Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The Forward Book of Poetry 2010

The Forward Book of Poetry 2010
London, Forward, 2010

The 2010 collection is larger than any other Forward Book of Poetry - it contains some of the longest poems I have read in all the anthologies. But it also consists of a wide variety of subjects and forms, and every poems has memorable images and lines. 

I am starting to see familiar names recurring in the collections I have been reading - the more you read, the more you know. I was delighted to see Hugo Williams in the 2010 collection - his 'Poems to My Mother' are warm and honest, consistent with his work I have read elsewhere. 

Family is a theme that repeatedly comes up in poetry, but none more so than in this collection. It was presented in so many forms - from admiration to anger, tragedy to humour. Many seemed to be saying good bye, such as Christopher James' heart-breaking thoughts on his father. The words portray the individual poet's battles with their relationships; in particular, the darkness of Brian Henry's 'Quarantine' still haunts me. 

War and terror seemed to frequently be explored - even ten years after 9/11, the images of this tragedy remain on the minds of the writers. Clive James' ability to find a dark sort of humour in this subject demonstrates the zanity with which terrorism is thought. 

Alongside these are reflections on opportunities missed and lives not fulfilled. Roger McGough, a writer I normally associate with humour, declares, "We didn't make our beds, but we lie in them." And Kevin Hart muses over what life could have been like had he taken a different path. 

Many different styles were on show in this collection - from structure, rhyming poems to those without punctuation and correct grammar. In places, words seemed to be thrown at random upon the page, until closer reading revealed love or hope or longing. 

The ones I loved the most, as per usual, were those written by women, typically about relationships. The 2010 collection gave me a great selection to choose from, including Lorraine Mariner and Selima Hill, aforementioned favourites. But this collection iintroduced me to Tamsin Kendrick, whose weighing up of 'Peter Pan vs Captain Hook' forces you to reflect on your ideal man; especially when paired with Katy Evans-Bush's 'To My Next Lover', which immediately made me go away and write.

What more can you ask of a collection of poetry?

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Catch Your Death

Ruby Redfort: Catch Your Death
Lauren Child
London, Harper Collins, 2013, 525p

I have been searching for a suitable book for the OSA Y7 Girls Book Club, due to start after Christmas, and I really wish this book was shorter - it is perfect in every other way!

Ruby's third mission takes her completely outside her comfort zone. Ruby is undergoing field training; despite the fact she has already been involved in many dangerous missions, she needs to complete this to become a fully-fledged Spectrum agent. But the wilderness test baffles her practical approach to danger; she cannot escape the unpredictable nature of the outdoors. 

Catch Your Death is the smelliest mission yet, in the sense, alongside all strange animal attacks happening throughout Twinford, a perfume-obsessed foe is haunting the town. And following an difficult night in the woods, Ruby has the flu, is unable to smell anything, and is struggling to keep on top of her school work and her Spectrum duties. 

I am a self-confessed fan of Ruby Redfort - I would have devoured Lauren Child's words when I was a kid, even more so than I devour them as an adult. I get completely lost in Ruby's adventures. In this third mission, her best friend, Clancy, seems to get a much bigger role - he is finally being recognised as a hero like Ruby. And he is fiercely loyal to her. 

In places, the physical book; something I noticed with the previous novels, also. There are pages where a new scene begins, but there is no distinction from the last page, meaning you have to stay on your toes to work out who you are reading about. (And I do not see this as an intentional ploy to get readers to practice their observations skills, simply an editorial mistake.)

Nevertheless, the story is action packed and the book does not feel as long as it looks. You are completely drawn into the action, following Ruby and Clancy every step of the way. 

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Fortunately, the Milk

Fortunately, the Milk
Neil Gaiman
Ill. by Chris Riddell

After reading something as mature as The Manifesto on How to Be Interesting, I needed something a little more fantastical and extraordinary, in every sense of the words. 

When Dad pops to the shops to get some more milk, his children are surprised at how long it takes. They speculate that he may have bumped into someone they know and got caught chatting; but when Dad comes home, he has an epic tale to tell full of pirates, vampires (wumpires), and a time-travelling dinosaur. 

Fortunately, the Milk survives each element of the unbelievable adventure. This book is hilarious and ridiculous, but with illustrations from Chris Riddell, you cannot help but get caught up in the action. Each scene is so visual you barely have to suspend your disbelief. 

Monday, 15 December 2014

The Manifesto on How to Be Interesting

The Manifesto on How to Be Interesting
Holly Bourne
London, Usborne, 2014, 448p

It has taken me a little time to come to terms with my thoughts on this book due to the sensitivity of the content. The Manifesto on How to be Interesting is a novel I want to recommend, but it is loaded with issues that should be approached with caution. 

Bree is an academic, creative student. She is a writer. But when she presents her manuscript to her favourite teacher, his reaction disappoints. So Bree decides to embark on a mission to become popular, in the hope that a more interesting life will produce more interesting literature. 

The process is relatively easy for Bree - her parents are wealthy, and her father works with a make up manufacturer, meaning she has instant access to treats to share with her new, popular friends. All it takes is some more fashionable clothes to make everyone realise Bree is fairly attractive, and she has the personality to match. Along the way, her relationship with her best friend suffers; but soon, her crush is taking more of an interest and people around school talk about her in a different way. 

Bourne's novel is a little bit Mean Girls, but with added complexity. For one, Bree's crush is directed towards her English teacher; and secondly, Bree self-harms. Such issues are not easy to tackle in young adult literature - the fantasy element of fiction means many characters who self-harm are blessed with a moment of epiphany when they turn their lives around; many real girls are not so lucky. 

The underlying message of the book is to encourage the reader to be happy in who they are, and to acknowledge that we all suffer from lapses in confidence, even the most popular kids in school. But the challenge that I am left with is how to talk about these matters with my students - not every life has such a happy ending. 

Friday, 12 December 2014

The Forward Book of Poetry 1995

The Forward Book of Poetry 1995
London, Forward, 1995

I love the idea of an impromptu poetry reading from Carol Ann Duffy, Jean Binta Breeze and William Sieghart. Apparently, this is what happened during the meeting of the judging panel for the 1995 Forward Prizes. 

As Cressida Connely notes in her foreword, this collection consists of such an incredible variety of poetry, though much of it is rather longer than my usual preference. There are poems about music, from Marvin Gaye to Joe Meek; poems about love and family and loss; and even poems about poems. 

Peter Sansom's 'Today We Are Shooting Poets' is a funny, clever piece of writing, in contrast to Ann Sansom's celebration of variety in voices. 

There are also brilliantly strong women in this collection, possibly a reflection of Carol Ann Duffy's presence on the selection panel. Helen Dunmore's 'Three Ways of Recovering a Body' is simultaneously tragic and uplifting, but packs a punch alongside the words of Jackie Kay and Louise Hudson. 

And there are poems in here I want to read again and again, and that I think might lead me to writing my own response; particularly Peter Didsbury's 'A Malediction', which just oozes inspiration in it's structure, form and subject. Time to get writing, I guess...

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Not That Kind of Girl

Not That Kind of Girl
Lena Dunham
London, Fourth Estate, 2014, 265p

When I found myself painfully jealous of a friend who was reading this book that I realised I had to get a copy. Lena Dunham's biography has caused some controversy already, and although I am not a religious watcher of 'Girls', I must confess I am intrigued by her. 

Not That Kind of Girl is a funny, intelligent and sometimes disturbing account of Dunham's life so far. She talks about health, family and romance, and everything in between. She tells the reader she is a girl with a "keen interest in having it all", and this book is her story from "the front line of that struggle".

Dunham's youth is uniquely peculiar to me. She was born to artistic, liberal parents in New York, and her eccentricity and individuality have always been encouraged. In places, it sounds like she has low self-esteem (for example, when she discusses the common plight of the young woman who settles for a non-relationship with a guy who is clearly not good enough); and at other points, she explodes with self-assurance and good advice. 

I had been warned that this biography is far from uplifting, but it was darker than I had expected, with confessions about her reliance on her therapist and descriptions of rubbish relationships. But within those moments that make your heart break, there are episodes that make you laugh out loud. Mostly, I simply admire her honesty. 

I am conscious I am going through a phase of reading biographies of this kind - those of young, successful, strong women in comedy (see my recent review of Mindy Kaling's book). And I cannot wait to read Amy Poehler's recent release! With each of these women, I find some things to relate to and some things with which I disagree, but what my readings are demonstrating is that the female experience is varied and unique to each person - how can anyone stereotype about women when we are all so different?

Thanks to Jay for inspiration.

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Apple and Rain

Apple and Rain
Sarah Crossan
London, Bloomsbury, 2014, 329p

This is such an incredibly and irresistibly heart-warming book, it was a joy to read.

Apple has vague memories of her mother leaving, late one night around Christmas, leaving her with her Nana. And every year, Apple dreams that her mother will come back and claim her again. Nana is loving and well-meaning, and Dad is distantly present, popping up at important holidays; but it is her mother that Apple wants back. 

But when her mother eventually does come home, things aren't quite like Apple expected. She moves away from her Nana, but her mother isn't around much anyway, and Apple has unexpected company in her mother's flat. Apple tries to find comfort at school - she loves her new poetry teacher, but is scared about opening up with the truth; and meanwhile, her best friend is moving on. 

As her mum's absence increasingly becomes a social welfare issue, Apple does all she can to protect her mother from a potential visit from the police. Apple is forced to grow up far quicker than any young girl should have to, and as you read you long for her to be returned to her Nana's guardianship. 

Despite all the badness happening around her, Apple is a patient, contentious young lady. She doesn't get mad at her mother when she is away for days; she is far from the typical teenager. 

Throughout the Apple and Rain, Crossan treats the reader to snippets of Apple's creativity, inspired by great poets and universal themes. At points, it seems like poetry is the only good and true thing in Apple's life. I love the infectiousness of her love for the written word, and I am sure many young readers (and writers) share Apple's fear of sharing her most honest feelings with her teachers and classmates. 

It is amazing that a novel that explores a young girl's confused feelings about her absent mother can be so uplifting and enlightening. 

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Roy Kane TV Detective

Roy Kane TV Detective
Steve Bowkett
London, A&C Black, 2008, 80p

The Colour Graphix series has had a recent reprint and now they look great! Originally published in 1998, the books in this collection are brightly illustrated, full of drama, and ideal for reluctant readers.

When a diamond is stolen from the city museum, Roy Kane TV Detective is on the case.  The diamond belongs to Magnus Carmody, a billionaire. CCTV footage shows a mysterious dark shape entering and leaving the room, so Kane and his partner, Vicki Stand, turn to local celebrity magician for ideas. But Doctor Praetorius is unable (or unwilling) to help. He seems like the obvious suspect, but nothing is ever what it seems. 

The story is accessible and not overly complicated, but engaging enough for younger readers to want to keep reading. 

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The Forward Book of Poetry 2007

The Forward Book of Poetry 2007
London, Forward, 2006

2007 appears to have been the year of the incredibly long poem, and yet this collection is surprisingly short. As John Burnside notes in his foreword, the judges of 2007 selected six finalists for each category, instead of the usual five. But the selection of Highly Commended Poems is shorter than usual, and this is where I found the real gems. 

This collection covers as wide a range of themes as any of the Forward Arts Foundation books, but there seems to be a heavier leaning towards poems about the labouring classes than usual, from forestry to mining and beyond. 

Then, there are brilliant accounts of fantasy like Tim Wells' 'On Being Expelled from Eton for Shagging Tallulah Bankhead', which imagines a world in which a working class boy could go to an establishment school. 

Although many of these poems are rather longer than I typically prefer, there are some excellent examples of experimentation with form, including Allan Crosbie's 'Manifesto', the power of which is so difficult to articulate - you will simply have to read it yourself to believe it. 

But I think my favourite is 'Bird' by Clare Shaw - somewhat unexpectedly, as I am not the kind of person who likes stories about animals; I have always responded better to human pain and success. But 'Bird' is so beautifully written, so delicate and innocent, that I could not help but love it. 

Monday, 1 December 2014

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)
Mindy Kaling
New York, Ebury, 2013, 223p

I hugely enjoyed my time with Mindy Kaling. Part of me wants to call her my guilty pleasure, but I have nothing to be ashamed of - I love her writing and acting; if I was a girly girl, I would want to be like her: self assured, embarrassed by nothing, beautiful. 

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? is Kaling's hilarious biography. She recounts her school days, her wild ambition coupled with boring jobs, and her eventual success when she joined the writers of The Office. Her book combines extended lists with long prose accounts, and carries the air of someone trying not to give advice (and sort of failing). 

Kaling possesses a ridiculous amount of passion and knowledge about comedy, listing her favourite comedy moments and recounting friendships that just didn't work out because the other person wasn't as in to it as she is. Since writing this book, Kaling has created her own sitcom, The Mindy Project, and I would have loved this book to contain more of her crazy confessions about this.

A few days after having finished this book, I am still laughing as I recall little snippets of her humour. In particular, I have adopted Kaling's approach to jogging, which is to fantastise about imaginary revenge scenarios. Despite initially finding this idea hilarious, in practice it has proven to really occupy the mind and distract from the pain of running. 

Kaling is open and honest with her reader, telling her most awkward moments and biggest celebrity crushes. But throughout, she is explicitly happy with who she is - she is unapologetic and doesn't really care what anyone thinks, despite confessing to a fascinating with fashion and dieting, interests conventionally possessed by those who care too much what other people thinks. In this way, she has even challenged some of the subconscious presumptions I had about women. She doesn't try and claim that her experiences are the same as any other woman's experiences, and that is what I love most.