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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Grandpa’s Great Escape

GRANDPA’S GREAT ESCAPE

BY

DAVID WALLIAMS

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I turn 36 years old tomorrow but I’m still watching the new episodes of Danger Mouse and I still enjoying reading brilliant children’s literature like this latest from bestselling author and comedy hero, David Walliams.

Many readers are of the opinion that Walliams is the natural successor to Roald Dahl, and I couldn’t agree more. Neither of them talk down to their young readers, instead whisking them along for exciting, perilous adventures and fairytale capers of love and friendship and of course, great dollops of horrid, hairy, farty things.

Dahl is responsible for the bookworm I am today. As a child his stories were eye-popping! They made me go “ooh” and “wow,” “eeeuuuuww” and “ARRRGHHH” in equal measure. Walliams possesses that same talent. I have read all seven of the Little Britain actor’s previous children’s novels and loved them all but this might be my favourite yet.

This is a story of a young boy called Jack whose Grandpa has become confused in his old age. He believes he is back in World War II saving the skies as an RAF Spitfire pilot. Only Jack understands him and sets out to rescue him from 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

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

A Scream in Soho

A SCREAM IN SOHO: A BRITISH LIBRARY CRIME CLASSIC

BY JOHN G. BRANDON

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This is definitely one of the better books from the British Library’s recently republished Crime Classic series. As with the other novels in this series it is a thing of beauty. They all have magnificent cover illustrations and quality pages that have made them hugely popular and highly collectible among my friends and fellow bookworms. For some of these books, sadly, the cover remains the best thing about them but thankfully this is not the case here.

Brandon’s story is a gruesome and gripping caper around London’s Soho set during the blackouts of the Second World War. A piercing scream rings out in the night and a bloodied knife is found. Our hero, Detective Inspector McCarthy, is soon on the scene and following a hunch. This is a gloriously dark, seedy Soho underworld full of Italian gangsters, cross dressing German spies and glamorous Austrian aristocrats.

Wry McCarthy is likeable and engaging for the reader as he attempts to unravel the connection between some brutal killings and the theft of the secret defence plans. There are exciting fight scenes and chases and a pleasurable, gentle amount of suspense and drama. The supporting cast flesh out the story well and knowing the area well like I do I was able to picture the streets as McCarthy hightailed after his icy-eyed villain.

Good read.

SOUTHSEA BOOKWORM RATING: 7/10

Notes on the author – John G. Brandon:

  • Lived 1879-1941
  • Austrian born crime writer who lived in England
  • Author of 100+ detective novels

The Good Luck of Right Now

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THE GOOD LUCK OF RIGHT NOW BY MATTHEW QUICK

The Good Luck Of Right Now is another wonderful novel from the author of The Silver Linings Playbook, Matthew Quick. Thirty nine year old Bartholomew Neil is in therapy following the death of his beloved mother. Bartholomew is a damaged guy who knows that after a lifetime of living with and then caring for his mother, he has to find his own way in the world. As he attempts to find his flock he falls in love with a strange “girl librarian”, his drunken Priest moves in and he gets to complete his first life goal thanks to a foul-mouthed and equally troubled cat-obsessed young man.

On the edge of madness he writes to Hollywood actor Richard Gere (whom his mother adored) for guidance and to offload his emotions. The whole of this quirky, unconventional page turner is told through those letters to Gere which at first I found a little irksome from but soon I realised it was the perfect vehicle for Bartholomew’s delusional outlook. Quick’s devastating prose is shot through with wit and a clever balance between an optimistic but unsentimental view of human nature.

Elizabeth, Max, Father McNamee and of course Bartholomew are all seriously flawed but deeply loveable characters that I determinedly rooted for them to overcome the prejudices and cruel blows dealt to them in life. Beautifully tender and gripping from the first page to the last, this offbeat and eccentric tale is another winner by this enormously talented American writer. A kind hearted story about humans rescuing themselves, and each other, from despair. Really great.

SOUTHSEA BOOKWORM RATING: 8/10

Notes on the author – Matthew Quick:

  • Wrote the hugely popular The Silver Linings Playbook which was made into an Academy Award winning film
  • He is also the author of young adult novels
  • He is married to the novelist and pianist Alicia Bessette

As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust

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AS CHIMNEY SWEEPERS COME TO DUST

BY ALAN BRADLEY

As I’ve said before the Flavia De Luce novels are my absolute favourite and us fans have been counting down to the seventh installment in this fantastic series – As Chimney Sweepers Come To Dust – for what seems like forever! The last book The Dead In Their Vaulted Arches finished on a most exciting and unexpected cliffhanger.

Here, we pick up our brilliant young Flavia at her impertinent best as she finds herself “banished” from her beloved Buckshaw home in Bishops Lacey and “packed off” to her mother’s old boarding school in Canada.

Flavia takes an instant dislike to her escort across the Atlantic – Ryerson Rainsmith: “On paper, the man was already dead.” When she finally arrives at Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy she finds it full of bizarre rules, an intimidating headmistress (“The woman’s moods appeared to be connected to some inner weathercock that swung wildly round with every word. One moment she was almost tender, and the next a harridan”) and a murderess among the teachers. All isn’t as it seems with the resident girls either who disappear with alarming regularity.

Flavia starts to realise that the game is afoot and as a budding chemist and amateur poisons expert, she is soon on familiar ground when a body falls from the chimney in her room and she is dealt another gruesome puzzle to investigate. Through the unraveling of this mystery, Flavia begins to discover what it means to be her mother’s daughter and what the true purpose of the Academy really is. Continue reading