beta Reader No2, I didn’t love this to begin with: it felt, as I suspect a good many hard-working YA novels do, like it had been worked to death: that those first three chapters had been whittled and kerned and edited to within an inch of their lives, and maybe its my growing familiarity with the genre, but it just felt really obviously worked on. Perhaps readers-who-aren’t-authors (are there any?) don’t get that  feeling, but the polishing of openings is currently irritating me (perhaps the virtually permanent scouring of my own opening first three chapters has over sensitised me to it.) However, I stuck with this, despite the blatant telegraphing of what the ‘surprise!’ was going to be, and I grew to enjoy the characters and the complex sadness of the story. The dialogue was particularly strong, I thought, and the delicate lack of specifics around the lead’s mother’s drug dependency was artfully done. I liked the believable menace of the peripheral characters, and the flashbacking through the variety of no-hope-holes the mother and daughter at the heart of the story found themselves in.

From an industry PoV this was a ‘limited edition proof’, which made great promises about and for the author’s upcoming publication. That publication (which I see from Amazon did go ahead) was nearly two years ago…

That is the business, I guess, but it makes me realise just how much work goes into trying to make it happen. Why shouldn’t this book succeed any less than all the others? It’s not bad; BR2 had loved it (which was part of the reason I finished it: to be able to tell her honestly what I thought, although BR3 gave up quickly, declaring it ‘boring’) but it seems to have become just another YA shelf filler. It’s a depressing reality I am already aware of: getting an agent is only the first step on an increasingly steep and difficult slope.

But hey: who am I, if not nobody? At least SC managed to get an agent and a deal and into print; I am as yet possessed of none of that. So well done Sarah Carroll.

On the shelf: 3
I wasn’t that excited by prospect.

On loan: 2/4
Almost put it down after the first few pages, but it improved as it went on.

On return/reflection: 3/4
Has stayed with me, but not perhaps for reasons to do with the content.

 

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Howl’s Moving Castle

by Diana Wynne Jones

When you’re submitting queries to agents, you often find them asking for authors or books alongside you imagine your work might sit. I’ve always struggled with this, making me feel a little naive and under-read  (I mean, I guess I am still fairly new here) but I  hadn’t read anything so far which has ever made me think, ‘yes; I see myself in you,’ (*WARNING! trailer-trope incoming*)

…UNTIL NOW

There was something splendid about this book; something whimsical but deeply nuanced. I’d seen the (Ghibli) film several times (a children’s favourite) but was unprepared by how far the film version had deviated from the book: beyond the central characters and the title and a few key scenes early on though they are hell-different. The book is so much better plotted and informed than the anime (I think the film is great: it’s a beautiful vision, but it does feel a little like it loses its way around after the first act, whereas the source material is informed of a purpose). It has just as many images, but they’re so lightly described, rendered so casually as to provide ample space for you to pour in your own impressions: I’ve come away feeling like I’ve learnt a great deal without being taught anything at all.

The story centres on Sophie, the eldest of three sisters in a non-nuclear family, who thinks of herself as the least interesting and the most likely to cause problems. Her father, a milliner, dies and leaves his wife, Sophie, and her two sisters to forge their own paths. Sophie is given the task of maintaining the hat shop by her step mother while the other two are apprenticed out. Feeling as if this is her duty, Sophie begins to trim the hats and without realising it, pours herself into each one she makes, imagining the heads the hats will sit atop, she eventually realises, bringing these dreams to life through her craft. She’s just beginning to regret the willingness with which she accepted her role, when the Witch of the waste appears and in an act of Witchy-spitefulness, transforms Sophie from a young girl into an old woman. Sophie flees the town, hobbling up the road, imagining this is all for the best and what she deserves, until she finds herself  beset by the aches and fears of an old woman; alone in the mountains at night, at the mercy of every imaginable terror and pursued by a scarecrow she has liberated from a bush. With nowhere to turn but to the terrifying Howl, reputed to eat young women hearts, she faces a terror at least knowable (and one which, as an old woman, she imagines she will be immune). Having forced her way into the eponymous Castle, and with no sign of the aforementioned heart-eating wizard, she does what she imagines old women are supposed to do, and sets about cleaning the filthy kitchen. The wizard’s apprentice, Michael, appears and she tells a vague enough story for him to assume Howl has invited her, and before long she’s made a deal with Calcifer the fire demon (who keeps the castle on the move from his place in the hearth). Howl when he does appear lets her stay, before disappearing into the bathroom to beautify himself for several hours, leaving Michael and Calcifer to explain that of course he doesn’t eat young girls hearts, he merely makes them fall in love with him – then when they do, he becomes bored and moves onto the next. Sophie is horrified by this selfishness, and sets about teaching him a lesson by doing even more cleaning.

Amongst the many magics at work within the castle, the door through which Sophie has come is able to access four realms, depending on which way the dial beside it turned, and it was at this point I found myself falling in love with DWJ.

As I said, having seen the film several times and already recognised how far it trails in the wake of the book, the greatest deviation from the source came about when the door was turned to the black quarter and opened onto… Wales! Actual, in-reality Wales, where Howl is known as Howell, and goes to visit his sister and his niece and his nephew, who’s playing video (or to use the vernacular, vid-yo) games. Colour me taken aback.

Another reason I found myself falling for this story was the way each of the characters seemed to understand their faults, to recognise their worst traits, but continue to act them out, seemingly unable to stop themselves from blundering into scenarios which epitomise everyone’s worst impressions of them: Howl even sends Sophie to the King of one of the other three realms to tell his majesty what a dreadful coward Howl is, so the King won’t send him to find his lost brother: however Sophie becomes flustered and manages instead to convince his Majesty to do exactly that.

Admittedly at this point, I did wish the book had focussed more on the main plot of hunting for the King’s brother (which Howl continues to avoid) but both Howl and the book avoid it in such a charming way, and it is for Sophie’s benefit that he/it avoids it, I couldn’t really mind so much. Subsequently, the conclusion does feel a little hurried and I felt like I wanted a bit more depth and description.

 

On the shelf: 4
Knew the film and enough about DWJ as an author to to look forward to it.

On loan: 4
Subtle and graceful and with some unexpected surprises but a few plodding passages and a bit dithery in the third act/fourth act transition.

On return/reflection: 5
A great book that has its themes subtly woven through it. Clearly, I wouldn’t consider myself alongside DWJ, but I do now have an author to whom I can point and say; ‘that. I want to be like that.’

 

A Brexit drama

I don’t like the idea of leaving the European Union – in fact I think it’s probably a really bad idea. But, confession time, I didn’t vote.

I was at Glastonbury on June 23rd, and I was planning on cycling home to go and vote remain (it was only a half hour ride; nothing massive, but the cider was delicious, and well. It was just one vote).

So, sat around the meagre morning fire with a dozen or so others, I thought, ‘I know: if I can find one person who was going to go and vote leave, maybe we could shake hands and agree that we’d do that thing MPs are supposed to and pair off’: we’ll both withhold a vote and agree that we’re quits on that score. I figured it might take me a while to find someone to pair with, though: this was a Glastonbury crew campsite;  no Daily Mail readers here! A range of sexual orientations and a variety of hair colour choices meant I was among friends! The first person I asked wasn’t going to vote, but said they would have voted leave.

The second person said the same.

And the third.

Fourth, fifth and sixth as well.

It was the seventh person I spoke to who was a leaver and was planning on heading off later. They agreed to withhold their vote to match mine. We shook on it and cracked another can.

Now it was Glastonbury, so the national political debate wasn’t exactly front and centre for any of us, but to find so many people whose intention was to get out of Europe shocked me. That feeling had kind of faded as the last two years have shuddered by, until I saw the Channel Four Brexit drama, an Uncivil War, last week.

It was fantastic, I thought, and I’m still thinking about it. But for all of it being an enjoyable drama, there were two scenes which epitomised why and how we got into this mess:

The first was the trip Cummings, Carswell and Eliot took  to meet some of Carswell’s constituents: Carswell’s confession that he’d never been there was an emblematic start, as were the empty streets. The couple they went to meet sat there embarrassed by their lack of education, but justifiably angry at being left behind: they felt abandoned by politics, trained for a heavy industry which was then closed down and given nothing else. I loved the ghost town feeling of the location; the emptiness of it. And these might not have been interesting or interested people; no connection in contemporary culture or some sense of the city, but so what? Did that mean they were worthless, or that they mattered less? They were just people who had watched their lives being set aside as less important than the lives of others. Their nervousness at being seen as racists; their feelings of betrayal were exactly the kind of uncomfortable truth that liberals and media elites (and I guess that includes me) are happy to ignore because they’re not very visible from the town centre; where the bright shiny lights and mirrors of our own importance dazzle us so brilliantly. (Seriously though, aren’t we brilliant? Blogging on our phones?)

The second emblematic scene was the phone conference held by the Remainers as the campaign’s strategic head, Craig Oliver, tried to dish up dinner for the children. It encapsulated so eloquently the distraction; the lack of focus and sense that it wasn’t that important, really: of course it was in the bag (even as they were starting to discuss thoughts of it going tits up). The symbolism of the children not listening to him (because he was on the phone, distractedly being important) as he’s serving them dinner was dramatic writing of the highest standard. Them running off (like me, at Glastonbury) to play their games… gasp. The way his actions epitomised the lip service paid to the right idea (and I think it would have been, just to reiterate, the right idea to remain) he was ostensibly doing something ‘for the children’ while remaining (ouch) bound up in his own actions; in being the important thing. It was breathtakingly eloquent, If he truly cared, of course, he would have focussed on them and not on being on the phone.

Children (of all ages) can’t be expected to know what’s best of them (sitting down and eating their tea; chugging tins of cider at Glastonbury) and so the failure of his stewardship was complete: he was neither keeping the idea of a vast equality (the European Union) alive, or keeping his own house in order, for the benefit of future generations.

The truth of Brexit is that it is a terrible idea, and Vote leave/Leave EU, played a dirty game of lying to the people, but at least they recognised the people were there. The remain campaign was an Eton Mess and they (we) will now enjoy our just desserts. Sad to say, there may well not be any pudding for many of the leavers, because it could well turn out to be a catastrophic economic disaster. But, if that means the disenfranchised and the ignored-as-an-inconvenience rise up and take back some modicum of control and engage in politics to master their own destiny; send a message to the self-important stewards of the nation who have lined their own pockets and troughs for so long as to imagine they enjoy some kind of protected heritage status, then so be it.

I have zero faith in, or respect for the Farages, the Banks’s or the Rees Moggs; they are the worst of the worst, telling lies to the disenfranchised for their own gain. But they will get their comeuppance, surely. The trouble-making opportunists, the Johnsons and the Goves might well look nervous about what they’ve unleashed, because I suspect if we do go over the cliff of a hard Brexit, things will go very badly wrong very quickly, and faith in these little piggies will sour and all their lies and self-serving duplicity will cost them dearly.

We had a great deal with Europe and for a lack of knowledge, and a series of lies told over decades to the people by hard-right newspaper barons, the country has been convinced to throw it away. Leave told some absolute whoppers to get their way, and I hope it comes back to kick the campaign leaders right up their jacksie-holes.

And so to now: mid January with a deal on the table. What will parliament do? A body of elected representatives who for the most part voted to remain (as individuals, entitled to a vote). They are tasked with conducting the amputation; the removal of a limb that is an unnecessary act of mutilation. It really is not in our best interests. Instead we have the fantasies of nincompoops like Davis and Fox, whose imbecilic chanting of mantras and their soft-headed belief that because we used to have an empire, we can just pick up where we left off, once those busybody Euro-types have stopped interfering. Their vision relies on a return to an era that embodied subjugation and exploitation on an industrialised scale. (In case you hadn’t noticed, boys, the empire is no longer willing to be exploited for our benefit.)

The blame lies unquestionably with David Cameron, who lazily thought such a complex question could be turned into a simple yes/no, in/out question, and then ran away to jot down his thoughts in a fucking bijou shepherds hut. The referendum was meant to be consultative: they should have done more work on the outcome before rushing to declare they would respect the outcome. It should have been a Preferendum (Ireland discovered the risks inherent in simple referendums after years of disastrously inept yes/no polls) and examined the use of funds and data immediately. But secondly, there is a significant slice of fault to be apportioned to Theresa May, whose pig-headed insistence on doing it her way and failing to state clearly that while 17 million voted to leave, 16 million voted to stay, has backed us into a corner. Why has she insisted a coin toss must be the be-all and end-all? If she’d made some move to acknowledge in the first instance that the referendum was a simplistic and flawed debate, accepting we were leaving but that we had responsibilities rather than wrapping it all up in her bloody red lines, we might not be in such a mess now.

And so to Corbyn. It’s clear he’s made no friends among the liberal elite, but that does not mean he isn’t right: for all the artfully constructed polls which purport to say Labour would win by a landslide if they just backed a second referendum, he’s right to keep his powder dry. Labour voted at conference to follow this path: it was a democratic vote, conducted by the members, with a fulsome debate, even if we (the aforementioned liberal elite) don’t like it, how many of us were there? How many of us, beyond what we read in the Guardian or hear on an LBC phone-in show or in a twitter snippet, have thought much about the EUs dubious record on workers rights, or the lobbying machine which has seen big business gain a stranglehold on agriculture and fishing?

We are going to have to leave, but we need to do it properly, like adults. We need a general election with a clear position from Labour that those who have been stiffed for several generations can support and can at least survive. We need to introduce our own tax transparency laws, similar (if not identical) to the ones the EU are about to introduce (and a large part of the reason the Rees-Moggs are so keen to leave) and build an economy founded on self-sufficiency and environmental sustainability, not as a holiday destination or financial services and tax avoidance paradise which will serve only to make a few individuals very much richer. People voted for change; we need to make sure it doesn’t kill us.

Half Wild

by Sally Green

The second in a trilogy and an enjoyable follow-up to the first. Interest was piqued by the emergence of an unexpected sexuality from the lead character – a willingness to explore his preference for men over women as he grows closer to Gabriel, the black witch who helped him achieve his gifting – or was supposed to, until the other black witch he was meant to be meeting (Mercury) went a bit awol, capturing the white witch girl Nathan spent the first book pining for. Having reconnected (briefly) with his father at the end of the first book, Nathan (the hero) begins to explore the gifts he had been given by the old man, joining (hesitantly) the nascent rebellion against the growing authoritarianism of the white witch council.

I thought the pacing and structure of this second book was better than the first, with less standing about, waiting for stuff to happen, however, in exploring the tentative homosexual relationship Nathan has with Gabriel, the author has, I think, stumbled into risky territory wherein she (perhaps inadvertently) finds herself equating sexual orientation with good/bad traits: she comes down on the ‘gay is good’ side, but I always get a bit nervous about these kind of decisions in YA fiction: it doesn’t feel like the place to be making connections between morality and sexual orientation. Grazing the issue like this feels too complex for an adventure yarn (It’s certainly an interesting theme, but I feel like you gotta go ‘balls deep’ on it and really dig around in it to avoid glib implications. But hey; OALA!)

What I did like about this book was the visceral finale (I shan’t reveal it, but I was quite shocked by how willing she was to go there) and it does appear to have taken the plot in a new and unexpected direction. The third and final novel in the trilogy, Half Lost, is reserved and I look forward to seeing where it goes, following the twist at the end of this one.

Most interestingly perhaps was what she revealed in the ‘acknowledgements’ at the end of the book, holding the curtain back a little to reveal how different/difficult writing a second novel is: the ‘sophomore effort‘ syndrome bands often complain about.

 

On the shelf
Enjoyed the first, looked forward to it: 4

On Loan
A pacy read which took some unexpected turns: 4

On Return
Slightly unnerved by the hints of moral equivalency of the black/gay, white/straight deal: 3

The art of rejection

And so the staggering, fragmentary process of being politely turned down goes on.

Another email arrived late yesterday with a thanks-but-no-thanks between the lines and the assertion I should keep trying (‘this is a subjective business’) tasting bitter in my mouth as I anticipate the first drops of the downpour – the acrid deluge of self-doubt that will wash me onto Linked-in to read about former colleagues’ latest triumphs, or to the hand-wringing distraction of the news, or into the Twitter threads of yet more conspiracy -anything to be away from this bloody manuscript, sat like a toad in the rain, doing nothing but croaking inarticulately for attention.

Only this time… it actually feels OK. I appear to have developed some resistance; to have shellacked myself from the onslaught. I have fashioned an umbrella which may also be a boat from previous rejections and I am still afloat.

If you aspire to authorship (authorhood?) you will have read the posts and comments and tweets and assertions from successful writers that it does get easier and that success will come if you just keep going. No doubt you have sneered at the lack of self-awareness they must surely be possessed of; scoffed at their little plinths in the brickwork of the well as you bob in the water below. You too will no doubt have dismissed their achievements and thought about going back to what you did before, or trying another new career, or inventing the next Aeropress or being plucked from obscurity or knocking one of them off and taking their place. You too will no doubt have lamented the missed opportunities and recalled the times luck walked in and you didn’t look in time – or worse still, looked but did not see.

When they’ve come before, the No Thank Yous, I’ve shrugged and thought I didn’t care, then over the next few days felt the rising waters inching up my nose. But this time, I actually do feel less concerned. I shall press ahead, no matter. I will stop wasting my time imagining I am going to drown.

We Were Liars

by E. Lockhart

A book which holds you at a distance, with a cool and reserved sense of itself. Some of the prose, especially around the second act, is lovely and achieves “Great American Novel” ™  status, I should say. It comes with a twist which for all the hints at what that twist might be, still manages to be a shock when it is finally revealed. And while I wasn’t so consumed as to ‘start rereading it immediately’ (as the blurb suggested I would) I did skim back through to check a few details, and found myself quite moved by the lead’s belated realisations. Did feel it could have been fifty pages shorter, or supported another story thread, if the page count was important.

BR2 has started it and is racing through it, saying she loves it: maybe she is a better judge (being target audience)

On the shelf
Not heard of the author; looks a bit pretentious 3

On loan
Some lovely turns of phrase, with a quality twist 4

On reflection
Will look out for more E. Lockhart and will be interested to hear BR2’s feeling once she’s finished. 3

 

Musical Theatre

Well.

I’ve never really enjoyed musicals, but then this weekend we took a trip en famille to see… Hamilton. and now I must kneel before those involved and praise their genius.

I’m still struggling to process quite how Lin Manuel Miranda (author) packed so much into 27,000 words in less than three hours, or how Thomas Kail (director) got that onto the stage, or how Andy Blankenbuehler (choreographer) made dance seem so natural and integral to the idea of the birth of America or how beautifully Paul Tazewell (costume) dressed the cast. And those were just the obvious arts: Alex Lacamoire’s orchestration, Howell Binkley’s lights and Nevin Steinberg’s sound design meant you felt and saw and heard everyone of those 27,000 words amidst so much else.

Hamilton uses the self-mythologising of Hip-Hop in the same way The Get Down did, but describes not just the birth of hip-hop, but the birth of America. It disregards black or white among its actors, liberally reinterpreting the ethnicity of the original characters, but remains unmistakably an underdog story: from its first words, (‘How does the bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor grow up to be a hero and a scholar?’) this is about the poor and outcast, the disenfranchised and the unwanted rising up: this is the creation of America. As Alexander and John Laurens (maybe? it was moving so fast) intone to one another midway through: ‘Immigrants: we get the job done.’

This is truth being spoken to power, and not shutting up when power doesn’t listen: choosing to act the giddy fool and getting up in The Man’s grill until he scurries away with his tail between his legs (witness the 2016 booing of vice-president-elect Mike Pence by the audience, and his addressing by the cast afterwards as he tried to slink away).

I might one day try to write a more detailed analysis of Hamilton (which will require a second viewing of the show, something I never thought I’d consider for a musical) but in the three hours I sat there with my mouth open, these were some of the standouts [contains SPOILERS]:

  • The line, ‘I’m just like my country – young, scrappy and hungry,’ and the hand gestures accompanying it
  • The endlessly inventive use of the concentric rotating stage – particularly the death of Hamilton scene where two of the cast row the body back across the river (it’s the Hudson, but could just as easily have been the Styx)
  • The Schuyler sisters coming on like Destiny’s child
  • Angelica Schuyler’s song midway through the first half as her sister marries Hamilton while she is in love with him herself; the repetition of the dialogue being utterly transformed as its heard from her perspective (reader, I wept like a child)
  • Jason Pennycooke playing Thomas Jefferson as if he was Cab Calloway or Maurice Day – and Tarrin Callender’s big shouldered back-up as James Madison which reminded me of Radio Raheem
  • The house of congress rap battle (complete with mic drops) at the start of the second half
  • The letters… the constant writing; the scribbling of notes being carried by the performers to their intended recipient and the literal downpour of paper as Hamilton’s despair and endless writing fails to save him and the culmination of that number, where the desk (a board, nothing more) is whirled into position by the dancers as Hamilton sits to write
  • The repetition
  • Michael Jibson’s brilliantly psychopathic tantrum turn as George III
  • The 1940s femme fatale hair and exit lighting of Maria Reynolds
  • The hat-tip to Gilbert & Sullivan (George Washington’s describes himself as, ‘the very model of a modern major general’)
  • And last but not least, the actors. Chief amongst these being Jamal Westman as Hamilton, capturing the growing uncertainty of age in the second half as events start to batter and tarnish his once undentable self-image.

This is a work of genius which transcends its confines to sit alongside the other greatest works of art ever made. Get a ticket and see it if you can – you may have to wait a while, mind, so I should mention friend Lucy, who scored us the tickets at short notice and who gave us beds for the night (and me a proper hangover the next morning xx).

#Hamiltonthemusical

Scoring

I hadn’t started out with the intention of ‘grading’ the work of other writers, but as I’ve gone on with this, I’ve started to think its useful… but incomplete.

Therefore, in a technique I am unashamedly cribbing from the movie mag (and website)  Little White Lies, I’m going to be refining and expanding the scores (still out of 5) to reflect:

On the shelf
What I’m expecting before opening.

On loan
How did I find it, during?

On reflection
Having put it back on the shelf, how is it in retrospect?

As is implied by these captions, most of the books I’m reading are from the local library. Have I mentioned libraries before? I don’t think I have. Let me fetch my soapbox…

One of the (few, frankly) advantages of living in a town with lots of old people in it is the presence of a library. We have a fairly big collection of books at home which, to be honest, we don’t really need. I know the modern world has invented the Kindle/e-reader, which would handily dispense with the problem of storage, but I’ve just never really liked them: to hold and feel a book in your hands;  its weight and a sense of how far you’ve come with it (and how far you have left to travel) seems ineffably part of the reading experience. Added to which, the cost of books (and my generally jobless state) means spending 8 quid (or so) every time I wanna read something new, or trawling through the grubby ranks of the charity shops in the hope of finding something interesting, is impractical – plus of course authors don’t benefit at all from second hand sales, whereas at least a library loan will net the author some small recompense.

When (not if, when) I finally get something into print, I promise I will start buying books at their cover price (given the six-figure non-recoupable advance I’ll be demanding [JOAK]) and then donate the book to a charity shop (or maybe even the library service – I wonder if that’s possible?)

As it is, 60p to reserve pretty much any book ever printed seems damn reasonable. Support your local library.