Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover Book Cover

Planning For (Pandemic) Christmas

A photograph of fairy light in the shape of a star

Amy, you have no idea…

It’ll be quieter here, and whilst not nearly as busy and fun, I’ve realised that a quieter Christmas does mean more time for reading and some solo games I’ve got on a perpetual ‘do that later’ list. I’ve clocked up plenty of unfinished reads this year so I’m hoping to make a dent in that pile, and I might spend more time watching Outlander than I have the previous two Christmases, during which I unintentionally started a new festive routine of watching a decidedly un-festive programme over wine, cheese, and fairy lights. I enjoyed it so much – the fewer sex scenes really helped – that I’ve actually relegated watching the show to Christmas time and am therefore only on season two and reliant on Amazon continuing to make it available.

Books: Lillian Li’s Number One Chinese Restaurant; Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar Of Wakefield; Diana Evans’ Ordinary People; and, hopefully, Deborah Swift’s The Gilded Lily, which is a very recent addition. No Christmas books as yet; I’m still having a think about that one.

Games: Trine – another few-Christmas’ worth tradition; Overcooked; and possibly The Sims 3 and Kingdom Come Deliverance. If any of you readers are gamers and haven’t tried Trine, I very, very much recommend it.

Films: various cheesy Hallmark Channel ones I’ve not yet seen that our British Channel 5 make available, and Happiest Season (2020) as long as it’s on Amazon.

What are you doing this festive season?

 
Roselle Lim – Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop + Podcast

Book Cover

Reading tea leaves. Rewriting destinies.

Publisher: Berkley (Penguin)
Pages: 304
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-984-80327-6
First Published: 4th August 2020
Date Reviewed: 13th November 2020
Rating: 4.5/5

Like Aunt Evelyn, Vanessa can predict people’s futures, only – unlike Evelyn – she does not appreciate the ability as it takes her over and she is forced to speak the prediction aloud. This has only ever led to people running away, predicting bad news too often, and all-consuming headaches. Now grown up and wanting a better life than the one she’s living, and hoping for love beyond the odds (fortune tellers do not have long-term romance in their destinies), Vanessa agrees to spend a couple of weeks in Paris with her aunt as Evelyn opens her tea shop, to try to tame her talent into something more bearable. Paris is the city of love, and Vanessa finds her match, but she knows better than to hope for more than a few days, just like her Aunt whose own love life has been troubled.

This book could be received in two ways; for my British readers, this book is like Marmite if liking or disliking Marmite involved the ability to make an active decision rather than a knee-jerk reaction. Ergo, then, if picked up with an idea for a ‘normal’ book with some fun and travels in it, Lim’s latest is likely to be a disappointment. In this context, the book could be called lacking true conflict, too nice, and rather odd.

And I want to say that and have chosen those words precisely because this review will not be looking at Lim’s book from that point of view. This is because, if picked up as an escape, with a view for fun and a much happier, colourful, version of the world – Paris, here, particularly, of course – where people largely get on (and when they don’t, it’s fixable) are successful, and where magical things happen (more magical realism than outright fantasy), then Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop is an utter delight.

So, like the situation with Marmite if we had something of a decision in the way we respond to it.

All this to say, perhaps, that this is a (‘the’, actually, I’d say) book to pick up when you’re wrapped up in blankets, it’s pouring with rain outside, and you want something that will make you feel good, euphoric even. (It’ll also work in the summer, more as a shady-under-the-tree or after the picnic rather than a beach read.) This book makes you feel… awesome. There is a special something about it that lifts off the page and envelopes you in goodness, even when Vanessa’s struggling.

Vanessa’s character progression is important; she narrates and her character is well-formed, however beyond her the most important elements are the atmosphere, the location, and the art. (The other characters do take a back seat in this way.) Lim’s use of Paris combines the better parts of the stereotype with the sorts of specific details that get left out of the stereotype – Paris is the city of love and happiness… and of these specific works of art that you’ll not find mentioned online quite so much. This is mostly thanks to Vanessa’s artistic nature – she stands and looks at things, and then sits down to memorialise them on paper.

Needless to say, the details inherent in creating art form a large part of the book. Another aspect that is used similarly is food, though this can be diverting. Food – the eating and description of it, formed much of Lim’s previous work, Natalie Tan’s Book Of Luck and Fortune, and the character was a chef. Vanessa, whilst her family is similar in this way, is not, and so it doesn’t work quite so well as the art – the narrative effectively pauses during meals, but it does pick right back up again following their conclusion.

So, as said, Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop is a pick-me-up, a magical story that is pretty impossible not to enjoy for the brightness it brings with it. Whilst you will remember the plot, it’s the value of the atmosphere, the use of location, and the symbolism of the magical realism elements Lim uses that will etch itself most into your memory – with its goodness and uniqueness, it would be difficult to forget the effect this book has on you, and quite possibly difficult not to want to keep it to hand.

I received this book for review.


This week’s podcast episode is with Tammye Huf. Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media player below.

Charlie and Tammye Huf (A More Perfect Union) discuss her great-great-grandparents’ relationship as an 1840s Irishman and a Black American slave, the way owners used Christianity to support their views of a racial hierarchy, and the lengths reached in order to label people by skin colour.

To see all the details including links to other apps, I’ve made a blog page here.

 
October 2020 Reading Round Up + Podcasts

October was quite busy as reading and podcasting goes. I was a little under the weather for a few weeks of it – torn muscles (there’s definitely a limit to how much housework can be done at once!) – so I was pleasantly surprised by how many books I finished, and more so when I noted the ones I had on the go that were almost finished. There were days to read outside which was lovely. And during my mandatory no-more-housework days I got through the BBC’s Ghosts which I highly recommend, and Love Life which seems to be BBC/American, a well structured romance/drama sort of series by and starring Anna Kendrick. I can also highly recommend the Cary Grant/Katherine Hepburn Bringing Up Baby if you’ve not seen it – it’s on iPlayer for several months and is pretty hilarious. Don’t read the film summary; not knowing what it’s about made it even better.

The Books

Book cover Book cover Book cover

Eric Beck Rubin: School Of Velocity – Jan’s lined up to play in front of an audience, one of many occasions he’s done so, but this time the random music in his head is too much to bear; he takes us back to his childhood, his extremely popular and extroverted friend, and a relationship that he’s still to get his head around. This was a re-read: a super book about the lasting affects of a friendship and a whole lot about music in all its technicality.

Intisar Khanani: Sunbolt – On the run from the puppeteers behind the government. A diverse quasi-Asian/Eastern fantasy that’s brilliantly written and thrilling, but is short in terms of plot – this was a re-read: there is now a second book out (this was a re-read) and knowing that means that the issue of length is not a problem. The second book is also a lot longer. In essence, it’s best to go into the novella with a plan to continue the full story. The series as a whole is utterly fab.

Intisar Khanani: Memories Of Ash – Hitomi, now somewhat better and with more magical knowledge, looks to find her mentor who has had to leave to be questioned by the Arch Mages. This is the book mentioned above: it’s full of diversity, very well planned and written and just an absolute riot – a brilliant book full of hope and reader fun against a backdrop of evil.

Book cover Book cover Book cover

Marianne Holmes: All Your Little Lies – Local teenager Chloe is missing, and Annie realises she’s probably the last one who saw Chloe that night… except that she was drunk and so didn’t see anything, had driven home drunk, and before that had entered her boss’s home without permission after he told her to leave the pub the team was socialising in; difficult to explain. An incredibly well-planned novel exploring PTSD and the effects of trauma and alienation from society.

Orlando Ortega-Medina: The Savior Of 6th Street – Virgilio’s artwork is bought by a wealthy woman; Beatrice wants to make him a star but this means leaving behind a lot and being among people very different to those he values, people with connections to the underground. Hopefully that brief premise is enough – this is a very good tale about art and an effective clash of a couple of different worlds that uses as its literary base the religion of Santería, weaving religious concepts into its chapters.

Tammye Huf: A More Perfect Union – The potato famine in Ireland has left Henry’s family destitute; he travels to America in the hope of a better life and whilst looking for work meets Sarah, a house slave walking back to her plantation from an errand; the two become close and the ultimate goal is to escape, which will prove more difficult than Henry could ever expect. A fantastic story, based on the author’s great-great-grandparents, that in its use of romance amongst an appalling situation manages to highlight all the more the horrors of the slavery era whilst maintaining that feeling of hope for those who escaped.

This was a very strong set of books, all very different and so difficult to compare in any way. I loved the Holmes for the author’s careful handling of her character’s situation; I loved the Huf for that excellent balancing of romance and the history; the Ortega-Medina was compelling for its use of Santería, the way it was used as a crucial aspect yet carefully placed as to sometimes appear abstract; Khanani’s Chronicles were a lot of fun (despite the bad guys) and refreshing; and re-reading the Beck Rubin was a delight.

Looking at November, I’m happy to say I’ve a couple of Deborah Swift books to read – the subtextual answer there is ‘yes’ and I’m looking forward to it! Earlier this month I finished Roselle Lim’s Vanessa Yu’s Magical Paris Tea Shop which I hope to review soon – it’s going to be quite a different review for good reason, and the basics are ‘loved it’. And I’ve got a couple of Young Writer of the Year shortlisters waiting for me. I’m also starting to look at books I started earlier in the year and didn’t manage to finish – Christmas is going to be very quiet this year and unless my nephew commandeers all my time for gaming over the Internet (which I wouldn’t mind), there’s going to a lot of reading involved.

Has the pandemic changed your reading, and if so, in what way?


Owing to my lesser ability to use a computer recently, I’ve two podcast episodes to include here. Email and RSS subscribers: you may need to open this post in your browser to see the media players below.

Episode 25: Intisar Khanani

Charlie and Intisar Khanani (Thorn; Sunbolt; Memories Of Ash; the forthcoming The Theft Of Sunlight) discuss working to better the health of people in Cincinnati, rewriting and exploring the Goose Girl fairy tale to stunning effect, bonkers jail-breaking heroines, and men who take a far more subtle approach than riding in on horses to save the day.

To see all the details including links to other apps, go to the dedicated blog page.

Episode 26: Eric Beck Rubin

Charlie and Eric Beck Rubin (School Of Velocity) discuss the representation of the Holocaust in literature, using classical music as a literary device, having a main character whose person limits the opportunity for dialogue through his obsession with another, and the reader being a writer.

Please note that the first reading contains sexual content.

To see all the details including links to other apps, go to the dedicated blog page.

 
Orlando Ortega-Medina – The Savior Of 6th Street

Book Cover

Not at all a blank canvas.

Publisher: Cloud Lodge Books
Pages: 228
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-838-04510-4
First Published: 20th August 2020 (ebook); 22nd October 2020
Date Reviewed: 3rd November 2020
Rating: 4.5/5

Virgilio lives in a lower class area of Los Angeles with his mother, a spirit medium of Santería; Virgilio is an artist, respected at his local community centre. At an exhibition of the centre’s artists’ works, his paintings are admired and then bought by Beatrice, a wealthy woman from a privileged area of the city; she takes the acquaintance further than others would, attempting a friendship with Virgilio and offering to boost his work into a fine career. Despite reservations, his own and those of his mother and friends, he goes along with it, not realising a connection between the plan and the underground network of tunnels – a travel network under construction – used by many for illicit means, and by himself as inspiration.

The Savior Of 6th Street is an intriguing thriller that uses the subjects it looks at in its structure. This is to say that it has an art-like atmosphere to it from the reading perspective and may take some effort to get a hold of what’s going on in terms of what the idea is, what the author is saying, but that effort pays off a very decent amount.

To begin with, my assertion of ‘art-like’, the book obviously has a lot about art in it; in the literal use of the word we have a main character and a few secondary characters with varying roles in the art world. Virgilio the artist – you could well say in this case the struggling artist; Beatrice the collector, curator, manager; Anne the journalist, who quite possibly only works on art-based articles, the people at the community centre with Virgilio, and a couple of others it would spoil the story to name. Backgrounds and character development are shown through dialogue and specific word choices. And then, beyond this literal art, is the art-inspired way in which Ortega-Medina has told the story. The use of art as well as the religious aspects often come together in interesting ways, but then there is the prose itself where strings of words are placed together to form pieces of art in metaphor such as cars in rush hour being written as though they are a river. It’s an abstract usage – less Rococo, more Picasso – and it works very well.

A lot of the art-inspiration of the book rests on the use of religion. The main character being half Cuban, and with his mother very tied to her roots, has enabled a look at Santería, an African diaspora religion, developed over the last few centuries, which draws together elements of Roman Catholicism and traditional West African beliefs. The author not only has the religion as a religion, so to speak, but uses it to tell the story, with aspects from Catholic (and, simply, Christian) stories, such as the Crucifixion and Ascension, used as chapter headings, and likewise aspects of Santería.

(This means that it’s a good idea, if your knowledge is more Christian-only, or, indeed, neither side of things, to get a basic knowledge of the other side before reading. Research later, including – including just reading the author’s note – will open up the story to you as well, but if you like to note details and nuances, you will miss out on a few by doing only this.)

The application of Santería, then, is pretty awe-inspiring. It informs the narrative in a few different ways; questions you may have: who is the ‘savior’ exactly, in this book? How do we see the progression and fact of life? Is the fantastical element ‘real’? In effect, the book as art makes you look at life as art.

Having mentioned the potential use of ‘savior’ of the title, we can carry on across the sentence to ‘6th Street’. This is 6th Street in Los Angeles, which in basic terms largely involves a bridge that connects two areas in the city, a less privileged and a more privileged area. 6th Street thus brings two worlds together, literally, and in this book fictionally, and therein lies the basis of the tale. Many questions can be asked of the bridge’s role in the story, too, including possible abstract personification.

So there is a fair amount going on in The Savior Of 6th Street. And as said, it may take time and effort depending on your prior knowledge, but the end result is great, everything coming together, the series of literary triptychs ending in a big final piece; in the Christian sense, it’s like an extremely alternative (and definitely adult) take on the stations of the cross, and certainly an exhilarating one.

I received this book for review.

 
The 2020 Young Writer Of The Year Shortlist

The book covers of the 2020 shortlist

The time of what I consider a big highlight of the literary year has begun, albeit quite different this time as is everything else. The shortlist for the 2020 Sunday Times/University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award was announced on Sunday, and it looks pretty stellar. Here is the announcement by Andrew Holgate, Literary Editor of The Sunday Times (email subscribers, you’ll likely have to open this post in your browser using the link at the bottom of this email in order to view the video):

Most years there are 4 shortlisted authors; like the judges in 2017, the judges this year have chosen 5 authors they believe to be the best contenders, spanning the realms of poetry, non-fiction, and novel. Of the five, two are poetry collections, which is unusual (and pretty awesome). So, the writers are:

Jay Bernard for the poetry collection Surge (Chatto & Windus)
Catherine Cho for the memoir Inferno (Bloomsbury)
Naoise Dolan for the novel Exciting Times (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)
Seán Hewitt for the poetry collection Tongues Of Fire (Jonathan Cape)
Marina Kemp for the novel Nightingale (4th Estate)

This year’s judges are Sebastian Faulks, Tessa Hadley, Kit de Waal, and Houman Barekat. Tessa Hadley said that “The books stand out because they’re so well written, with important things to say – and the wonderful thing is that they have nothing in common apart from that.” Kit de Waal points to the authors “demonstrating a range of technical ability, outlook and style”, and Sebastian Faulks notes that “They have absorbed the lessons of those who have gone before them; but their own books all seem urgent and modern”.

The winner will receive £5,000 and offered a ten week residency by the University of Warwick. The London Library, in normal times the host of the winner’s ceremony, has added a year’s membership to these offerings.

As mentioned by Andrew Holgate in the video, extracts from the books will be in Granta magazine over this week. The first, comprised of two poems from Surge, is now online.

A digital winners ceremony will be held on Thursday 10th December.

 

Older Entries