Book Review: The Shelf (ARC)

First of all, a huge thank you to NetGalley and Bonnier Books UK for sending me an advanced copy of this book – but please note, this doesn’t influence my review. The Shelf is due to be published on 9th July, 2020. It is currently available for pre-order via Amazon and Waterstones.

Synopsis

Amy suddenly has to prepare herself for a surprise holiday with her boyfriend. He’s even ordered a limo to pick them up. Blindfolded, Amy can barely contain herself for what she thinks is going to be a proposal. However, a dreamy vision of a proposal holiday is soon turned into a nightmare – as Amy realises she has been left alone on a TV set.  Jamie has taken her here to dump her. As if a break up isn’t hard enough, Jamie makes sure Amy is as publicly embarrassed as he can. 

Amy and five other dumped women soon discover they are on a new reality TV show called ‘The Shelf.’ The goal is to win the program through a series of challenges that prove their compatibility and motherly instincts. By a public vote, one of them will be crowned The Keeper. An inherently sexist premise of course, but I gathered this was the point.

Review

Image: via Helly Acton

Title: The Shelf

Author: Helly Acton

Genre: Women’s Fiction

My rating: ★★★☆☆

With many parallels to Love Island – The Shelf puts its female contestants through a hard time, with constant rolling social media coverage featuring the public’s opinion of each candidate. Winning the public vote is harder than it seems. Will the women realise they are better off without their exes who had the nerve to dump them on a reality TV show? Each candidate is put through a series of challenges designed to test them – from plastic babies to hosting the perfect tea party.

This is a compelling, re-interpretation of the ‘chick-lit’ genre. Unlike the standard women’s romance novel that results in the leading female character happily in love with her dream man, this novel illustrates the importance of a happy ending that doesn’t have to depend on finding love – but loving yourself.

Amy, the protagonist, has put herself through two years of slog in her relationship with Jamie, endlessly hoping that he would pop the question. She had grown used to his taunts about her body, her neediness and other ‘faults,’ but had placed them to one side in the hope they would get married and have a happy future. Throughout this time, she had lost parts of herself – it takes the entire duration of the novel for her to realise this.

Single over thirty is like an illness that’s too awkward and depressing to talk about.”

Instead of aiming to become the male ideal embodied by ‘The Keeper,’ she decides to portray an important message to women. That you are always enough on your own, and you don’t need anyone else (but especially a man) to complete you. For me, this is where the important, feminist message comes across. In having a character like Amy as the protagonist, the novel really thrusts to the forefront the significance of women being their own person and not succumbing to societal pressures.

Amy is the modern day Bridget Jones with an essential twist, she ditches the yo-yo diets, marriage expectations, and the fairytale Mr Darcy, replacing these with a new appreciation of herself and living life the way she wants to. I found this feminist take incredibley refreshing and much needed in this social media driven age, where everything is about women comparing themselves to others. It is so easy to get sucked into the highlight reels of others, that we forget to be ourselves. And this is exactly what the novel is commenting on.

Image: alison rachel via Pinterest

Life on a reality TV show is peppered with the glare of social media all over the contestants, each are judged 24/7 by the timelines fuelled by the public. The setting is incredibly similar to Love Island. If I’m honest I found some of the similarities, such as the baby challenge, very cliche, which detracted from the novel’s more poignant message. Although I enjoyed the read, even laughing out loud from some of Amy’s comical one liners, I did find the plot predictable from the start. I think basing it on the parameters of Love Island, meant it was bound to be predictable in some ways.

The show is dominated by old fashioned, male chauvinists who believe women should still be a 1950s housewife, much to most of the contestants dismay.

“Selfish Jackie! Distant Gemma! Bitter Kathy! Desperate Amy! Boring Hattie! And last but not least, Easy Lauren!”

However, having a lead character like Amy is central to this book as it goes against the very grain that the TV show setting creates. Amy does not let herself be lured into society’s pressures on women – but uses the experience to go against this, and against what she previously thought her life should value. This is a part of the book that I really liked. Amy’s strength of character and likeability really drives the novel and reveals its best parts and the central message to women.

“I am my own keeper…Be your own keeper. Each and every one of you.”

Above all, I admire this book because it’s message is an imperative one that puts contemporary feminism at the forefront of the social media, digital age. Amy goes through a journey of self discovery and realises she doesn’t need a man to make her happy. The societal pressures on getting married and having children is a false one, which can distract women from being their best selves. This ideal is often glamorized in the romance genre – I am very thankful this book did the opposite.

This book is different to anything I usually read but it certainly ticked a lot of boxes. It made me laugh out loud, I loved the main character, and appreciated the important message it conveys to women about self love. However, it didn’t blow me away, because I found the plot quite predictable and cliche. The ending was also disappointing and I was left wanting to know more. That said, I definitely enjoyed reading this book and was drawn in by the initial strange events when Amy realises she is not, in fact, going on a dreamy romantic holiday.

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Book Review: Half a World Away

I have been a bit absent with book reviews – they seem a bit trivial at the moment with everything going on. But I guess people still want to read! But I’m back with another good one! I had high expectations for this and wasn’t disappointed.

Synopsis from Goodreads

“Strangers living worlds apart.
Strangers with nothing in common.

But it wasn’t always that way…

Kerry Hayes is single mum, living on a tough south London estate. She provides for her son by cleaning houses she could never hope to afford. Taken into care as a child, Kerry cannot ever forget her past.

Noah Martineau is a successful barrister with a beautiful wife, daughter and home in fashionable Primrose Hill. Adopted as a child, Noah always looks forward, never back.

When Kerry reaches out to the sibling she lost on the day they were torn apart as children, she sets in motion a chain of events that will have life-changing consequences for them both.”

Review

Title: Half a World Away

Author: Mike Gayle

Genres: Fiction, urban fiction, domestic fiction

My rating: ★★★★

Half a World Away is narrated between two protagonists – Kerry, who lives in a tower block in south London, and Noah who has a large house in Primrose Hill. I think this dual narration really serves to reinforce the dividing lines between them.

Kerry and her son, Kian, live their day to day lives struggling to make ends meet. Kerry works long hours cleaning wealthy houses in London, and is a full time, single Mum. The reader soon finds out that Kerry spent a significant amount of time in care, after her Mother struggled with parenting and various forms of addiction.

As a young child, Kerry spent most of her childhood caring for her younger brother, Noah. However, they were separated when Noah was adopted, whilst Kerry grew up in a care home. Ever since, Kerry has been longing for the day when they can reunite. From the age of eighteen, the age where legally you are allowed to request contact with your birth family, she writes Noah letters in the hope he will make contact with her. These letters are scattered throughout the book and add a certain rawness to Kerry’s emotions, by illustrating her life long hope of having her brother in her life again.

Noah’s life is very different. Although he’s adopted, he never really faces up to his former past. There is a lot he doesn’t know about his previous circumstances, and spends a lot of time shying away from it. He is adopted into a middle-class, privileged family and reaps the benefits of this lifestyle. As a barrister his life has gone in the opposite direction in comparison to his sister, Kerry. One day a letter from Kerry manages to reach him directly, which turns his world upside down. He never knew he had a sister and now he has to decide whether to recover his past life. Torn between a relationship breakdown with his wife, fraught conversations with his parents about his birth family, and his own personal struggles, Noah has to make a decision about the direction of the next stage in his life.

Image: Forbes. Street in Primrose Hill, London.

I thought this book was incredibly clever as it embodies the dilemma’s adopted, and care leavers face when deciding whether they want to contact their birth family. I particularly resonated with the feelings of both characters as I was adopted myself. I definitely empathized with both Kerry and Noah, as each character swung back and forth between wanting to know about their past, and worrying they’ll find out something they don’t want to hear.

Additionally, it explores the concept of “family” and what it really means. For Noah, family is definitely not as much about blood relations but who raises you – nonetheless, this doesn’t completely stifle his curiosity. For Kerry, she had always longed for that contact with her brother which suggests she felt that connection to a blood relative. It’s different for everybody, but the book raises the questions a person has to go through when wanting to find out about their birth family. It can put adoptive parents in an awkward place – luckily, Noah’s parents are very understanding and encourage him to learn more about his past.

Above all, class and difference in opportunity is at the heart of this book which highlights how time in care can influence your future outcomes. For most care leavers, Kerry’s situation is more of the norm. Care leavers are more likely to develop mental health issues, turn to addictive substances, live in poverty and are less likely to attend university. Having characters which are two polar opposites – really symbolizes this divide in opportunity that care leavers face. With the dual narration, the reader really gets an in depth insight into how different each siblings lives really are.

They also contrast as they had different fathers but shared the same, white mother. Kerry is a white woman, whilst Noah’s father was a black man. When the narration is told through Noah, we get an insight into his experience of this and difficult conversations he has had, having grown up with a white adopted family. People often had their queries over the family situation and wanted to know more. However, the way Gayle intertwines issues of class, race and disruption in early life – really reinforces the idea that society is naturally unequal. This is an ongoing, brutal reality of the modern world and symbolized so eloquently by paralleling two characters from such different backgrounds.

Image: Joe Newman for the Daily Mail. South London tower block.

Kerry’s perspective is an interesting one – she worries about meeting up with her brother because she lives in a council estate, doesn’t have much money and has ‘scruffy clothes.’ Kian is exposed to bullying at school because unlike his peers, he doesn’t have the latest trainers or PlayStation game. Her flat is tiny, but Kerry has put her heart and soul into is over the years to make it as nice as possible. Differences between the two siblings become eroded over the course of the book as they discover how similar they really are as people.

This book is laced with sadness (which I can’t go into for giving the plot away) but its execution highlights the value of time and how precious it is. Nearly twenty years have passed between Noah and Kerry, and the reader really hopes they can rekindle their relationship. But like all care and adoption situations, it’s awkward at first, messy and complicated. This is demonstrated so honestly in this book and I really take my hat off to Gayle, as it is hard to portray the realities of these feelings in a novel.

I loved this book, as it was easy to read but was a poignant story told with honesty and a huge amount of relatability. I think this is the first adult novel I’ve read that looks at the impact of being in care, and I really appreciate it just for doing that alone. The characters are crafted so well, each narration is told in such a down to earth and chatty style, that as a reader, I really felt I knew them.

However, it’s not a ‘beautiful’ novel as such, there’s no messing about. As someone who loves a bit of literary fiction and use of flowery language – there is none of this here. The language and prose is nothing out of the ordinary. Rather, maybe the rawness of the language is the entire point. Emotions are highly charged, and it would be wrong to cover these in littered metaphors and incomprehensible symbolism. Gayle gets to the point, and rightly so.

An honest, down to earth, and heartfelt story which illustrates the variability of outcomes that result from time spent in care, and having a disturbed upbringing. This book is littered with warmth and uplift but simultaneously, endless sadness and regret. It will definitely move you and re-asses your value of time, loved ones and family relationships.

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Book Review: Airhead ~ The Imperfect Art of Making News

Image: Deadline

Emily Maitlis is rather topical in the UK at the moment because of her framing of the Dominic Cummings debate on Newsnight. Maitlis opened the current affairs program with,

“…He made those who struggled to keep the rules feel like fools and has allowed many more to assume the can now flout them.

The Prime Minister knows all this but despite the resignation of one minister, growing unease from his back benchers, the dramatic early warning from the polls and a deep national disquiet – Boris Johnson has chosen to ignore it…    

(You can see the full opening statement here.) In my opinion, her statement did not break “impartiality” regulations but there we go, some are always bound to think otherwise.

However, funnily enough I was actually reading her book before this started. I’ve always admired Emily Maitlis for her approach to broadcasting and this was largely inspired by her brilliant interview with Prince Andrew during the Epstein scandal last year. As someone who wants to go into journalism, I couldn’t wait to read her book.

Review

Title: Airhead: The Imperfect Art of Making News

Author: Emily Maitlis, British journalist and presenter of Newsnight

Genre: Non-fiction, biography

My rating: ★★★☆☆

Maitlis’ Airhead is premised as an autobiography of her experience as one of the UK’s leading British broadcasters. In hosting the current affairs program, Newsnight, she is often at the forefront of breaking news. This book documents a range of interviews she has conducted, from President Donald Trump, to the Dalai Lama. Each chapter is structured as a specific interview, or peppered with a particular experience in her career – such as when the BBC got arrested in Cuba, or when she took her twelve year old son to see the Chippendale’s in a Las Vegas strip show.

Although the interviews were interesting to read, I found they were largely driven by pure narrative, and each chapter had the same structure and format. In a sense, it was quite repetitive and lacked substance. Some chapters were better than others, and I did enjoy reading her experience as the interviewer – one that stands out is the interview with former British Prime Minister, Theresa May, days after the Grenfell tower tragedy. Her writing reveals to the reader that indeed, no interview is ever perfect and a lot of the time, due to constraints they are haphazardly glued together in the moment, for the purpose of fulfilling the “breaking news” agenda.

Before reading this I thought it would focus more on the ins and outs of news making and the philosophies of journalism itself. By this, I mean who does news making aim to please, the morals and ethics of breaking news reporting, and how instant reporting via social media has undergone a revolution in recent years. Also, the impact that breaking news has on history making and our conception of events. These are all things Maitlis has been in the thick of over the years, and I was therefore, surprised they weren’t really discussed. Perhaps I expected too much?

Maitlis integrates some of this ever so slightly, but only in the final chapter,

“A huge amount of thought goes into what we do. Interpreting moments of history whilst they are still unfolding is both deeply rewarding and endlessly challenging. Television news is messy. It gets things wrong. It is imperfect – sometimes laughably so – and sometimes you just nail it.”

Emily Maitlis, Airhead

I felt that she had saved the best until last – this reflection on the art of making news should have framed the entire book, and she could have gone deeper into this and been more selective with the amount of interviews included.

The book is marketed as an “autobiography” but it certainly doesn’t read like one, we don’t receive details of her early life, childhood, or how she got into journalism, just snapshots of favourite moments in her career that when reading, feels more like a diary entry. Don’t get me wrong, the interviews were interesting and funny at times, but I found the book lacked depth she could easily convey, considering her remarkable career.

There’s a lot to be said about news making and the ethics of broadcasting, and Maitlis is one of the best people to discuss it, but it’s a shame she didn’t make this more of a feature, perhaps she is saving it for another title!

All in all, this is an interesting book and a worthwhile read for anyone that is interested in broadcast journalism and wants to read about it from her perspective. But don’t expect too much from the sub title, “the imperfect art of making news” as this isn’t given the attention it deserves.

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What I read in May (2020)

Another month in isolation brings another months worth of reading to an end! I have read a variety of things and pretty much loved everything. I’m starting to think maybe I need to be more critical…!? I found myself feeling drawn to non-fiction which isn’t the norm for me, but nonetheless, the month was still dominated by fiction.

The Library of the Lost and Found, Phaedra Patrick ★★★★

It feels like a life time ago that I read this but it was only at the start of the month! A lovely, heart warming story about a librarian who attempts to discover the truth about her family’s past. Uplifting and reviving in a time of need! And if you like books about books, stories and words, you’ll love this.

Re read: Normal People, Sally Rooney ★★★☆☆

The beginning (and most of May it seems) has been dominated by the hype around Normal People. I decided to re-read this in the hope of liking it more, again, I was left with the same feeling I got the first time round. Average story documenting a strange kind of relationship – something about it doesn’t sit with me well. A nice little coming of age novel, but one that doesn’t deserve the hype, nor the literary credibility.

The Bullet Journal Method, Ryder Carroll ★★★★

I enjoyed this very much. To coincide with my increasing habit of journalling during isolation, I decided to read the definitive bullet journal guide. I found it very informative, motivating and easy to read and would recommend it to anyone who is looking to learn more about the benefits of journalling to manage anxiety. It also contains useful diagrams and examples of how to lay out your journal.

The Bridge of Little Jeremy, Indrajit Garai ★★★★

I was kindly sent a copy of this and really feel in love with the story. It is one of the most beautifully written stories I have read and I feel in love with the language. It’s told through the perspective of a twelve year old boy living in Paris, trying to save his Mother from going into financial ruin. It really tugs at your heart strings, but in all the best places. Above all, it is a story about the love and appreciation for art and seeing the beauty in the everyday.

Frozen Butterflies, Simona Grossi ★★★★

This was weird story, it had such a lingering weirdness that I couldn’t bring myself to write a review about it on my blog. The characters were directionless, possessive and obsessive and I found the relationships that Susan (the protagonist) perused worrying and strange. However, I found myself addicted to the book and couldn’t stop reading it. The discovery of a stranger’s journal starts the whole thing off and gives the reader the hook they need to read the novel. Intriguing is one word to describe it for sure.

Hot Milk, Deborah Levy ★★★★★ 

Arguably the best book I have read this year, I loved everything about it – from the story, the protagonist, Sofia, and the general ‘feeling’ the book left me with. It’s descriptive prose made me notice even the small things in my day to day life, and I felt I could immediately read it again. Set in Spain, the story follows the journey of post-graduate, restless Sofia, as she takes her mother to Spain in the hope of curing her various ailments. It is essentially a coming of age novel, but told with such sincerity and depth that it kind of blew me away.

In the Dark, Soft Earth, Frank Watson (ARC, due to be published July 2020) ★★★★

I was kindly sent this from the Plum White Press. This collection of poems explores many elements, from love, relationships, desire, to an appreciation of nature and our place in the world, but essentially draws upon the idea that everything we experience has an ancient history. The language is simple, but charged with pivotal imagery and sentiment. The images created are beautiful, and a hypnotic ode to the human experience.

Airhead: The Imperfect Art of Making News, Emily Maitlis ★★★☆☆

I found this book enjoyable, interesting and funny at times. As someone who is interested in journalism and admires Emily Maitlis for her wit and manner when interviewing, I was excited to read it. However, I felt it lacked depth. It reads as a snapshot diary documenting various interviews, but offering little in depth insight into the philosophies behind news-making and journalism. Maybe I expected to much from it, but I felt she could have gone deeper as she certainly has the capabilities to do so. However, still an interesting read.

Reading stats

Average rating – 3.8

Books read – 8

Pages read – 2, 276

What I’m currently reading

I’m currently still reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists but I’m so close to finishing! I’ve been reading it in-between the sixteen or so other books I have read for the past couple of months, hence why it seems like I’ve been a bit slow. I have to read it in small chunks as I’m trying to really take it in. I am actually writing a piece on it for another publication so I want to read thoroughly. I must admit, there were a few sections in the middle that dragged somewhat, but I’m currently on a bit that’s really good! I think it will be a book that ends up having a significant impact on me and the way I think.

Final thoughts

I’m actually feeling very happy with myself in terms of reading. For three years whilst I was at university, I just didn’t find the time to read for pleasure and I am so pleased that this is something I am able to do. COVID has helped obviously, but I think I would be reading just as much anyway. This month I reached 30 books read so far this year which is crazy! I sent myself a target of 50 at the start of the year and thought that was ambitious!

I’ve had a couple of really great comments and feedback recently on my reviews – saying they are really in depth and thought out which is wonderful to hear. However, it has got me thinking, am I perhaps writing reviews which are too in depth? Would it be better to adopt more of a chatty, informal style or still stick to the ‘rigorous’ type approach. I’ve tried doing the short and snappy style which I enjoy, but sometimes it doesn’t feel right for certain books. If you have any thoughts on this, please let me know!

Happy reading and best wishes as always,

Violet xxx

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Poetry Review: In the Dark, Soft Earth

Firstly, I am very grateful to Plum White Press for sending me an advanced copy of this collection, however, this does not influence my review in any way. 


Frank Watson is an American poet who has written collections including; The Dollhouse Mirror, Seas to Mulberries and One Hundred Leaves. In the Dark, Soft Earth, is his latest work, due to be published in July 2020, it describes itself as the, “poetry of love, nature, spirituality, and dreams.” You can pre-order the collection on Amazon.

The Review

Title: In the Dark, Soft Earth

Poet: Frank Watson

My rating: ★★★★

In the Dark, Soft Earth captivates the essence of human experience with the forces of nature, intense romantic relationships and draws on a sense of shared history. The prose is beautifully captivating, honest, and full of images which will light up your soul. In a way, it takes the reader on a journey of what it is to be human, through the surges of different emotional experiences tied in with nature. 

I found the collection had a significant element of flow in the way each poem bleed into the next. Some poems were more short and snappy and at first appeared to be more devoid of meaning, but viewed collectively, they had a shared meaning. This gives the collection an element of motion which I really loved, as there was something so hypnotic and dreamy about it. 

For me, despite each poem having a different feel, the collection is united by a common theme that explores the idea that our human experience and emotions are universal. Poems such as ‘shores of millennia’ illustrate this, in pointing to the idea that our feelings and thoughts have been lived before, and in this, this is how we are connected to our past,

“these rocks

of a million years

and all the fleeting life

that’s graced their shores…”

shores of millennia

The idea that love is a timeless human emotion is explored captivatingly in this collection, with drawing upon images of the history of the earth. When we walk, when we love and when we explore the earth – we are doing something with an ancient history. I loved this image and feeling that Watson conveys and its sense of grounding of the human experience is unique and wonderfully demonstrated.

Photo by Kenneth Carpina on Pexels.com

In ‘continents’ we really get the exploration of this theme and how nature, love and history are all tied together. The feeling of love is likened to a, “sensual sea” which has the ability to carry, “across the continents” and, “into centuries, / of cracked earth / with stories told..”. I love the beauty of this image and the sense of timelessness from it – it again, points to the idea that human experience is historic.

The theme of nature is as persistent as love itself, as a reader you really get the sense that Watson is enthralled by it. Nature is the driving force behind his portrayal of love and the ‘soft’ element of earth. In making such a connection between love, nature and human experience, it feels like Watson implies that nature itself can be a carrier of emotions – and this is such a lovely sentiment. I think partly, nature is so heavily drawn upon as it makes readers re-consider their perceptions and connections to the world.

Aside from the interconnectedness of themes drawn upon in this collection, the writing itself pays homage to the sense of effortlessness in which we can all feel and have the capacity for love. The flow is beautiful, crafted with a simplicity of language and littered with complex images. Some poems are almost lyrical and roll of the tongue which makes the collection entirely digestible. Watson uses little punctuation in many of his poems which creates a kind of breathlessness  – perhaps mirroring the intensity of human emotions.

I found the reading experience itself to be incredibly addictive, soothing in parts, but also cutting in places – especially towards the end which features the darker elements of human experience. It feels as though the collection is meant to get increasingly darker as you read on, to demonstrate the cycle of life and renew an appreciation of the ‘soft’ parts of the earth. 

I really enjoyed the collection as a whole and felt touched by the portrayal of love being intertwined with the forces of nature. However, I struggled with the end in getting to grips with some of the images about death and religion – I understand it had to end on this to convey ‘the life cycle’ theme, but I felt this part was disconnected to the rest. The heavy, religious images didn’t seem to match up with the delicacy of imagery used for the majority of the collection. 

Image: Pieter Bruegel, Tower of Babel, 1563

Also, this part increasingly uses historic works of art and religious pieces including the “Tower of Babel” by Pieter Bruegel and “The World” by Bonifacio Bembo. Although these point to the element of shared, historical experience, I didn’t think they added to the collection. For me, reading poetry is an individual experience about creating your own images from interpreting the language. In providing images, I found it took away from this. However, this said, perhaps this is more of a personal preference. 

All in all, I enjoyed reading this collection. I found the way Watson captured the human experience enlightening and beautiful, and the images of nature really resonated with me. The language is simple, but the images are complex and enduring. It is a celebration of life itself and everything in between. The simplicity of language and limited use of punctuation enabled a certain rawness to be conveyed – which I liked. For me, this is important, as poetry has to be honest and accessible, so it can reach people and touch them in various ways. 

In a time of great turbulence, anxiety, and concern, this collection restored my faith in humanity and our capacity to appreciate the world. It will soothe your soul and carry you to other places. Its breathless sense of urgency will charge your present with the instinctive human necessity to love, be grounded to the past, and have an abundant appreciation for nature. 

Beautiful to read: a timeless assessment of what it means to be a human in a world with an ancient past, charged with an undercurrent of urgency.

My favourite poem in the collection,

“in the garden of dreams

a little orchid bathes

unseen in the rain

violets

in the midnight scent –

stars in her eyes

a wall within

a wall where all

the secrets grow

in a world of fragments

we piece it together

in the walls we make

gardens

Thanks again to Plum White Press for sending me a copy!

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