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Claire Watts – How Do You Say Gooseberry In French?

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Soleil, piscines, et fils.

Publisher: (self-published)
Pages: 250
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-514-37812-0
First Published: 1st July 2015
Date Reviewed: 11th August 2015
Rating: 5/5

Molly is spending her summer holidays in France with her penpal’s family. It’s lovely but Lea is a little too interested in boys so whereas Molly would rather do a variety of things, they end up at the pool almost every day. Slowly, however, Molly begins to come out of Lea’s shadow and finds friends amongst Lea’s acquaintances. And even though Lea’s got a hold on most of the boys, there may be one for Molly, too.

That feeling you get when reading The Enchanted April? Not the plot, and not the characters, but that beautiful, relaxing, peacefulness and overall atmosphere, the serenity of it? That is exactly what it feels like to read Watts’ book. How Do You Say Gooseberry In French? is the same as von Arnim’s book in spirit. It’s like a modern-day young-adult spin on the classic. It’s just gorgeous. There is a plot but it lingers in the background, humming in the flowers. There are characters and they’re important, but it’s the whole that you will take away from you. To say this is the perfect summer read isn’t an understatement. (Excuse my wintertime posting!)

Moving on to characterisation, the way Watts writes Molly is intriguing. For much of the book Molly, our narrator, talks about everyone else, it’s as though she’s peeking through the window. This is effectively correct – Molly likes being part of the group but she doesn’t really do much, she just goes along with what the somewhat selfish Lea wants to do, but she isn’t boring. The running commentary of the nuances between French and English, the use of French itself and Molly’s thoughts, carry the book along as much as Lea’s constant switching of affection. Molly’s differences to her penpal and the differences in culture enable Watts to explore various themes, which she writes as smoothly as she does everything else. Molly stays in the background without being in the background. She tells her tale, but unlike many narrators of books wherein they themselves aren’t important, she makes her own mark – passive at times, headstrong when required.

And she comes into her own. It’s a nice transformation to witness as our heroine, who might as well have been nameless at the start, takes the reigns, changing from telling the story of others to telling her own.

Days are spent lying by the pool and wandering around hill-top castles. Markets and towns and tourist spots are visited and detailed so that you can picture them yourself. Food is prepared, bakeries are visited, continental breakfast on the terrace is taken. The writing fits it all perfectly. Molly writes well for her age – it’s this rather than the feeling that the author is writing – and many readers no longer in their teens may find they relate to her well as will, I don’t doubt, many teenagers nowadays; the book is up-to-date but low on slang.

So you’re not going to rush through this book on a wave of adrenaline. It’s not like that at all. But you will keep turning the pages; it’s easy to lose track of time reading it as you tell yourself ‘just one more chapter’. You may find you finish it quickly, just as Molly’s holiday is over all too soon. There are few books like this one, especially nowadays, but that’s a good thing.

How Do You Say Gooseberry In French? is simply wonderful. It’s got everything a YA book ‘requires’ and everything for anyone else. And, well, southern France – how could you resist?

I’ve met the author.

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Everything Except The Inspiration

A photograph of branches from a tree

I sat at my desk. It was the time I’d set aside for writing posts, choosing ideas from my list and writing them up in full. It’s taken me a good several years to get this far, where I’ve got a proper if still basic idea of when I’m best set to write. For me at the moment it’s Monday and Wednesday – I think the fact that Monday is the start of a new week and is a day I see as productive after the week’s end as well as it being the day my blog is visited most, helps me get in the right frame of mind. Wednesday may not be the start of the week, but it’s my second posting day of the week and is the last day when most of the week is still to come – by Wednesday we’re looking at the weekend coming swiftly.

But Monday wasn’t working. It was a dreary day outside; it begun that way and it carried on, and I dislike dark rainy days so I naturally thought it was a weather-induced lethargy. I didn’t feel like writing, none of the ideas on the list were working for me. But I started to realise it wasn’t procrastination either. It was a lack of inspiration.

It got me thinking – feeling ‘off’, for whatever reason, is one thing. Procrastination is another. And a lack of inspiration is something else again. And I think it’s easier to work out when you’re feeling off because it has a more obvious effect – you don’t feel well, or you feel down, or you’re in a slump. Generally noticeable things. Procrastination is also noticeable because it’s that odd thing – the lack of effort which itself takes effort to achieve. But inspiration is different; it can feel like lethargy.

What do you do when you lack inspiration and need it? I think responding to it a little like when you’re in a slump can work – if you’re someone who powers through regardless, that could help and if you’re someone who makes it a time for rest or to do other things, that can help. But then it’s not quite the same as a slump.

During these times I tend to decide to do something mindless, something that’s full of autopilot actions where my mind can wander if it so wants. Depending on the situation I might decide to do something I don’t do much, in my case watch television or a film – things I find unproductive in terms of myself. (Sometimes doing something I like/dislike can remind me how relatively important the activity that I’ve abandoned is, which can help jump start inspiration.) Going out can help but it’s nowhere near the forgone conclusion, I find, that articles would have you believe.

I said Monday wasn’t working – it’s more isn’t. I’m writing this whilst feeling completely uninspired. I suppose not being inspired can be inspiring in a limited way – I’ve now this post but I’m not going to write a slew of similar ones. But I think it pays to reflect on the things you do most. I wonder if perhaps the thought I had at the turn of the year, ‘I may have done it for a few years now, but how on earth am I going to produce a lot of ideas and written content for another year?’ has something to do with it – my fairly empty non-review schedule.

I wonder if I should just go and watch a film or turn the dishwasher on. But here I am or was writing, something, at least. And on a Monday.

What do you do when you’ve everything you need to do the writing/composing/drawing/studying/so forth you planned except inspiration?

Rambles From My Freewriting Journal: Cinderella

A screen shot of Anna Kendrick playing Cinderella in Into The Woods - she is holding her two glass slippers, wondering what to do

Screen shot from Into The Woods, copyright © 2014 Walt Disney Pictures.

It occurred to me after watching Into The Woods that we’ve had a couple of (few?) deviations recently from the meeting-the-prince element of Cinderella – in particular the aforementioned Into The Woods and Malinda Lo’s Ash. It kind of plays around with the idea of being summoned to the ball – what if you don’t want to go or aren’t sure you want the prince? If every eligible lady must attend, what about those who don’t actually want to, who want to marry someone from their home town? In the context of the traditional story and in the context of the audience/reader, the desirable outcome is to have the prince – so romantic!

By placing our modern contexts and the idea of independence into it, you get something different. Maybe Cinderella would like to meet the prince and then have time to think about it. Maybe it shouldn’t just be up to the prince (though admittedly no one says that; though it’s the prince’s opinion and love that’s considered important to this element of the story). Is the whole before-midnight aspect useful in this way, effectively giving Cinderella time by way of a forced ‘out’ to consider what she wants, even if in the end she doesn’t use it? (Arguably this is what Into The Woods does.) Whilst it may not be possible for Cinderella in the Disney versions, the overall darkness of the traditional story… there’s a possibility there perhaps that whoever it was who first told the story thought of all this. Unlikely, but possible.

I liked how in Into The Woods Cinderella decides to leave a shoe for the prince to use to find her if he so wishes, thus making a sort-of decision for herself. It plays with the whole idea and puts a bit more active thinking into the fairly ridged concept of let’s-have-a-ball-and-choose-a-girl. Cinderella made the effort to get there, now it’s the prince’s turn. (Though of course by removing the responsibility of choosing for herself and giving it to the prince she’s just pushing away the decision. If she’d given it more thought at the time she would have realised earlier that she didn’t want to marry him.) The message is there – don’t let others decide your destiny. You’ve likely made a decision, you now have to own it.

Your thoughts?

Amanda Craig – The Other Side Of You

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Tale as old as time.

Publisher: Abacus (Little, Brown)
Pages: 100
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-349-14172-5
First Published: 2nd February 2017
Date Reviewed: 1st February 2017
Rating: 4.5/5

When Will discovers his aunt has been killed in their flat, he runs away from those who did it. Leaving his estate behind he finds sanctuary in the middle of a residential square, climbing over a fence into a a garden that’s running wild. Dirty, scarred, worried and self-conscious, he begins to learn about gardening and stays hidden, pruning back the plants to bring the place to its former glory. But although he has food enough he lacks the money for other things and so he starts to venture outside the fence.

The Other Side Of You is a novella written for the charity Quick Reads. In keeping with the context and mission, the book sports simple language; it also has bigger print and a hundred pages. The idea is to produce a book that is accessible as well as good for those who want to read but may not have much time.

As you will expect, Craig’s book satisfies these well. The book fits the current recurrence in literature of fairytale retellings; the story is set in present day London with all the realities, hardships, rich spots. It leans on the basic traditional tale for its names – making it easy to see where Craig has chosen to stick as well as deviate in her retelling – as well as the message, but beyond that crafts a different story.

You have to suspend belief to read this book. Craig unapologetically nods to dreams and the almost impossible, blending difficult and achievement in interesting ways, with Will gaining something incredible at the end that in hindsight you see Craig’s workings towards it. It’s the awesome lucky happenstance she seems to say, ‘work at it and things will come’ even if your own is more realistic. Secondly, in terms of realism there is a lovely magical realism/paranormal aspect to the book where Will hears a voice that carries him on, helps him get over impossible fences and so forth that looks to a phenomenon called Third Man Syndrome.

Due to the book’s shortness character development is understandably swift but it’s good, Will beginning with a major lack of knowledge of many things and quickly picking up meanings and concepts. The other characters are devices and this works well. All focus on Will.

The Other Side Of You is a great little book. This slow reader loved it.

I received this book for review.

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Nicola Cornick – The Phantom Tree

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Those of both history and the present.

Publisher: Harlequin
Pages: 420
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-848-45504-7
First Published: 29th December 2016
Date Reviewed: 22nd January 2017
Rating: 4/5

When Alison ran away from her abusive cousin she had no idea that opening the inn door would whisk her away from the 1500s and straight onto a 21st century street. But that it did; when her cousin, now father of her child, sends her away, she returns to the present but though she adapts well to modern life she yearns to return to her son. Meanwhile, Mary Seymour deals with continuous accusations of witchcraft and a house that doesn’t want her. And forefront in her mind is the promise she made to Alison to somehow leave word of baby Arthur.

The Phantom Tree is a time travel book in a similar vein but different voice to Cornick’s previous novel, House Of Shadows. This different voice is one of the stand-out elements – Mary Seymour’s narrative, in particular, is very different from Cornick’s previous narrator, yet the author keeps her writing itself the same. It’s an interesting element that speaks highly of Cornick’s ability to develop characters whilst not changing her style too much.

Interesting, too, is the basic plot and the way the time travel has been included. There is one particular plot point that’s very predictable – the character really should have put two and two together earlier – but other than that it’s well done. Cornick hasn’t created anything new in the way that the time travelling happens but it’s the detail that’s good, the way she’s used a well-used device and just got on with the story – with time travel used so much, there’s little need for basics.

The characters are well drawn. We aren’t given much of Alison’s first days in the present, more of a quick nod, as the focus is on her search to get back. It is easy to wonder every now and then how she could have learned so much in a fairly short time but not unbelievable considering her personality. Throughout Alison is the stronger of the two heroines, and although it is true she’s mostly a modern-day character anyway, reading about her in the past shows a person who could fit in anywhere.

In Mary Seymour’s case it’s very intriguing; Cornick has exploited the lack of knowledge we have about Mary, Catherine Parr and Thomas Seymour’s daughter, and really gone to town with it, making Mary not just accused of witchcraft but actually able to see the future. Mary’s magic does contribute to an ending that some may find a bit far-fetched given our collective lack of knowledge (not far-fetched in the concept of fantasy!) and there’s something she shares with another that’s very fantastical. Thus this book goes beyond the sub-genre of time travel – it’s a full on historical fantasy with some hearty romance included.

Speaking of far-fetched, the clues left for Alison by Mary are very vague to the point that unless you trust in their relationship, and the continued significance of it despite the years apart, you may find it hard to believe. This element does stretch the imagination somewhat, though it’s more due to the way less time is spent on the sleuthing and because of the requirement for word and symbol association.

The two heroines are obviously distanced so there’s not as much room for development there as you might have hoped – this is a dual narrative that may never cross paths – but the other relationships in the book are very good. Adam, Alison’s ex-boyfriend of the modern day, is a TV historian, a role which turns out to be as excellent as you would hope in the context, and Mary gets a romance too. Cornick spends time on Alison’s search for Arthur and this thread has a very poignant ending.

There is one issue with this book as a product that unfortunately affects the reading – somewhere towards the middle the proofreading disappears. Cornick’s good writing remains throughout but the editing errors are numerous.

The Phantom Treehas a fair story, strong characterisation and great writing, and a fast pace and attention keeper even during the too-fantastical parts, but more time needed to be spent checking it over before printing.

I received this book for review.

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