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Claire Watts – Gingerbread & Cupcake

Book Cover

Sugar and spice.

Publisher: (self-published)
Pages: 238
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-539-82057-4
First Published: 1st December 2016
Date Reviewed: 8th December 2016
Rating: 3/5

Having finished his A Levels, Simon was all ready to join his friends on their trip around Europe but when his mother has an accident he decides to stay home and continue working at the family’s tearoom. Lily has decided to spend the summer watching television shows and just enjoying herself but when she dives into the tearoom to escape an ex who won’t let go she and Simon get talking and soon she’s accepted a few shifts serving tea and cakes. When a new tearoom opens down the road the pair come up with a plan to promote their own, meaning they’ll be spending even more time together. It’s their last summer before university and Lily in particular wants to make it count.

Gingerbread & Cupcake is a contemporary young adult novel set over one summer that uses two first-person narratives to tell its story.

Watts’ distinctive writing style is here. Like her previous, How Do You Say Gooseberry In French?, she uses a winsome style, literary, accessible. This time, however, the change in characters means that it’s a rather different kettle of fish.

And not bad. Watts’ portrayal of contemporary British teens is very good and evidently time was spent getting it right. ‘Goes’ instead of ‘says’ (it could be argued it’s used too much but it does fit – it’s more a case of the usage being very noticeable because writers don’t often opt to do so) combined with a variety of types of phrasing means there’s a lot of diversity to the language. It feels real. This said, the characters are hard to define. Personality is mostly okay but there are times when it’s difficult to work out motives and there are occasions when cultural references don’t seem to match up so well with everything else. Character development is understandably contained to a couple of months; this book takes place during the summer and the ending is very open-ended. It’s more about progression than change, preparing mentally for that next stage of life, making decisions. As to the first-person narratives, Watts has her characters addressing the reader, as though they are reporting what went on. This falls fully in line with the dialogue and the chapters dart back and forth between them, moving seamlessly between Simon and Lily.

The book doesn’t have one main plot; it’s concentrated on characters. The setting means that it’s mostly day to day happenings which is fine although there are a few times when devices are used, such as when the shop suffers from a negative review when a journalist visits whilst the baker is away and few menu items are available – no one explains to the customers why they’re low of items.

It’s hard to say whether the relationship between Simon and Lily is successful or not. There is a limit to it set by the narrative, though things do seem at times to move too fast. It is a fair part of the book, however – again, Watts’ has put a lot of thought into it and it shows. Indeed there is a lot of showing in this book – if there is any telling it’s well hidden, so to speak. Dialogue rules here to great effect.

What works best in this book is the excellent portrayal of teens that people of any age will be able to relate to on some level. This is part of the reason the variety in the personalities works; Watts has looked at a small group of teenagers but she’s looked at them multiple times, from multiple points of view so that they appeal to as many people as possible. The writing is good to read; it’s the sort of text you can sit back and enjoy… though you might want to wait until lunch if you’re peckish. The devices and lack of a solid plot line weaken the book but the rest holds it together.

Gingerbread & Cupcake won’t appeal to everyone but to those it does it’s likely to be a welcome escape, a few literary surprises folded in. And if you do find yourself wanting something sweet as a result of reading it, the recipes for the cakes mentioned are included at the back.

I received this book for review from the author.

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This Is (Not) What You Came For

A photograph of Aimee Bender's The Particular Sadness Of Lemon Cake - I left with just this book, the one I'd wanted

There have been many times when I’ve gone into a shop and left with a different book than the one I went in to buy. It’s a common situation; one of two things happen: 1) the book you went in to buy isn’t in stock and you see another book whether through browsing or because you’re looking at your wishlist items or – a reader’s personal favourite? – you’ve just seen it for the first time, right then, and make a random purchase; 2) you get the book you went in for as well as a few others you may have remembered you wanted or picked up on the fly.

It’s a situation that will happen at a library, too, but of course the library factor means it’s easier – it’s free, you’re kind of ‘meant’ to take a few books, and if you’re a bit impulsive it’s fine. You might not have ever known of the book if you hadn’t got carried away and doing so can yield gems. And add to the reading load.

However, whilst I’ve done it many times, I’ve not done it recently. I’m well aware I’ve enough books that, were I to not receive any more, would keep me going for a year and a half. (I was surprised to find my book count was at the lower end of the scale.) I’m also more focused on which books I want rather than acting on a whim, which isn’t much fun but is needed at the moment. I surprised Alice last year when I only picked up three books in the book heaven that is Brighton; it’s true I’ve not been acting like an avid reader lately!

But it’s something that can bring a lot of joy even if that’s often dependent on the random book choice being good. There’s something about picking up a random book, which I’ve spoken about before. And there’s just a different feeling when you go in to get a particular book and then leave than when you’re browsing with the idea of letting your browse show you what you can get. A feeling that incorporates the feeling that you’re using the bookshop properly, if that makes sense. The library, also – especially the library, perhaps, considering the way so many are shutting down.

This has become a musings piece – there’s not much you can go on about the initial concept without spinning away from it – so over to you: how often do you let whim affect your time in bookshops and libraries and do you ever feel you’re adding needlessly to your to-be-read pile?

 
Benjamin Wood – The Ecliptic

Book Cover

Do not disturb.

Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
Pages: 463
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-471-12672-7
First Published: 2nd July 2015
Date Reviewed: 28th November 2016
Rating: 4/5

It’s some time in the 1960s or 70s and Elspeth is living at Portmantle, a mansion and grounds on an island near Turkey, a place for the most talented artistically-minded people who are finding creating impossible. Elspeth has been there a number of years – how many exactly she’s not sure, watching, together with similar residents, others come and go whilst her own project evades her. One day a new resident turns up and won’t fall in line with the status quo. And Elspeth starts looking back at what led her to escape the world.

The Ecliptic is a great novel that is at once very different and rather familiar, a book in which the themes are those not often studied in fiction but the overall presentation resonates in a literarily-relatable fashion.

Wood has a lot to say about artists and the creative process; he uses the book as a base, the story as the means by which he dissects various thoughts, conversation, and points of debate, to a highly effective degree.

The mansion and grounds of Portmantle are, of course, a well-placed – literally! – device by which Wood can look at the way art of all types is often created in isolation at the behest of its creator. The solitude and freedom from distractions, from criticism and review, from opinions whether positive or not so. And no one need do their laundry at Portmantle, either. The only chore is, potentially, that of creating. It’s a haven, an artistic utopia.

But like all fictional utopias, things aren’t as perfect as they are first presented to both reader and residents. Wood’s Portmantle is full of rules – meal times, the ability to stay or leave – that replace all the distractions of sociability at home with things that are perhaps even more stifling to those creative minds. Even the rules regarding the journey to the mansion – don’t bring your possessions, disregard your name, take this many moves before a phone call (I’m simplifying it but that’s the basic idea) – are far more controlling than any professor’s university assignment. And no names, thank you. Pick up a new one because no one’s work should be referenced to or put in the context of another’s.

I walked up to the board as though it were a boy I had decided to kiss and streaked a layer of phthalo blue across the surface with a palette knife, the floppy baking kind my mother owned, making an impulsive shape upon the wood. There was no history standing on my shoulders then, no classical references hanging in my head like dismal weather. I was alone, uninfluenced, free to work layers of chalky stolen paint with a big lolloping knife, to smudge with my fingers, pad flat with my fist, thumb, scrape, and scratch. No judgements of technique arose in my mind, because I did not invite them, did not think to. I simply acted, expressed, behaved, made gestures of the knife that seemed unprompted and divined.

It is the way formal education can have an impact on one’s inspiration, raw talent and subsequent work, that is seen as bad. Wood doesn’t say as much directly about the positive impacts of lessons but then he doesn’t need to, it’s shown in the subtext and in references to other ideas.

Another thing that mills in the background, less studied presumably because Portmantle is fiction, is the way that taking time out of life in such a context would impact the eventual reception of the work created. If Elspeth joined Portmantle in the 1960s and has been there a long time without access to the rest of the world – years, decades even – then won’t much of what she creates be irrelevant? The world would have moved on. As much as we like older works we need, crave, new ones. The world is in fact the antithesis of what pianist James Rhodes recently said on the subject of classical music; Rhodes said that people should not write new classical music, that anything new will never match the work of the masters.

But new is surely inspired by a love of the old, is the natural result of that love, and to discourage it would be to lessen the popularity of the old.

It’s interesting that it’s the ‘short-termers’ at Portmantle, those disliked by Elspeth – who actually get work done, that Elspeth and crowd are those no nearer to finishing.

Does Portmantle keep culture away from humanity? One of the possible answers to the mystery of the place is a prison for the highly talented.

The creativity in general, in this book, is exquisite. Yes, there is a lot about the process of painting to the extent you’d think Wood an artist rather than a writer, but there’s a lot for readers of any artistic persuasion. Reams of paragraphs that beg quotation. We should dissect art somewhat but, as Wood’s use of psychiatry shows, dissections should be limited. Some things really aren’t related, they are the result of pure in-the-moment inspiration. Not everything has a meaning behind it and nor should it have to.

There are a couple of aspects that skim the top from this book. The ending – the reveal – which may be considered a bit too been-there-done-that. And the text – Elspeth is in her 20s in the 1960s yet she uses a lot of present day language, colloquialisms from the 21st century – ‘towel off’, ‘unseeable’, for example – rather recent terms and ways of speaking.

So The Ecliptic is imaginative, awesome in its studies and more than worth a read if you’re a creative type, but it does have some draw backs.

One to explore, this book will make you think, want to debate, and quite possibly make you want to create. Get your paintbrush/pen/instrument; you’ll be here for a long time but unlike Elspeth and co you’ll make use of every moment.

This book is shortlisted for the 2016 Young Writer Of The Year Award. I’m on the Shadow Judging Panel.

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November 2016 Reading Round-Up

Phew! November done. Thus ends my oh-my-God-I’ve-so-much-to-read couple of months (though I’m writing this in advance so still crossing my fingers!) This month has been chocker block. When I’ve said to family and friends ‘I’m sorry but I have to read’ as much as it may have sounded like ‘I need to wash my hair’ to the non-readers, I meant every word. This month has seen our second literary event at The Notes Cafe, with nearing triple the promotion and time requirements, and included the reading and preparation for our Young Writer Of The Year award shadow judging. The short books balanced out by the tomes.

And I’ve loved every minute of it. Here’s what I crammed in but gave full attention to this month; I think this is the first time I’ve covered all three ‘types’ in one month – non-fiction, fiction, poetry:

The Books
Non-Fiction

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Magda Szubanski: Reckoning – The star of Babe and Kath And Kim recounts both the story of her life and the way her Polish relatives fought back against the Nazis. Superb; Szubanski is a keen writer and there’s a lot of information about the Second World War in here that gets forgotten.

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Robert Macfarlane, Stanley Donwood and Dan Richards: Holloway – Macfarlane takes a trip to visit a holloway with Roger Deakin and, after Deakin’s passing, visits the holloway again with Donwood and Richards in tribute. This is a very short book of what I can only describe as prose poetry, a love letter to nature, together with Donwood’s etchings; a lovely escape.

Fiction

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Benjamin Wood: The Ecliptic – Ellie, an artist struggling to create something from the heart, lives at a creative refuge on an island off Turkey and everything is great until a much younger resident arrives with his very different ideas. A fantastic study of creativity but the ending’s a bit samey and the narrative quite anachronistic.

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Elizabeth Fremantle: Watch The Lady – Penelope Devereux and her family support Scottish King James VI’s claim to the throne of England but they must go about it carefully, in the same way Penelope must go about her romantic relationships in a time when the monarch’s permission had to be sought in order to marry. The characters in this leap off the page, the plot, however complex in its political manoeuvrings, is secondary, and in this case that’s perfect.

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Elizabeth Fremantle: The Girl In The Glass Tower – Lady Arbella Stuart’s life is controlled by those who would see her on the English throne and in rebellion she limits herself at meals and decides to marry who she will. This book looks at another of the possible successions; it’s a bit weaker than the above but still very compelling.

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Jessie Greengrass: An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It – A collection of short stories based around the themes of intervention and choice. Super.

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Max Porter: Grief Is The Thing With Feathers – When his wife dies, a man who is writing a book on Ted Hughes finds a Crow at his door, a bird who will help him and his sons through their grief. Poetry in prose.

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Paul McVeigh: The Good Son – Growing up during The Troubles in Northern Ireland, Michael Donnelly attempts to work out who he is whilst war wages outside in the street. Not bad – it’s a particular book with a balance of profound and your average coming-of-age.

Poetry

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Andrew McMillan: Physical – A collection of pieces on the male body and sexuality. Awesome.

Quotation Report

None this time.

I can’t quite believe it’s only two weeks until I put the blog on its 2 week Christmas hiatus. Still a couple of books to recommend to you before then and that all important award result! (Our Shadow Panel winner was announced yesterday.)

What have you been up to this month?

 
The Young Writer Of The Year Award 2016 Shadow Judges’ Winner

Our judging panel logo for the winner

After a couple of hours discussing the four shortlisted books, Eric Karl Anderson, Kim Forrester, Naomi Frisby, Simon Savidge, and I arrived at a winner on Saturday, fuelled by Eric’s fab cake, celebrating Naomi’s birthday. Buzzfeed’s Dan Dalton joined us as chair and kept us on track. It was tough; each of the books is of a high standard, in a similar way. But we got there. Here is our winner:

A photograph of the shadow judges each holding a copy of Jessie Greengrass's book

Jessie Greengrass for her book An Account Of The Decline Of The Great Auk, According To One Who Saw It. There was a lot of talk about the form of the short story in the context of Jessie’s collection. Winter 2058, the title story, and On Time Travel are three of those we all highlighted. We discussed the theme of cold climates that Jessie favours and how well her thoughts corresponded to the backdrop and general situation. We spoke of the writing, how the telling in this book really works.

The official winner will be announced at the award ceremony next week, Thursday 8th December.

A banner with Jessie Greengrass's photograph and book on it

 

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