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Wednesday, 6 March 2019

Review: The Point of Poetry, Joe Nutt

Note: I exchanged a free copy of this book in exchange for review.

I learned a new word as a result of this book - metrophobia, or the fear of poetry. As Joe Nutt hypothesises, most fear of poetry comes from a simple lack of understanding of poetry itself, or the point of it. The current way of teaching about it in secondary schools can also be a contributing factor - my own memory of learning about poetry at secondary school, (although it vastly improved at A Level as a result of my fantastic teacher), is simply analysing line by line, looking for poetic techniques to PEE (point, evidence, explain) to death, rather than looking at it holistically and most importantly, placing it in context.

What Joe Nutt is basically present what poetry teaching at school should look like, right down to not even putting the poem of each chapter at the beginning - they are, very deliberately, placed at the end. What this allows the reader to do is understand the context of the poem, a bit about the poet's life, and links to aspects of other poets and the culture of the time. Thus, by the time you get to the poem itself, you're more armed, so to speak, to fully enjoy the poem and also be able to technically read it better (e.g. The Prelude by Wordsworth).

Nutt's love and passion for poetry bleeds from the pages. I'd never disliked poetry as such, but I wouldn't really picture myself sitting down and reading and thinking about a book of poems, rather than a novel. This book has changed that for me. For example, I picked up a copy of Paradise Lost from my bookshelf, took a quick scan, and thought that I would never be able to make it through. The last chapter of Nutt's book has shown me that I can, although it would be wiser to take it in small chunks.

There were some things that Nutt said that I found myself disagreeing on, (see the part about 'safe spaces' at universities, as I think the whole concept has been unhelpfully trivialised), but for the most part, I connected to what he was saying, not just about the poems but the politics and culture that go along with it.

If you never got along with poetry at school, this is definitely a book to get you back into it. And for those who love poetry, anyway, this book will just be like a good conversation with an old friend.

Monday, 25 February 2019

Review: The Lost Symbol, Dan Brown

Robert Langdon, (a character made increasingly more likeable by being portrayed by Tom Hanks), is back for another explosive historical adventure, this time at the heart of America - Washington D.C. His old mentor, Peter Solomon, asks a favour of him - to put on a last minute lecture at the Capitol - but when Robert arrives, circumstances change to chaos and confusion very quickly.

The involvement of the CIA; a quest through the most important historical buildings of the US capital; revelations that many prominent Americans were actually Masons; serve as the basis of the plot of the novel. The adversary, a man called Mal'akh, is on a quest for the ultimate knowledge that will, as he believes, give him ultimate power.

Langdon teams up with Peter's sister, Katherine, who has been conducting experiments based in Noetics, the idea that the mind is much more powerful than thought - that it's even able to transform physical matter. They race against time in a bid to save Peter, with both finding out much more than they bargained for along the way.

Overall, it's a good, fast-paced and enjoyable read. For me, there seemed to be a lot of exposition dumps and padding - I think the book could have been a hundred pages shorter and still been as enjoyable. But if you're a fan of Langdon, history (with some poetic license), and Masonic conspiracy theories, this book is definitely worth reading.

Thursday, 14 February 2019

Review: Becoming, Michelle Obama

This memoir, released in the tail-end of 2018, was the much needed tonic, in my opinion, to the end of a particularly tumultuous year.

It's a memoir spanning the rich detail of Michelle's life, from her humble upbringing on the South Side of the Chicago, witnessing the slow decline, yet just blocks away were the sky-rises and high-flying city dwellers that made for a jarring juxtaposition.

Michelle's family was the quintessential, nuclear family - Dad at work, Mom at home raising the kids, the older brother and the younger sister. Michelle writes about her family with honesty of the good and bad times, and love pours from every paragraph. Even though she was witness to the racial prejudices in the African American community, her parents were determined that their children would not be held back by this.

Michelle's education, work ethic, and sheer drive saw her step into the hallowed halls of Princeton and Harvard Law School, into spaces that she, as a black woman, would traditionally be excluded from. She doesn't shy away from talking about this - in fact, she is very frank about her experiences of being the only woman, let alone the only black woman, in the room.

Part 2 - Becoming Us - sees Michelle in a high-flying job as a corporate lawyer in Chicago, on a clear track to make partner. That is, until a certain man comes along and throws a spanner in the works.

Her story of her relationship with Barack, particularly the early days, is a deep and dazzling romance, made all the better for it being real and not an unrealistic story playing out on the big screen.
Politics comes along early into their relationship and it takes a lot of work and compromise to stay strong. This is only made more difficult when their two girls come along. At no point does Michelle gloss over the lows of their marriage and family life - it's an emotional rollercoaster of a journey.

And then comes the long road to the White House. It's a fascinating and dizzying insight into the exhausting world of politics, not least the campaigning, and everything they have to content with as a black family - the phrase "you have to work twice as hard to get half as much done" comes up time and time again.

We, the world, got to see Michelle in so many different areas and arenas, but seeing her take on everything she went through and how hard she had to work to protect her marriage and family life ... it's not something to be envied. Not that I didn't believe her when she said she wasn't going to run for President, but if you're not convinced after reading this book, nothing will convince you of that.

My favourite moments, by far, were not those in America but in England. Her stories of meeting Queen Elizabeth, and developing a genuine friendship with her, were simply lovely - there are no other words for it. Politics and royalty are such dominant forces in our life yet rarely do we get a glimpse behind the red curtain.

The memoir does not end happily - that's definitely the wrong word for it, given everything that ends afterwards - but it does end with a call to resist, be resilient, and hope, above all. It's a powerful portrait of one of the most powerful and pioneering families in the world. Though we may miss them at the forefront of politics, this book is, above all, a promise that they won't disappear into the shadows. They'll continue to spread light, leadership, and love wherever they go.

Saturday, 2 February 2019

Review: The Radleys, Matt Haig

Matt Haig is more currently well-known (and deservedly so), for Notes On A Nervous Planet, Reasons To Stay Alive, The Truth Pixie, and his excellent campaigning about mental health. But I’m reaching further back into his body of work.

Meet the Radleys. They are a completely ordinary suburban family. A husband, wife, and two kids, living on a quiet street in the quiet village of Bishopthorpe. 

They also happen to be abstaining vampires.

Oh, but the kids don’t know that. The abstaining or the vampire bit.
So, you can imagine how helpless and confused they must feel when they have to stick to the shade; when they feel ill all the time; when animals are too frightened to go near them.
But, inevitably, they do find out, and it’s the worst possible way.
And Peter, the father, recruits his notoriously thirsty practicing-vampire brother, Will, to come and help sort out the mess.

I’m sure you can imagine how well that goes.
I thoroughly enjoyed this story. Excellent family drama, a good hit of the supernatural, the struggle with identity and morality. (Yes, the morality bit is a bit obvious considering they are *vampires* but there is also more nuance than that). For example, I found it rather sweet that Clara wants to be vegan because she thinks it will make the animals (currently deathly afraid of her) more open to her, but it just ends up making her more sick. Peter and Helen are a married couple who have their struggles like most – it’s simply that their struggles tend to run to the more…extreme. A flirtation with the neighbour involves more than a simple sexual fantasy. And Rowan – well, I think he’s the best character in terms of personality and depth.

If you want a book about vampires that doesn’t involve Cullens or werewolves, or if you just fancy a really good story, then I would wholeheartedly recommend.

Friday, 18 January 2019

Review: Hold Back The Stars, Katie Khan

As soon as I started hearing about this book on #BookTwitter I was incredibly excited. It seemed like such a fresh, new kind of love story that I couldn't wait to get my hands on it but I confess that it took too long. I took the opportunity over the Christmas holidays to finally get stuck into it.

We meet the main characters, Carys and Max, while falling through space. With no way of getting back to their broken ship, and only ninety minutes of oxygen left, things are looking impossible for them.

The novel alternates between their present emergency and their past in Europia, a Utopia made from the countries that made up the European Union and then some. The idea of Europia is that each citizen is on rotation every three years to a different sector, or Voivode.. They act in their own name, rather than the name of a country or religion, with the idea that acting in their own name alone will prevent conflict. The constant moving around adds to this as well - breaking down the unfamiliar, building communities all over the world. As with any Utopia, however, all once seemingly good ideas show cracks over time.

Like the Couples rule. The 'guidelines' are that one cannot get into a stable relationship or begin a family until one's thirties, the benefits being that divorce rates will be lower and a person can be at their most productive, free from the responsibilities of family life. Carys and Max, however, don't take too long before finding out that this rule is not for them.

The story is a clever mix of rom-com and sci-fi, with clearly enough research to make it convincing. The author, Katie Khan, works for a film company, and that certainly shows with the lush visuals of her writing. I really root for Carys and Max as a couple, although my favourite character has to be Liu, Max's best friend.

There are some interesting political undertones, as well. The USA, as far as we know, is as much of a crisis zone as Syria is presently. Europia is the union that everyone wants to be a part of, and outside of Europia is basically a death wish.

The story has lots of twists and turns to keep you reading, particularly towards the end. Several times I was scratching my head, and kept flipping back pages because I genuinely thought I'd missed something, but it was all brought together well in the end. I do look forward to how they'll be translating that particular part onto the big screen. John Boyega and Letitia Wright are going to be taking the leads in this film, so it will definitely be one to look out for next year.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Review: Pretty Honest, Sali Hughes

Let me start by saying this - where, oh where, has Sali Hughes been all my life?!

To sum up quickly, Pretty Honest is essentially a comprehensive Beauty Bible, but so much more than that at the same time. Sali Hughes has loved and worked in the beauty industry since she was a teenager first working as a make up assistant for a music video. and has been honing her craft and expertise ever since.

The book isn't just a who's who of the best brands on offer (although there are definitely helpful and healthy dollops of knowledge all the way through), but why said brands are good and the science behind it. Because Sali knows her stuff. Hyaluronic acid (read it to find out) is a game changer. A simple skincare routine becomes a pleasurable habit rather than a chore. And red lipstick is for anyone provided you know how.

Pretty Honest isn't just a helpful beauty guide, it's also like a conversation with your (extremely knowledgeable) best friend. Sali makes you want to invest that time in yourself and makes it incredibly easy to discover how to do that. And the beginning of the New Year was, for me, the best time to read it. It's honestly made me think more about what I'm putting onto (and into) my body and how I can make the best of what I have without making any dramatically pricey changes. It was such a fun, affirming, and informative read, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. 

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Review: We Come Apart, Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan

We Come Apart tells the story of two young people, Jess and Nicu. They meet unexpectedly, after both being put on a youth rehabilitation programme having been caught in separate incidents of shoplifting.

Nicu, as the son of Romanian immigrants, suffers a lot of prejudice and bullying at school. Jess, meanwhile, slowly gravitates away from her friends as it becomes clear their attitudes start differing too much. Jess and Nicu become close, and confide in each other. Jess is living with her mum and mum's boyfriend, who abuses her regularly, and Nicu's parents are arranging a marriage for him.

Tragedy piles upon tragedy and Jess and Nicu make a plan to escape.

The book is written in free verse, alternating between Jess and Nicu's POV. It makes sense for Nicu's perspective, as it is an effective portrayal of his broken English, but it makes less sense for Jess' POV. It would have been interesting to read the story in straightforward prose, but the fragmented sense of writing could be seen as a good metaphor for their fragmented lives.

Overall, I enjoyed it as something fresh and different. It was a sad story in many ways, and raised lots of necessary questions about immigration and treatment of non-nationals (Brexit was referenced a few times). I think it particularly works well as a read for teenagers as it is a captivating story with some interesting challenge in it, too.