My February/March Reads: Drag Queens, Murder, Magic and Vintage Italy

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THE MAGIC STRINGS OF FRANKIE PRESTO BY MITCH ALBOM

Mitch Albom, for me, is genuinely one of the greatest storytellers out there, his brilliant prose drawing you straight into the heart of those stories. He has soul, he makes you cry for a character, root for a character and Frankie Presto epitomises that.

This is a big, sprawling novel. It takes in the lifetime of Frankie, a kid with a unique musical talent. At 9 years old he is sent on a boat from Spain to America with only his old guitar and six precious strings. Frankie is fictional but Albom cleverly weaves him into the rock n roll landscape impacting on very real stars like Hank Williams, Elvis, Carol King and KISS along the way.

He becomes an adored pop star himself but his gift is also a burden as he realises that his music actually affects people’s futures. At the height of fame, he disappears and his legend grows. Decades later, though, he reappears to change one more life.

This is a classic in the making. Or should be. Relentlessly heart-breaking yet moving, every page holds a surprise twist or bombshell. It’s magical yet real. A thing of beauty. The kind of book that takes over your life whilst your reading it. As I finished the last page, I sat stunned with the book on my lap, still mesmerised. 9.5/10

THE ENCHANTED APRIL BY ELIZABETH VON ARNIM

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Desperate for a sunny escape from a cold, rainy February on the south coast, I engrossed myself in The Enchanted April over the half term break. First published in 1922, it was in part responsible for hoards of English tourists suddenly holidaying on the Italian Riviera and I can see why.

A notice is placed in The Times addressed to ‘Those Who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine.’ It alludes to a small Italian castle which is to be let for the month of April, an offer quickly snapped up by four very different women who flee unappreciative husbands, love-sick men and the effects of ageing, on the shores of the Med. Beauty, warmth, gardens and leisure cast a spell over them all and their lives are changed forever.

I found this the perfect novel to cheer up a blue Monday. Continue reading

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My January Reads: Wildean Works, Italian Trains and Deirdre Barlow!

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ITALIAN WAYS BY TIM PARKS

English writer and translator, Tim Parks, has lived in Italy since the early 1980s. During that time he has travelled extensively throughout his adoptive country on its varying and often baffling rail network. This book is a collection of extraordinary encounters with ordinary Italians, ticket systems, gypsies, prostitutes, immigrants and priests as he journeys from Verona and Milano in the north down to the southern parts of Sicily all by train. He brilliantly captures what makes Italian life distinctive through amusing scenes and detail and tries to make sense of their behaviour and their trains on our behalf, interpreting Italian Ways in both senses. I enjoyed the book as I felt like his travel companion throughout and as someone who plans on spending a lot of time in Italy, it proved both interesting and funny 6/10

DEIRDRE – A LIFE ON CORONATION STREET BY GLENDA YOUNG

The slaps, the glasses, the affairs, the chain belts, the hairdos (and don’ts) and the enduring love between Deirdre and Ken Barlow. This book has it all for huge Corrie fans like myself who miss the actress Anne Kirkbride and her cobbles character Deirdre who both sadly passed away last year. The photos, scripts and scenes are great reminders of her best bits; the break ups and make ups of her numerous flings and the hilarious exchanges with rogue daughter Tracey and with the wicked tongue of her mother Blanche. 200+ pages of pure Corrie joy! 10/10

OSCAR WILDE – THE COLLECTED WORKS

Coming in at 1000+ pages this volume was no mean feat for an uninspiring yet busy January but I enjoyed almost all of it. I’ve always been a Wilde fan – led to him of course by my idol Morrissey – and have challenged myself to really get to know his work better this year. The Picture Of Dorian Gray is naturally the highlight but I was also particularly fond of his other stories; The Canterville Ghost, Lord Arthur Saville’s Crime, The Sphinx Without A Secret etc. I’d read The Happy Prince and Other Tales (including The Selfish Giant) previously and found them to be just as delightful all over again. I admit to struggling with his essays and poetry but loved above all else the plays of Oscar Wilde. Witty and evocative, pushing boundaries for their time and even now in places. I know I will read Lady Windemere’s Fan, A Woman of No Importance, An Ideal Husband and The Importance of Being Earnest again and again. A beautifully presented book with a contents of absolute, true and declared genius within 9.5/10

The red notebook

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THE RED NOTEBOOK

BY ANTOINE LAURAIN

Charming and intriguing this another excellent story from Parisian author Antoine Laurain. I had previously read his best selling book The President’s Hat and this follows in a similar style – a light hearted tale about fate and chance that always stays just on the right side of whimsical.

Young widow Laure, a gilder, is mugged for her handbag outside her Paris home late at night. The attack leaves her hospitalised. Early the next morning bookseller Laurent finds her bag on top of a bin as he walks to work. In an act of citizenship he takes the bag along to the police station but finds they are too busy to process his discovery. Laurent takes the bag home and decides he will find the owner himself using the objects in her handbag (minus the stolen purse, phone and ID) as clues. Her red notebook in particular, with its list of likes and fears, holds vital pointers to her identity and whereabouts as does her signed copy of a novel by a local author.

This is a bookish, romantic story full of Parisian life, fabulous in its pleasant pace Continue reading

Gut: the inside story of our body’s most under rated organ

GUT

BY GIULIA ENDERS

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This international bestseller “sets out to free toilet talk from its taboo,” according to The Times. In my family there is no such taboo! We talk about our guts, stools and movements often and openly. This isn’t out of vulgarity but more out of necessity as almost all of my nearest and dearest suffer with our guts – from the severity of diverticulitis to that familiar, uncomfortable bloated feeling.

I read Giulia Enders’ superb book in the hope of finding out more than my pill-pushing GP would ever bother to tell me. What I found has really opened my eyes. Enders shows the reader that rather than being the embarrassing, often overlooked body part, the gut is actually a spectacular miracle.

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We are shown what makes us vomit, the difference in dietary fibre and its effects on us plus how probiotics and prebiotics can help us. Whilst I struggle with mice being used in these experiments (humans please!), researchers are beginning to investigate the importance of “the gut-brain axis.” This includes how bacteria found in the gut can be linked to depression and the true impact of stress on our gut and in turn our mental health. Enders describes how an “emergency situation” develops between gut and brain when a person experiences anger, pressure or anxiety.

This book combining the perfect blend of accessible language with amusing, explanatory graphics (drawn by her sister), makes Gut as entertaining as it is informative. Enders compiles the latest scientific research that shows how the gut can play a role in everything – obesity, allergies, Alzheimer’s – and presents it as simply as one can such a complex organ. (That said the chapters on bacteria needed several re-reads before I got my grey matter around it!) Gut is a brilliant handbook that proves we can all benefit from getting to know our wondrous inner workings a lot better. Read on for some of the bits I found particularly fascinating: Continue reading

The Strange Library

THE STRANGE LIBRARY

BY HARUKI MURAKAMI

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I bought this book the day after I got made redundant from my library job. For twelve years I thought I had worked in a strange library – but thankfully not as dark and sinister as Murkami’s one!

‘The Strange Library’ is a fully illustrated and beautifully designed book. I loved the nostalgic old school library ticket on the front cover and the tagline on the back cover which simply read; “All I did was go to the library to borrow a book.” I’m a real library lover and can be a bit of a geek about it so although I have only ever managed to dip in and out of Murakami, I sensed I might like this! The illustrations inside enhanced this psychedelic tale providing a unique visual enjoyment alongside the text. I found the drawings, some of which are marbled papers and old pages from books found in The London Library, to be simultaneously odd and fun.

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But what’s it about? Well that is a good question! A small boy goes to the public library to borrow a book, once there he is taken to an underground reading room by a cruel old man. There he is locked in a cell by a “Sheep-man” and is instructed to memorise two large books to secure his freedom otherwise his brains will get eaten and Continue reading

The Secrets We Keep

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THE SECRETS WE KEEP

BY JONATHAN HARVEY

Jonathan Harvey is a comedy writer who to date has written more than one hundred episodes of Coronation Street. Kathy Burke recently recommended “The Secrets We Keep” on Twitter. I love Corrie and I love Kathy Burke and that is how I ended up with Harvey’s fourth novel in my hands.

This is the story of Danny Bioletti, his wife Natalie and their children Owen and Cally. Five years ago Danny went out for a pint of milk and never came back. His devastated family were left to pick up the pieces living in the glare of the media on a posh new estate with over-friendly, nosey neighbours. After his disappearance Danny’s car was found at Beachy Head and so is presumed by all to have taken his life. But when the family find a left luggage ticket in the pocket of one of his old coats, Natalie starts to wonder if he is actually still alive and if he is, where could he be? She begins her own whirlwind of investigations and needless to say, she doesn’t like all that she finds.

The plot is superb, expertly interweaving the central characters with each other’s backstories, one discovered secret leading to another. There’s booming nightclubs, child abuse, teenage modelling, gay relationships, alcoholism, rags to riches and back again. Their stories come to life through Harvey taking on the distinctive voices of each of the four characters for their own chapters full of hoarded secrets, making this a really good read full of unexpected twists and turns. Continue reading

Process: the writing lives of great authors

PROCESS: THE WRITING LIVES OF GREAT AUTHORS

BY SARAH STODOLA

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I love reading about the routines and working lives of artists and writers. It’s fascinating to discover what ignites their inspirations and equally what hinders their progress. As such this book promised to be the perfect read for me.

Combining author biography with entertaining details about their writing habits, Stodola introduces us to the working person behind the famous name. The person who has devoted thousands of hours or dozens of years to researching, creating, avoiding, thinking, procrastinating and eventually writing the works that readers like us hugely admire. Her portraits of these writers at work allow us to appreciate the huge effort and often bizarre practices that propel these great minds forward to write at all costs.

A writer’s setting

Stodola’s portraits of these great writers adapting to their circumstances and working with what they have are intriguing. Franz Kafka waited until all other members of the household were asleep before he attempted to write. As a single parent, Toni Morrison chose writing over a social life to enable her to get her work written, admitting; “I don’t do any of the so-called fun things in life.” Vladimir Nabokov had an unpredictable schedule whereby he had to fit his writing around his lecturing and tennis coaching jobs. Finances meant this was the case well into his late 60s. He wrote anywhere and everywhere (sometimes even in the bath!) and often wrote on index cards finding them perfect for reorganising his plot without extensive rewrites. George Orwell was not a writer prone to invention and instead used real life experiences and work in the field – even posing as a tramp so that he could write about poverty free from the expected clichés. Following the wealth and renown that came with Animal Farm, he retreated to a Scottish island so that there he could recreate the “stark, impoverished, melancholic” conditions that he needed to write 1984.

The process

On writing itself, George Orwell wrote unceasingly despite calling the process “a horrible exhausting struggle.” David Foster Wallace is described by Stodola with “perhaps no great writer has ever been so effusive about his writer’s block.” Something that Richard Price struggled with too; “the only thing worse than writing is not writing.” He started with no plot in mind and “just goes along with something he’s interested in” saying; “the actual story can be an after-thought.” Salman Rushdie famously wrote five books during his decade in hiding. “I’ve learned I need to give it the first energy of the day, so before I read the newspaper, before I open the mail, before I phone anyone, often before I shower, I sit in my pajamas at the desk.” He then writes for four hours after which time he finds that his output “becomes mush.” Continue reading