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

52 books in 52 weeks – Challenge Complete!

Earlier this year when I realised I was spending more time than ever with my head in a book, I set myself the challenge of reading 52 books in 52 weeks in 2015.

Challenge complete!

Among the new titles, the following fiction stood out for me; Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl, Vesna Goldsworthy’s Gorsky and As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust by my absolute favourite, Alan Bradley (not the one who got hit by a tram in Corrie!)

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However,  I found the year’s non-fiction to be even better; the collected lyrics and notes of Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, So This Is Permanence, is a thing of heart-breaking beauty to be treasured forever. Gut by Giulia Enders has already been passed around several members of family and friends – a brilliantly interesting, funny and accessible explanation of the behaviour of our bowels!

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And I have to mention the Welsh singer and a man personally adored by me, Tom Jones, who has written the most excellent and hilarious autobiography Over The Top and Back. A brick of a book which took me almost a month to read though not just due to its doorstep size but also due to re-reading such unrivalled anecdotes (not all about Elvis either!) and collapsing in fits of laughter. Do not read if bad language offends you – this is a man who loves the C word!

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But overall I tried to vary style, length, age and the classic with the contemporary. I loved every minute. Here’s what I got through, starting with my most recommended titles: Continue reading

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

Gorsky

GORSKY

BY VESNA GOLDSWORTH

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If you’re in the UK  you have probably seen huge window displays of this book in your local high street bookseller, such is the buzz around this Great Gatsby inspired page-turner. For once, this is rightly deserved. I devoured Gorsky over two train journeys and found it to be one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.

Nick is a Serbian living in London and working in a shabby old bookshop. His humdrum life is turned on its head when the commission of a lifetime from Russian billionaire Gorsky sees him thrust into a world of wealth, beauty, art and sex. But, of course, all this comes at a price and Nick’s life is suddenly filled with danger.

Set in Chelsea (or Chelski!) the reader is immersed in a decadent world spilling over with previously unimaginable luxury, sums of money, 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