Tuesday, 30 July 2013

War Horse

War Horse
Michael Morpurgo
London, Egmont, 2007, 182p

Michael Morpurgo is one of my favourite authors, mostly because I find him to be timeless. For the most part, his stories are about history, and he somehow manages to capture the brilliance and beauty in humanity.

War Horse is no exception. In case you do not already know the story (where have you been living!?), it is about a farm horse sent to the battlefield during World War One. Separated from his loving owner, Albert, he struggles with loneliness and brutality of war torn France.

I am not much of an animal person (yes, I am the worst), but I adored the beautiful narrative of this story. It is written from the point of view of Joey, the War Horse himself, as he journeys from rural Devon to the front line. He is a sensitive character, requiring love and affection, and as the reader, we pray that he does not get left with a villainous owner. Fortunately, his journey is plotted by the kind people he meets along the way: Albert, with whom he wishes to be reunited, Captain Nicholls, who promises Albert he will care for Joey, and Emilie, a young French girl who rescues Joey from the front line. 

Because he is an animal, Joey is treated differently to a human protagonist. He is cared for by the allied army, adopted affectionately by the German cavalry, and loved tenderly by the French locals. Through Joey's eyes, all sides are equals in their humanity towards him - there are no others or enemies, just people.

The language and descriptions throughout this novel are incredibly beautiful, despite the dark subject matter. Viewing war through the eyes of the innocent horse, the reader experiences the battlefield much like a child might. As such, it is a very emotional tale, and although Joey is incredibly lucky to never come in much real danger, he experiences loss and pain as many a young soldier did. Morpurgo remains one of the most brilliant writers of our time.

Monday, 29 July 2013


Tina Fey
London, Sphere, 2012, 304p

I love Tina Fey more than I love cheese. Now, you may not realise what a big deal this is for me. I do not say such things lightly. For me to love something more than I love cheese, it means that I could not live without it. Cheese is my favourite food group - you are never restricted by it, but can consume it all times of day and night, on or alongside all sorts of meals. There are very few things I love more than cheese, but I could not live in a world without Tina Fey.

And this is her autobiography, gifted to me by a friend who knows me a little to well, and read at least five times since, often whilst giggling to myself. Before you even start reading, you just need to take a glimpse at the blurb to realise how brilliant this is going to be:
"Once in a generation, a woman comes along who changes everything. Tina Fey is not that woman, but she met that woman once and acted weird around her."

If you are already a fan of Tina Fey, you will love this. It is ridiculously funny, painfully intelligent, and of course, never particularly high brow. And if you have no idea who I am talking about (shame on you), you will find something in these pages of comedy writing that makes you feel uncharacteristically good about being you.

Somehow, Fey has managed to produce the least revealing autobiography in history. She talks about her childhood, her college years, and her honeymoon, but in a way that leaves you longing for more, wishing you could be her friend. She pokes fun at the tell-all, cliche-ridden biographies out there, unable to take seriously the task of writing her life story. She refuses
to wallow in the memories of her childhood, which she found to be particularly enjoyable. She was neither the lonely, geeky schoolgirl or the sex-crazed teenager. She never suffered from parental neglect or over-parenting. She is just herself.

And she makes it okay for her readers to be whoever they happen to be. In one chapter, she lists all the things that can apparently be wrong with a woman, but shifts the focus in a follow up list where she talks about the things she likes about herself. No self-pity, no plastic surgery woes, just the realities of life.

Fey also challenges the assumption that she has it all. In 30 Rock, Liz Lemon regularly dreams of having it all, but is stumped by a lack of boyfriend, lack of time, or simply lack of luck. Similarly, Fey rants about the impossible work-family balance, knowing how lucky she is to have a job she loves and a husband who supports her. But whilst at home, she is haunted by the work she has to do; and whilst at work, she wishes she was playing dress up with her daughter. 

What I think I adore most about Fey is her ability to be sarcastically optimistic. By this, I mean that she never seems to be sad or bitter, but manages to perfect this matter-of-fact tones that implies that life is what it is, and sometimes, life sucks. She never raves about how lucky she is, or rants about how hard she has to work, but you can tell she is appreciative of all she has. She never claims it is easy being a woman in our contemporary society, but she still manages to quash any assumptions about modern woman you might have in the back of your mind. We are all different, and Tina Fey makes that okay. 

This post is for Mr Christopher Mark Folwell, because those shoes are definitely bi-curious.

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Hollow Pike

Hollow Pike
James Dawson
London, Orion, 2012, 320p

Last week, I had the pleasure of escaping to rural Somerset to attend a creative writing residential with the next generation of writers, through the charity First Story. Words cannot describe how incredible the week was. 

I also had the pleasure of meeting a group of very talented and entertaining authors and poets, including Mr James Dawson, author of supernatural YA novel, Hollow Pike. This is a novel about friendship, romance and witches.

When Lis London starts a new school, she finds herself drawn to a group of strange, mysterious students, despite attention from Laura, one of the popular girls. When Laura's body is found in the copse, Lis is wracked with guilt and confusion as she was the last person to see her alive. The copse is haunted by supernatural legends about witches and murder, and Lis struggles to distinguish between reality and mythology.

Drawing on classic and cult favourites (The Crucible and Heathers in particular), it is simultaneously a modern rewriting of the Pendle Witch Trials and a novel about the difficulties of being a teenager in contemporary society. James Dawson truly knows his scary stories, drawing on all the traditional conventions of Gothic fiction, and adding a few creepers of his own.

This novel was terrifyingly gripping. So many contemporary witch stories are over-written tales about teen angst, but this novel is a true credit to young adult fiction. This book isn't about witches so much as about superstition against those who are different. Today, it is so difficult to write a good scary story, as technology rationalises our oldest fears of the unknown. But Hollow Pike haunted me into my dreams, and kept me enticed, always wanting to know what was coming next. 

I think the doubling in the story is what makes this novel so brilliant. It is not just a novel about growing up, and it is not just a novel about witches. Dawson grounds the Gothic elements of the supernatural story in elements of reality, hence making it terrifyingly real. Lis is a normal teenager, but the story she inhabits is anything but. Although the modern reader struggles to imagine witches flying on broomsticks, they can definitely relate to the feelings of otherness experienced whilst growing up. 

And now, I must go and rewatch Heathers

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

Steve Sharp

Steve Sharp
(Six book series)
H. L. Dube
Winchester, Ransom, 2013, 35p (approx)

I don't tend to read many short reads. For an adult reader, they are just too short, and I feel like I am cheating, especially with this blog measuring exactly how many books I read. But this is a series of stories, there are six of them, so I feel like I have read an acceptable amount.

The Steve Sharp series consists of six books about a private investigator in a missing persons case. The books all tell the same story, each beginning with a recap and ending with a cliffhanger. A rich woman, Mrs Clayton, arrives at Steve's office, asking him to help her find her missing teenage daughter. Steve explores the city, risking his safety to find the missing girl.

I have written in the past about the difficulty of striking a balance between high interest level and simple language in these short read novels, but I think the Steve Sharp series effectively meets those needs. In terms of the appearance of these books, they are very appealing to a teenage reader of low ability books. The black pages with white font, black and white illustrations, and short, blunt sentences make for a new reading experience. These novels are surprisingly tense considering how few words they contain. And the story is clear and fluid, yet contains drama and action throughout.

I have a whole new batch of year seven student starting very soon, and have stocked up on these and other short reads for when they are introduced to the Library and Accelerated Reader. The current year sevens have worked their way through most of my current short read stock, so I am excited by having something new and gripping like Steve Sharp. 

Monday, 22 July 2013


Suffragette: The Diary of Dollie Baxter, London, 1909-1913
Carol Drinkwater
St Helens, Scholastic, 2003, 224p

The 'My Story' series tell the tales of a number of historical events through the eyes of fictional contemporaries. The series includes accounts of the reign of Bloody Mary to the voyage of the Mayflower. This particular story is about a young teenage girl's experiences of the Suffrage movement in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Dollie Baxter is thirteen years old in 1909, when her benefactor passes away and she is left unsure of what her future holds. She was born and raised in the dockyards of London, an area of poverty and destitution, but was rescued by Lady Violet and placed in education. Now, she depends on the goodwill of Lady Violet's granddaughter, Flora, who is a suffragist, socialising with the most famous names in contemporary culture and feminism. Through Flora, Dollie learns what suffrage is all about,and joins the Women's Social and Political Union, the more radical, violent branch of the suffrage movement. 

Although Dollie is a fictional character, she interacts with many people who were prominent members of society at the turn of the century. She crosses paths with feminist leaders, from Emily Wilding Davison to Christabel Pankhurst. She attends dinner parties alongside George Bernard Shaw and Katherine Mansfield. Reading this novel is like walking through a classy soiree of celebrities. Dollie's guardian is well connected, granting her the opportunities to be better educated, more aware, and to move up in the world. 

However, since Dollie was born working class, she continues to carry the burden of her heritage. In the upper class London society, she is aware of the vast differences between herself and her friends. Her fight for equality is rooted in her past, as she fears what would have happened to her had she not been taken in by Lady Violet. Seeing her mother so dependent upon her father, she believes education and employment as the only way to free women from the power men. Her plight differs from that of her rich friends, as she acknowledges how lucky she is to have such opportunities.

But then, when she goes home to visit her mother, she finds anger and resentment awaiting her. Her mother refuses to accept charity from her wealthy daughter, and is reluctant to encourage her in the suffrage movement. And her siblings envy her, mocking her posh accent and well-to-do dress. Dollie is in-between, never fully belonging.

I think it can be really difficult to engage young people in history. With so many facts and figures and little link to our reality today, the subject can seem distant and unimportant. Of course, history teaches us valuable lessons, but if you have little history yourself, how can you be expected to appreciate how past experiences can help us in our future decisions and prevent us from repeating unnecessary mistakes? These fact-based stories, with young fictional protagonists surrounded by historical fact, offer a route into history for young people. Students need to be aware that they are not 100% accurate, but they will support their curriculum-based learning and hopefully fuel their interest to research further. 

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Days of Future Past

X-Men: Days of Future Past
Chris Claremont & John Byrne
New York, Marvel, 2011, 176p

I am incredibly excited about the release of the next X-Men film. I have really enjoyed this particular superhero franchise - whereas some of the comic book to movie adaptations have been misjudged, these movies have never failed to entertain me. And yet, I have not read much in the way of the graphic novels, so thought it was time I follow my rule about always reading the original before watching the adaptation.

Days of Future Past is the culmination of issues #138-143 of the original publications, featuring amongst other things a Wendigo and a Christmas demon. We find ourselves in 1980, following the departure of Scott Summers from the X-Men due to the death of his love, Jean Grey. Kitty Pryde, the youngest of the X-Men at only 13 years old, arrives at Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters, and is immediately thrown into danger. We jump forward (remember, it's 1980) to 2013, where we find many of the X-Men and other superheroes dead or captured, controlled by Sentinels, an army of giant machines who keep the mutants under control. The X-Men's only hope is to transfer the spirit of 2013 Kitty Pryde into the body of 1980 Kitty Pryde, in the hope that she can lead the 1980s team to prevent the assassination of Senator Kelly, which caused the destruction of the superheroes. 

I think I have made it sound rather more complicated than it is, so let me be more blunt: it is brilliant. The story is fast paced and action-packed. Whether you have just a basic knowledge of the X-Men or are a passionate enthusiast, the distress of knowing some X-Men are dead is universal. 

Comic books offer a different form of story-telling to novels or movies. Obviously, they are far more visual, so the text is not clogged up with descriptions of settings or people's appearances, but can focus on character's internal monologues or conversations. This really suits some readers, especially those who are reluctant to read something with too much bulk. The graphics in the X-Men series are brilliant, bright and detailed, engaging the reader with the story. People learn and absorb information in different ways, and many individuals are visual learners. Such people benefit from the visuals in a comic book - research shows that people are far more likely to remember the information from a comic book than a text book or novel because the information is supported by images. 

Many adults dismiss comic books as a too simple to support children's' leearning and achievement - I have come across many teachers who tell students to put their graphic novels away and read a "proper" book. This is infuriating, because comic books are really just another medium for literature, and are actually brilliant on so many levels: they engage reluctant readers, offer an alternative form of literature for more advanced students, and, if you think about the combination of text and images, they are in fact rather complex. I hope they start to be more universally recognised as a realistic alternative for some students, so I plan to keep making them available in my Library.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There
Catherynne M Valente
London, Much-in-Little, 2013, 344p

This sequel is everything I wanted it to be and more. I adore the creative genius of Catherynne M. Valente, who has brought to life a world where your strangest dreams seem rational and your wildest fantasies are explored and visualised. 

Most fairy stories end in relief and happiness, but rarely are the futures of the characters explored. The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland is just that: what happened after September saved Fairyland? We rejoin her back in her boring old life, washing tea cups and desperately missing her father. She carries with her the secret of her time spent in Fairyland, waiting for the day when she will return. Then, one day, she slips back through, and discovers things are not as she left them. Shadows are being stolen from Fairyland, and taken to Fairyland-Below, in a plot let by September's own shadow, now known as the Hollow Queen. Consequently, all the magic is being sucked out of Fairyland, and it is slowly becoming normal, like September's world.

So, September reluctantly embarks on a quest to wake the Sleeping Prince, the rightful ruler of Fairyland-Below, in the hope that he will overrule the Hollow Queen and all the shadows will be returned to their rightful home. Along the way, September meets a Night Dodo, a Minotaur, and the shadows of her old friends, Ell and Saturday. 

This world is so magical and fantastic, I am choosing to believe it is real. Valente draws on years and years of fairy tales, folklore and myths to create this world of knights and talking teacups and perilous challenges; she reimagines them in her own way, somehow making sense out of the most unusual elements of these legends. It is philosophical in it's treatment of the quest story. She has been incredibly thorough, with every detail formulated and researched to perfection. 

Fairyland is a heaven for book-lovers. A characteristic of all my favourite books is that they celebrate the value of the written word, both through their language and formation, and through the themes and plot. In the case of this book, Valente uses her extensive vocabulary, intelligence, and wit to entertain the reader. She speaks to you, does not patronise, and draws you into her story. And within the story, books and libraries are praised and explored. Ell, a.k.a. A-Through-L is a Wyverary, a dragon Librarian. September visits a Library in the course of her travels, when she is seeking information to help her on her quest. And later, she falls into a book, opening a door to another part of her journey. As Valente writes, and as her novel proves:
"A book is a door into another place and another heart and another world."
I couldn't have put it better myself.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The Collected Dorothy Parker

The Collected Dorothy Parker
Dorothy Parker
London, Penguin, 2001, 610p

I first came across Dorothy Parker a few years ago at a Dead Poet's Slam, in which people performed the poems of their favourite deceased writers. Her poems were sharp and witty, full of cynicism and anger, but not ranting-and-raving anger, but a more poignant and observational social critique.

This collection includes Parker's poems, short stories, and journalistic writings. Her style is singular and her tone is unique. In the introduction to this collection, one particular phrase stood out: "the imagination of disaster". By this, it is implied that she always manages to see the worst in things, as all her stories end badly. It is suggested that Parker did not think she would live as long as she did: in an age when all young female writers seemed to die prematurely, Parker lived to the ripe old age of 73. The theme of death, particularly suicide, is prominent throughout her poems ans stories, in which many of her characters are angry, lonely or depressed. 

Most of these works were written in the 1920s, a time in which anything seemed possible. There were riches, sex and parties: the American Dream. But nothing was ever enough, and Parker highlights people's dissatisfaction with this world, anticipating the crash of the 30s. Her stories are about people who are lonely and confused, always wanting: wanting for their absent lover, wanting for a fur coat like the one the neighbour has, wanting for more of this or less of that. These characters turn to gossip, alcohol or extra-marital sex. They crave meaning and purpose, but always seem to be unable to find that fulfillment.

And yet, her language and descriptions are so captivating and addictive that I found myself in love with the beauty in the world, rather than lamenting the problems in it. Her stories are magnificently visual, and in just a few pages, you become engrossed in these worlds, intrigued by these people. For example, in one story, she describes a women as such:
"She was tall, and her body streamed like a sonnet. Her face was formed all of triangles, like a cat's is, and her eyes and her hair were blue-grey."
There is a beauty to this language that is unprecedented. Parker's humour is sharp and observational, drawing your attention to some of the most common-place things and making them entertaining:
"Men seldom make passes / At girls who wear glasses."
And that is the whole poem. Two lines: just brilliant. Though I think my favourite poem is Observation, because it perfectly encapsulates a thought I have almost every day.

 Her tone and wit continue into her journalistic writing: reviews, commentaries, columns. It is like she is sat across the table from you in a coffee shop, telling you about the play she saw last night, laughing at the unconvincing acting or praising the audience's reaction. 

I really enjoyed reading these stories and poems over the last few weeks, and I am ashamed I knew so little of her before now. Parker's stories end in tears or death - none of them offer the that fairytale happy ending - but they are real and honest, a criticism of the time in which she lived. She was a rare literary beauty, and I am glad she was an exception of her generation and lived long enough to give us such a vast and entertaining collection of writing.  

Friday, 12 July 2013

Death Cloud

Young Sherlock Holmes: Death Cloud
Andrew Lane
London, Macmillan, 2010, 306p

The 2013 Bookbuzz list was published recently, so I am making an early start on getting myself acquainted with them, so that I can make suitable recommendations to our new intake of Year 7s. 

Death Cloud was one of the selection that I already had on the shelves. We meet a young Sherlock Holmes, on summer break from school. Mycroft has sent him to his uncle's house in Farnham, where he initially finds himself bored and lonely; until he meets Matty, a street child who shows Sherlock what fun can be had. Then, Sherlock and Matty stumble across a strange mystery: two unconnected men are found dead, covered in warts and boils, with plague-like symptoms. The locals assume a new epidemic upon them, but Matty thinks it might have something to do with a strange black cloud he sees near one of the incidents. Convinced that no adult will believe them, they set out alone to work out how these deaths occurred. 

The story is face-paced and exciting, full of unexpected twists, life-endangering fights, and moments of comic relief. Sherlock comes up against an evil genuis, a Gothic, Bond-like villain who is seemingly unstoppable. But this Sherlock is still young and willing to learn, and has a brilliant supporting cast of friends to aid him. 

I am an ardent admirer of all thing Sherlock Holmes, though my true preferences have always been with Conan Doyle's originals (I have mentioned in the past that I think this is because I love the fact that Conan Doyle actually despised his infamous protagonist). I like Sherlock's confidence and style, his logic and skills of deduction. The villains are always classically maniacal and the mystery always has a strangely obvious solution. I also love the setting: late Victorian London, amongst all the grime and dirt of the alley ways. 

This had all that and more. The Young Sherlock Holmes novels give the reader some sort of understanding of how the mature Sherlock came to be. He is a little bit socially awkward, having few friends at school. He is intelligent and deductive, under the leadership of his tutor Amyus Crowe, who teaches him about observation and the value and power of having knowledge. The Sherlock we meet through Andrew Lane's novel is not fully-formed, and is willing to learn, but already has that cocky self-assurance that tends to get him into trouble. But he is recognisable, and that is invaluable.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

The Taming of the Shrew

The Taming of the Shrew
William Shakespeare
London, Penguin, 1974

Yesterday evening, I was lucky to get to see the Globe Theatre on tour at the Bodleian Library Quad, performing The Taming of the Shrew.

The Taming of the Shrew is controversially my favourite Shakespeare play. I say it is controversial because, in theory, it goes against all my feminist beliefs. It is a story about two sisters, Katherina and Bianca. Thier father insists that the eldest must be married before the youngest; but Katherina is a shrew: angry, stubborn and difficult. Bianca's suitors are relieved when they stumble upon Petruchio, an eccentric gentleman who is determined he can take her.

In theory, I have a real problem with this play: i.e. the idea that a woman can be tamed. We cannot. And yet, I find this to be an intelligent, witty, moving story about relationships between the sexes. Katherina is a headstrong heroine, loud and feisty, and Petrichio is a ridiculous pedant. In my humble opinion, both are tamed: they come fo realise they must manage their behaviour and inhibitions in the company of others. As such, Katherina appears "tamed", but I consider Petruchio to also be somewhat more sedate.

I found it a strange contrast to read a play with so little stage direction. Other than telling the characters when to enter and exeunt, Shakespeare leaves the play in the hands of the director. This means every performance is different and adaptation is flexible. I think this is why there have been so many interpretations and modernisations of his plays.

Before seeing the play last night, I went to a pre-show talk, in which I found two subjects discussed to be of particular interest. First, the repeated references to possessions throughout the story. Money is key: it breeds friendships, supports marriages, and defines relationships. On several occasions, Bianca's suitors debate who has the most right to her hand, arguing over their wealth and land. Elsewhere, Petruchio calls Katherina his possession, and Katherina later declares one's husband is "thy lord, thy king, thy governor". Yet, given the contemporary society, this is understandable. This is a story about bourgeois families vying to out-bid each other for the "love" of a beautiful woman. And this is why Petruchio and Katherina's love seems so much more valid: they are both rich and crazy but they don't need anything from each other. They are whole as individuals, and their union makes them a strong team. (Or maybe I'm just a hopeless romantic.)

The other thing I was particularly interested in was the concept of performance. The Taming of the Shrew is a play within a play. At the beginning, a lord plays a trick on a drunk, dressing him in finery and pretending he is a lord. He employs a passing troupe to put on a play, and hence the well-known story begins. As such, it has been argued that the play can be seen as a farce, a comic commentary on gender roles and a criticism of the bourgeois values that dictate society (and hence, a misogynist tale it is not. Hurrah!).

And so, I hope I have been able to justify my love of The Taming of the Shrew. And if not, no one can deny the appeal of Shakespeare performed outside on a warm summer's evening.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Agnes Grey

Agnes Grey
Anna Bronte
London, Penguin, 1994, 302p

When it has been some time since I last read a book, I often find I cannot fully remember the plot, but I remember the impression it left upon me. This is the case with The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte, which I must have enjoyed as I think of so fondly. However, this is my first reading of Agnes Grey

This novel, Anne's first, is based on her experiences as a governess. As her family has so little money, Agnes volunteers to leave home and take a position tutoring two young children in a stately home. Although doted upon by their mother, the children are unruly and tempestuous, causing mayhem in their classroom and nursery, refusing to listen to her lessons. In her next position, she is governess to two slightly older girls, who are spoilt and thoughtless. 

The novel explores class conflict, explored through the way in which Agnes is neglected and mistreated by her employers. In the first instance, the young children manipulate and terrorise, which reminded me of The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. The parents look down upon Agnes as their inferior. She is a well-educated young lady, but her poverty and dependence sets her in a difficult position. 

I found myself unable to really like Agnes. I sympathised with her situation, becoming angry at the way she was treated, but I also found her too pious and miserable. Of course, her position renders her unable to dispute her employers, but I found her continuing complaints infuriating. And later, when a love interest was introduced, her pining and longing engendered her insipid. She is a very religious character - a product of her time - and tends to depend upon God for justification and validation. 

Having read a good deal of nineteenth century literature, she is one of the weakest protagonists I have met. I had longed for a strong and hardy woman, who remains self-assured in the face of poverty, like Margaret Hale (North & South), Elinor Dashwood (Sense and Sensibility) or Helen Graham (Wildfell Hall). 

Thursday, 4 July 2013


Tom Stoppard
London, Faber, 1993, 97p

On leaving work yesterday, I was overwhelmed by the desire to read a play. I don't read plays often, preferring prose, but I have read some weight novels recently and was in need for something light and clever. So inevitably, I ended up with Stoppard.

Arcadia is a perfect demonstration of why I love Tom Stoppard. It is a story that spans two hundred years, with a small cast and perfectly formed dialogue. In 1809, Thomasina sits at her desk with her tutor, Septimus. She is an intelligent girl, quick witted and curious, and Septimus treats her much older than her thirteen years. They are discussing complex algebra, when they are interrupted by Mr Chater, challenging Septimus to a fight.

Meanwhile, in the modern day, Bernard Nightingale arrives at the same house, eager to learn more about it's history, believing Lord Byron once visited. Bernard finds himself up against Hannah, a feisty scholar of botany who is reluctant to help the arrogant Nightingale.

It is an intelligent comedy for intellectuals. Stoppard's characters discuss classical philosophy, Newtonian theory, and Romantic poetry like it is general knowledge. Sometimes it is hard to keep up, but Stoppard has a brilliant way of explaining complicated subjects through his characters discussions. He is brilliant at producing these fully-formed beings, with no need to provide background information through contrived conversation. They just appear on the page (or on the stage) as everyday people, and we are lucky to observe their interactions.

Arcadia is set in Derbyshire, in a stately home. The house becomes a significant part of the story, bringing the two stories together. The contemporary characters are researching the earlier characters, using materials such as diaries and hunting records. They create their own stories about 1809, piecing together snippets of history to make their own truths. Only we, the audience, really know what happened, and it is equally comic and fascinating to see where the historians go wrong. 

I massively regret missing the opportunity to see this play in London a few years ago, but I am so excited it is coming to Oxford in October (see link here). Anyone fancy joining me?

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit
Jeanette Winterson
London, Vintage, 1990, 171p

Oranges are not the only Fruit was a novel my friend chose to write on during A-Level. (I chose The Bell Jar.) I remember promising her I would read it after our exams, once life settled down; but things happened and I forgot. For years, I have seen it in bookshops, libraries, charity shops, and sworn I will get around to it, and finally, now, I have fulfilled that promise.

Jeanette Winterson's novel professes to be a love story. For me, it was more of a journey. It is a sort-of-autobiographical account of growing up in a Pentecostal Christian household, whilst coming to the realisation that she is a lesbian. It is about self-discovery, happiness, and the importance of family. It is about being okay with being undefinable - no one can be wholly good or wholly evil. Sometimes, we are who we are.

Her loneliness is touching and reassuring. Jeanette feels like an outsider in a world of religious rules and oppositions. She cannot comprehend how her sexuality makes her a bad person, when her destiny is tied up in missionary work. Her journey is about understanding herself, breaking down the false barriers represented by binary labels of good / bad or right / wrong. It is not an everyday story, but the feelings are shared by many. 

Winterson walks a delicate line between criticising the narrow-mindedness of religious obsession and preaching about the love of God - I was so impressed that she managed to not take a side. She draws on her knowledge of Christianity, using Biblical language and religious themes to tell her story, but also brings in other folk tales and legends. As such, the line between fiction and non-fiction is blurred (like I said, sort-of-autobiographical!). 

It was this questioning of "truth" that I particularly adore about Jeanette Winterson. There is a chapter in the middle of the novel (a chapter I loved so much I read it twice) in which she explores the idea that history is determined by the story-teller. Reality is therefore malleable and subjective, and as readers, we must be contentious. We listen and we learn, and we weave our own ideas about what is the truth. 

Monday, 1 July 2013

Love That Dog

Love That Dog
Sharon Creech
London, Harper Collins, 2001, 86p

So I might have slightly shown my ignorance by raving about the originality of Sarah Crossan's The Weight of Water. It was a novel that defied categorisation, being both a novel and a series of poems. Poems are sometimes used to tell a story, but not in the way that novels tell stories. These books, however, succeed in both.

Love That Dog is about a school boy who refuses to believe he can write poems. Jack thinks boys can't write poems. His teacher introduces him to a variety of styles, and he attempts to mimic them. He talks about what he likes and what he doesn't like about the poems, slowly coming to the realisation that poetry can be whatever you want it to be. 

I can't really recall first learning about poetry, but I imagine I felt a similar way to Jack. I remember always thinking that poetry was incredibly structured - it has to have rhyme and rhythm. Jack refers to William Blake's 'Tyger', noting the powerful and memorable sound of the beat. I remember knowing that certain types of poems had different rules, like sonnets were longer that limerick, but both needed a set number of beats per line.

But soon Jack comes across different types of poems. Poems without rhyme, with no structure. Poems about street music and real life experiences. Poems he can understand. He becomes inspired, and is entranced by the power of certain poets. It is a delight to read as he comes alive. 

This is a sweet, uplifting story about the magic of the written word. Poetry is an incredible means of story-telling - I am stunned by how much can be expressed in just a few lines. In the same way that Jack was inspired through reading a range of poetry, I hope this novel sparks the writing bug in some budding young authors.