Review: No Going Back by Alex Gutteridge

No Going Back by Alex Gutteridge is a book about adjusting to the new and to the old- its a story of growing up, dying properly and dealing with mild parental stalking from beyond the grave.

Laura’s father died in a car accident 10 years ago and though she has grown into a self-reliant, 14-year-old Londoner, she has always had the feeling that something is holding her back from becoming the person she was always meant to be. Laura shares a wonderful closeness with her mother, but their relationship is tested when family ties force them to move away from the city – and the carefully-tended grave of her father- to the countryside to look after her grandmother.  Laura bids farewell to London in a rage, but once she arrives in rural Derbyshire, she discovers the ghost of her father waiting for her in her grandmother’s house. This time he vows, he’s never going to leave her alone…

“because your dad following you around everywhere would be disconcerting even if he wasn’t dead”

 

no going backLovely Bones meets Vicky Angel for a new generation in this funny and moving coming-of-age story that explores loss, displacement and family rifts gracefully and with a light heart. The protagonist of No Going Back is a sweet character with a believable voice who guides the plot through the wacky physics of haunting to the melodrama of family secrets uncovered. Impressively, Laura takes a great deal in her stride (because your dad following you around everywhere would be disconcerting even if he wasn’t dead), but when she stumbles, the reader falls with her.

The writing effortlessly combines complex emotional dialogue with young movements and manners.

 

A light-hearded story  capable of scaring the reader under the covers or summoning tears, No Going Back is a magical and haunting read.

No Going Back will be published by Templar on the 1st of July 2014

Book Life: My Name is… at the Arcola

Last night I was at the Arcola theatre in East London watching the new play by Sudha Bhuchar, ‘My name is…‘.

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The story is closely centred on the true-to-life happenings of a Glaswegian family and how the newspapers came to skew their lives for public consumption. A new play about love, family and ever-shifting identities, My Name is… tells the verbatim story behind a news-story that hit our headlines in 2006 but may reflect truths in the here and now- even eight years later.

 

When 12-year-old Gaby disappeared from her home in the north of Scotland, the media rushed to announce that her Scottish-Pakistani father, Farhan, had kidnapped her. The spiraling headlines were only momentarily silenced when it emerged that Gaby may have fled of her own accord, choosing to spend her life as a young Muslim in Pakistan. To her Scottish mother Suzy’s great distress, Gaby declared, “my name is Ghazala” turning her back on ‘Gaby’ and, seemingly, the West…

The set and theatre was minimal: a slightly raised area surrounded on three sides by bench seating made up of two rows. Bare brick walls all around competed with a cheap white leather sofa (Glasgow) with a slender wooden chair and tea pot. Some magazines and news cuttings strewn around the floor. My friend and I took photos but a stage-hand quickly materialised and insisted we delete them, lest the designer’s copyright (?) be challenged. As a result I had the disconcerting feeling throughout the play that something (anything) on stage was about to zoom out or bust into flames.

The play was minimalist, with just three people on stage: mother, father, daughter. Like the newspapers (or, more likely, because of them) the play only featured the one child, and as such was intense in moments. However, unlike the media, I found “Gabby”s story dull and her father’s take not notable. Like the papers but for different reasons, their mother’s monologue captivating. The actor playing her carried us through her conversion to Islam (in name only), her conversion to Muslim womanhood (in full eventually) and her gradual mental erosion to the point of breakdown. It became a story of two individuals, at least one of whom’s culture did not allow them to play out the narrative of married life that the other needed. Through its sparseness the play made a fool of a media eager to lay racist and nationalist agendas at the door of a family dispute.

However.

The role of the Farhan, and his journey from an Asian-Glaswegian (with a perspective equally balanced between the West and East) to that of a devout Muslim and family man- was explained and done away with the sentence: “the community came to need more of me”. 9/11 is mentioned briefly as factoring in Farhan’s change. Despite the unfurling, modern love-story behind his marriage to Suzy, Farhan’s second marriage and all related preamble took up perhaps two lines.

I would have liked to know more.

“Gabby”, the modern Pakistani girl, painting her nails, wearing her niqab and loving chocolate was too lively, too shiny and did not charm me. Not to be cruel, but I thought her unnecessary- the other siblings, who remained unportrayed actors and lived only in brief mentions and in the empty spaces on the stage provided more melancholy and suggested far more personality than she did. Having said that, when I heard the true person behind the character speaking on Woman’s Hour about the performance, I was really moved: it turns out she had been there in that tiny theatre the same night as I was, and watching the play she had seen in the simulacrum of her parent’s marriage a glimpse of a happy family life she had not been old enough at the time to remember.

To sum up: the play had me talking all the way home, but the conversation could have gone further.

Women’s hour link here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b042jfw3 Image

Book Life: World Book Night 2014

Forgive me, this post will just be about my World Book Night experience- a review of the book might follow after, but this was special.

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When I found out that my application to be a World Book Night giver was approved I was happier than I’ve been in so long. I love everything that the project stands for- giving storytelling to people who need it at times when they are hard-pressed to find it. The generosity of the publishing houses and all the people involved has been so heartening to me for so long that I could hardly believe it when I got the email through telling me that a consignment of about 20 books would arrive at my local library for me to give out on the night of the 23rd of April.

photoI would like to say that I thought long and hard about where to give books out, but actually the answer stared out at me from the calendar from the very beginning: you see, the 23rd is St. George’s day and my local hospital (where my boyfriend also works) is also named…St Georges.
St George’s is one of London’s oldest hospitals and is a source of pride and comfort to the local community. As well as offering over 1,000 beds and treating a great scope of afflictions, the hospital is at the centre of a campaign to offer greater support to those affected by female genital mutilation (FGM) and is renowned as a centre of understanding in the field of neuroscience. Beyond all this though, giving books on World Book Night to a hospital just made sense.
I envy the people whose job is the work of keeping people alive and healthy- but the arts can and do play their part in making our society a better, happier place. It is the night, in places which are unfamiliar, when you are worried or alone that storytelling can help you to travel beyond where you physically are, and to help you understand your own situation. To distract and bring you understanding. To comfort you and to take you far away.
I contacted the hospital and found a time that night when I wouldn’t be getting in anyone’s way and then turned up with my books. I handed them across to two lovely hospital workers who promised to hand them out to patients and families throughout the night. I also gave some of the books out in waiting rooms. It was simple and without fuss and I walked away happy.
 I gave out 20 copies of Nora Roberts’ Black Hills and next year I’ll do my best to give again.

Nora Roberts

The Sea by John Banville (and appearing on Radio 4)

The Sea

Often one of the most interesting bits about meeting an author is reconciling yourself to the fact that the worlds and minds you have come to know and imagine so closely, so intimately, started out in another person’s imagination. It was with this in mind that I took in John Banville- a small bespectacled Irish man in a bow tie and tweeds, somewhat fussily sipping at a glass of red wine.

I was at Broadcasting house, attending a recording of BBC radio 4s BookClub. The book (and aforementioned world) was winner of 2004’s ManBooker prize: The Sea.

The novel had bobbed up to the surface of media consciousness ten years after winning, buoyed no doubt by a press junket related to a new motion picture based on the novel which comes out this month.

Regardless of the film- I’m so glad this book floated my way, and that I was obliged to read it for the occasion because it is beautiful and quite intimidating. The text is continuous and lyrical taking you seamlessly from soft eddies of humour to the realities of grief and back.

The Sea deals with memory, childhood demons, and loss- which can drive people to escape from reality and into a world they create for themselves. Detailing the protagonist’s return to the site of childhood holidays after his wife’s death from cancer, this is a book about innocence, judgement and an exploration of the dreams which tow us into the treacherous waters of adulthood.

Well worth the read.

Born in Wexford in 1945, John Banville won The Man Booker Prize in 2005 with his novel The Sea and was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize in 2007. Published by Virago.

BBC link:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03zxw0g 

oh hey there I am at 4.55. Image

Book Life: A new lending library at LSE!

Hello all

The mightiest of the very lovely perks of working in publishing is books! Free books! Cheap books! Books everywhere! Need books? Got books.

We get wonderful deals on books through work and any money we pay tends to head towards some pretty excellent charities. I mentioned this to a friend studying a Masters at LSE this year and he had a great idea: helping to set up a lending library at The London School of Economics for students. I feel pretty strongly about everyone’s right to good storytelling and I’m the first to vouch for the joys of both taking home a good book and passing on a tattered copy of something you know others will love.

So, a few weeks (and some pretty heavy book-lifting) later, we managed to set this thing up. I even got him to pen a few words for me about it:

This year the LSESU Literature Society has been able to set up its very first lending library in the new LSE student union. The library is just a number of bookcases from which students are free to borrow the book they wish for any duration, and are also encouraged to donate any books of their own. Further study is a greater financial sacrifice than ever before, but The Literature Society knows that reading widely should be a student’s right and not a privilege.

We would like to really thank Vicky as without her our bookcases would only be half-full! Our budget did not look like it would stretch as far as we hoped until she was able to source lots of well-chosen books at amazing prices through her work. We now have a large and varied collection of both fiction and non-fiction, hopefully catering for the eclectic tastes of our student body. Thanks again Vicky, keep fighting the good fight!

                                                            – Richard Kirsch (LSESU Literature Society)

It was fun, and really got me in the mood for World Book Night!

UPDATE April 2014:

…and here’s a photo of the LSESU Literature Society scooping up a Bronze Award at the SU & STARS Awards this year for entrepreneurialism!

LSESU Literature Society scooping up a Bronze Award at the SU & STARS Awards 2014

LSESU Literature Society scooping up a Bronze Award at the SU & STARS Awards 2014

 

On the drink of collapse… The story of Gin in England

Hello history pandas!

A little departure from the norm, here. While I read a plethora of wonderful books in December, I also wrote a guest article in a web-magazine as a favour to a friend. The magazine is called “HUZZAR” and is a treasure-trove of literature, essays and art relating to British 18th century lifestyle. The editor also has the great honour of being Adam Ant’s costume designer.

But I digress.

It was fun to turn my hand to research again and while I don’t think I necessarily nailed the tone (still a little bit too serious, despite some hidden jokes- maybe too hidden) for a magazine article, I gave it a good shot and its had a decent reception!

I’ll post the link here

Cheers!

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Review: The Savages by Matt Whyman…mmm

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At this year’s Oxford Literary Festival – when asked what’s the secret to a good YA or Children’s book, Whitbread Award winning author Meg Rosoff said simply: “food”.

“I stuff my books with feasts and meal-scenes. Kids can’t get enough of reading about eating” said Rosoff. With The Savages Matt Whyman has proved that kids reading about eating kids makes for a book that’s twice as tasty.

Meet the Savages – a Stepford-style family who pride themselves on having excellent taste… in people. Bound together by a dark and gruesome family tradition rooted in the desperation of the Leningrad Blockade, the family outwardly seem picture perfect… but when Sasha starts dating a boy who doesn’t eat meat, Whyman turns up the heat.

The Savages is a fantastic study in family dynamics, comedy and niche cooking. The trials of parenting and of growing up with different ideas to your family are at the core of this fantastic, wickedly funny book. The novel’s pace is brilliant and the building suspense drives you to devour The Savages whole in one go.

With farcical detectives, violent vegetarians and what has to be the world’s worst boyfriend, the Savages have a lot on their plate.  Matt Whyman’s book is pitch black in humour with a buffet of characters as richly colourful and funny as you could possibly hope for.

Is it strange that it made me hungry?

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The Savages is available from June the 6th and is published  by Hot Key Books

Ps. Hot Key Books did a fantastic job on the cover art, and you should most definitely check out Whyman’s image blog… but not if you have a weak stomach…

http://evolvedeating.tumblr.com/

 

UPDATE MAY 2014:

 

Review: Moon Bear by Gill Lewis

MOON BEAR by Gill Lewis

I’ve been a little bit snowed under with the new job for OUP and with interviews lately and so WellReadPanda has not received the glory and full attention which it so deserves. I’ll rectify this by positively MOONING over how much I loved Moon Bear by Gill Lewis.

moon-bearPublished this month by the venerable OUP, Moon Bear is the story of twelve year old Tam, who suffers from the cruel oversight of a totalitarian state and personal tragedy is forced to journey away from his family’s home in the forest mountains of Laos and earn his keep working at a bear farm in the inner city. Tam’s new home is dirty and complicated – a modern nightmare of human and animal cruelty – until the arrival of a newborn bear brings memories of the forest and hope.

The genius of Lewis’ writing lies in the author’s ability to break down the barrier between boy and bear: the more the reader learns of Tam;s experience, the more we are able to empathise, love and respect the animals at the farm. Though the bears don’t speak, Tam gives them a voice.

The sick, newborn cub is christened ‘Sôok-díi’, meaning ‘Great Luck’, and as Tam cured the little bear, I was cured of any whimsical preconceived notion of what bear farming may entail.

‘AnimalsAsia’, a charity dedicated to educating the public and relieving culturally ingrained cruelty to animals describes ‘Bear Bile Farming’ as follows:

 
More than 10,000 bears – mainly moon bears, but also sun bears and brown bears – are kept on bile farms in China, and around 2,400 in Vietnam. The bears are milked regularly for their bile, which is used in traditional medicine.Bile is extracted using various painful, invasive techniques, all of which cause massive infection in the bears. This cruel practice continues despite the availability of a large number of effective and affordable herbal and synthetic alternatives.Most farmed bears are kept in tiny cages. In China, the cages are sometimes so small that the bears are unable to turn around or stand on all fours. Some bears are put into cages as cubs and never released. Bears may be kept caged like this for up to 30 years. Most farmed bears are starved, dehydrated and suffer from multiple diseases and malignant tumurs that ultimately kill them.

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Lewis is able to inform her readers (young or old) of these practices in a way which is complex, level-headed and emotional. Somehow not traumatising nor patronising her reader for a second, bear farming is 

presented as a cruelty, but one which is based on traditional medicinal needs- which people heavily rely upon. Those who rely upon it are misguided but rarely cruel. Moon Bear carries you through the beautiful and dark images, the emotion and the logic behind cruelty to animals and to humans alike.

Proof that writing for children can be current, important and challenging as well as lyrical, this is a beautiful book filled with hope and story and information and bears.

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More information on Bear Bile Farming can be found at http://www.animalsasia.org/index.php?UID=MZE3QCQ4RPV

Gill Lewis adopted a bear called Prince, and I made a small donation. I couldn’t not after reading her book. I suggest you check this wonderful website out

ps. Call me biased, but Oxford University Press has created one of the most beautiful covers I’ve seen in a long time

Review: Tom Gates is absolutely Fantastic! by Liz Pichon

The Brilliant World of Tom Gates is the new series by L. Pichon being put out by Scholastic.

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I came across the first book in the series a few days ago while moseying around the Scholastic stand at the London Book Fair. There were little illustrated cupcakes and signed copies of Tom Gates… Is Absolutely Fantastic and, amidst everyone being incredibly friendly, I was urged by the lovely Alana (from the American office) to pick up a copy.

I did, and I loved what I found! And I’m not the only one! So far, the Tom Gates books have won:

The Roald Dahl Funny prize 2011

The Waterstones Children’s Book Prize 2012

The Red House Children’s Book Prize 2012

Blue Peter Award for Best Story

and the World Book Day Prize 2013

imagesPhew.

So its fair to say Scholastic are onto a winner here, but what’s so special about this doodle-ridden book for readers aged 8-12?

This book feels like a conversation with a friend and is like nothing else I’ve ever read before.  Loaded with drawings, jokes and thoughts, Tom Gates … Is Absolutely Fantastic does away with  the traditional chapter structure altogether and delivers such a cheeky, interesting kind of humour that you find yourself smiling as you turn the pages.

Interspersed between Tom’s thoughts are simple drawings which feel realistic and as familiar as those you drew in your own journals (while also managing to be unbelievably expressive). After a while, the doodles achieve what subtitles in a really great foreign-language film manage: to disappear into (and accentuate) the storytelling. I’m speaking Tom Gates’ language!

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This is without a doubt the best and most original take on the ‘diary style’ book that I’ve seen in a long time. Tom Gates is a smart, creative and fun main character– one that is making the most of the straight-up happiness that comes before sullen teenage-hood.

Every bit as weird as a boy’s mind really is and every bit as fun and inviting as you could hope a book to be: Tom Gates really is absolutely fantastic!

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The Pin board for this should be really fun to add to as the series gains even more momentum! Here it is so far:

Review: The heavenly ´There is No Dog´

(alternative title: Bloomin’ Eck!)

Just this minute I finished reading Meg Rosoff´s There is no Dog and I had my breath taken away. I met Meg yesterday while I was volunteering at the Oxford Literary Festival. Meg was giving a talk about writing and creative habits.

She was so brilliantly funny in that dark, sharp way that only New Yorkers can be. While working for Felicity Bryan I’d worked on various projects related to Meg’s writing- she’s represented by Catherine Clarke (one of our agents). I was most familiar with Rosoff’s famous book, How I live now, but during her talk she drolly drawled that it wasn’t her personal favourite. I chose Meg’s own favourite : There is No Dog.

I can see why she likes it.

In There is No Dog, God is a greasy, self-centred, lazy and effortlessly attractive. His name is Bob.

“God created the earth in 6 days. No wonder its such a mess”

God was given the job of creating and presiding over earth simply because nobody else was willing to do it. With sporadic flair and no grand design in mind, Bob created our planet and fashioned the plants and creatures that people it…then lost interest entirely. Watched over by his jaded and cynical assistant, Mr. B., Bob considers his masterpiece with little more than apathy.

Bob is like an old pantheon god- full of flaws- but without the nobility, without Thor’s stateliness. He is as petty as a child too- petulant with his mother and even cruel to his pet- the odd hapless ‘Eck’ creature- described as a greedy little cross between a penguin and an anteater.

Bob, like any typical teenage boy, has eyes only for beautiful women- and he falls in love with all the lust and passionate abandon of a teenager. Unfortunately, this rarely bodes well for the girl herself, or for the planet- which is intricately linked with God’s state of mind and bodily processes.

The plot follows Bob’s chase of Lucy- the world’s most beautiful woman- and is as beguiling and strange as it sounds.

Rosoff toys with classic philosophy- twirling Voltaire’s assertions that God is a remote and uncaring around Jung’s idea that The Creator might be nuts.

There is No Dog is as witty as the title suggests- it balances its humour with a philosophical edge so sharp, so brilliant it makes you dizzy.

Bob is infuriating, but so is the voluptuous, clueless Lucy (I don’t think anyone has walked around as naive as Lucy since creation itself). For me, Bob looked like Harry Styles.

Mr. B and Bob’s mother are distant and flawed too. The only character to escape this scathing, lopsided mythology might be the Eck- a creation I wish Bob had included in the wider world.

The Eck, like There is No Dog as a whole, is packed with character, quality and ambition- unsurprising coming from an author willing to create the creator and take him to task.

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Ps. You can buy your very own Eck right here! Go GO GO!:

http://www.megrosoff.co.uk/shop/buy-an-eck/

 

And here’s my pinterest board for the book! Enjoy:

 

Happy Birthday Well Read Panda!

Happy Birthday to the blog (and to all pandas who also happen to have been born today!)

This time last year I sat down in a cafe in St. Ives and decided to make a blog- to make a space for myself to appreciate the things I read and the animals I love.

In the past year I’ve moved home a few times, finished my MA, had a few different jobs and met many new people (as well as continuing to be lucky enough to hold onto the ones I liked from before).

Thank you to everyone who helped me in the past year. As my work with Felicity Bryan draws to a close at the end of this month I’ll be looking to apply to new places for work and for work experience in the meantime. I’m serious about wanting a hand in the books that get published this year, and next year and the one after that!

Thank you to everyone who has read something on the blog in the past year, and to all that recommended me a book here or there.

And so to another year of reading and becoming a better-read panda!

 

read panda birthday!

Book Life: Happy World Book Day! But today, judge a book by its cover…

Happy World Book Day!

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At work today I asked around and found out what everybody at the agency loved to read as a child. It’s curious- sometimes the choices named were works published a hundred years before the reader was born and some where a product of the same era as their readership. It seems that was the case with me: when the question of a favourite childhood book was turned back on me, I had no hesitation at all about my own answer…

I’m still waiting for that Hogwarts letter, after all…

But.

For my post on World Book Day I have chosen to celebrate not just a book, but a cover worthy of being judged by: namely the art of Cliff Wright, who created the cover for Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

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With quick sketches and watercolours Wright captured the spirit of the book which I loved the read most, and I am so very, very grateful!

From Wright’s website  I have included a letter from Emma Matthewson, Rowling’s editor, (letter pictured below) who asked that the dog he had previously drawn be shaggy, scary, menacing. From this Wright created the very image of a Grim. When shown a reference to a classic depiction of the mythic creature, Wright created a Hippogriph that was all his own, and which in turn came to belong to all who read the book it was painted on.

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While Wright also illustrated the cover for the Chamber of Secrets, it is Azkaban that stays in my mind.

Danger, colour, magic… with closed eyes I couldn’t tell you know where my imagination begins and where Wright’s illustration leaves off. There is fear and adventure, determination, myth and rebellion in this beautiful painting.

Because as the adage goes, it is wrong to judge any book by its cover, and there is no doubt in my mind that Rowling’s masterpiece series (and particularly this, her third book) would still be the most wonderful leap into imagination and storytelling if it had a nothing but a blank cover made of bin-liner wrapped around it.

But.

Sometimes the synergy lent to writing by the perfect illustration takes it even higher and this is what happened here.

All images used are from Cliff Wright’s Website and belong to him (the red panda down there just wandered onto the picture)

Please apparate over there and have a look, it’s definitely worth your while.

http://cliffwright.co.uk/

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GONZO

Next Thursday the Oxford University Press publishes Waiting for Gonzo, which is not only a great book for teens and one to watch out for, but also the very first book in which the lovely Claire Westwood (who I spend Fridays at the office with) is named in the ‘Acknowledgments’! Congratulations Claire (and congratulations to Dave Cousins, the author, I suppose) for producing a great read!

Let’s watch the trailer :

You should definitely also check out the OUP’s blog post about Gonzo here:
http://blog.oxfordchildrens.co.uk/2013/03/01/the-word-tin-where-stories-come-from/?blogsub=confirming#blog_subscription-2

A very Good African Story by Andrew Rugasira

A Good African Story by Andrew Rugasira is named in reference to the author’s coffee company, “Good African”, and is published by Bodley Head.

A committed Christian, an ambitious businessman and a talented raconteur, I had the pleasure of attending Andrew Rugasira’s Oxford launch of this, his first non-fiction title as part of my work for the literary agency (which represents his writing in the U.K.)

Not a bad start for my first ever my non-fiction review!

“I have such respect for authors now” Rugasira murmured to me as he signed copies of A Good African Story for the queue ahead of his table (no doubt swelled by those who had read the flattering double spread on the man himself in the Observer just days earlier). I reminded him that he was in fact an author himself.

Rugasira’s vision, to found a coffee company in his native Uganda (and the business’s subsequent development), forms the backbone and heart of the title’s narrative- which also navigates compellingly through challenging political, historical and economic questions.

Rugasira’s idea was a simple one: to be the first African company to produce, roast and export high quality coffee direct to British supermarkets. Andrew Rugasira’s vision transformed the lives of the 14,000 subsistance farmers who had, previous to his business plan, lived hand to mouth: flanked by territorial conflict in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo and beholden to a lack of technology, to foreign agents and to middlemen whose prices were never just nor sufficient.

Opening with the harrowing tale of his father’s persecution by Uganda’s 1970s militant regime, the novel is a human story. A Good African Story is a narrative of trial and triumph, of chances and of mistakes. A business story featuring a talent for trade which works to counteract the easy western idea of Africa as a desperate space in need of aid and western intervention. In the introduction to his work, Rugasira call attention to the fact that no successful African businessman has written the narrative of his achievement. Dismayed by the lack of sustenance for inspiration available to the young African entrepeneur who repeatedly sees played out a narrative of Western intervention and aid on the continent, Rugasira resolved to put pen to paper. Success in Africa should not be framed solely by what foreigners write, he says.

Combining all the popular culture appeal of the coffee market with a sharp political relevance, this book has the potential to transform the way a young, travel-hungry, intelligent and caffeine-fuelled generation views Africa.

Rugasira is right in thinking that the business and cultural sectors of the world can no longer afford to ignore what Uganda, or Africa in general, has to offer. No reader can afford to ignore A Good African Story.

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Review: My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher

Last week I had some wonderful feedback on my little blog by the talented Jackie Wixey- reader and royalties administrator for the literary agency I now work for (!). Chief among Jackie’s constructive criticisms of this blog was of its overwhelmingly positive reviews of literature.

I am just too darned nice about the books I read.

Knowing the breadth of Jackie’s experience in the publishing world and her keen eye for literary detail, I resolved then and there to review a wider range of books and to be more cut-throat in my reviews.

BUT.

I think, given that it was Jackie who plucked Annabel Pitcher from the slush pile, she will forgive me for this glowing review of ‘My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece’.

An extraordinary literary debut by Pitcher, this book is the story of a family left devastated in the wake of a terrorist attack in London. The novel’s opening lines leave you no choice but to read on:

“My sister Rose lives on the mantelpiece. Well some of her does. Three of her fingers, her right elbow and her knee cap are buried in a graveyard in London.”

When a young twin, Rose, is killed by an explosion in Trafalgar Square, she leaves behind a devastated family: her twin sister (Jasmine), younger brother (Jamie) and parents. Relationships between family members change irrevocably as the characters struggle to deal with the guilt, grief, misery and anger  brought on by the tragedy.

With Jamie as the story’s protagonist Pitcher presents us with a tale of a childhood which struggles to be happy and normal against a backdrop of family grief. When Jamie’s mother abandons the family to continue her relationship with hippie Nigel from her support group, the family’s father crumbles into alcoholism and, on a whim, moves his son and daughter away from memory-ridden London to open spaces and new schools of the Lake District. In this new place, Jamie makes a friend his father would never approve of… Jamie and Jasmine must carve out new identities in this new place while coming to terms with the loss of both their sister and now their mother.

As Jamie’s older sister embraces a parental role in her drunken father’s stead, the reader is presented with how courage and humour can be pitched against loss, and the contrast between a child’s capacity for open-mindedness versus that of an adult. Though the book is dark, there is also comedy, rebellion and cats. Pitcher’s story deals with racism, bullying, superheroes, adultery, loss and relief.

I dare you not to cry and I dare you not to laugh.

“My sister lives on the Mantelpiece” is published with Orion in the UK, and Annabel Pitcher’s newest novel, “Ketchup Clouds” is due to be published in January 2013!

2013 will be full of negative reviews, Jackie, don’t worry! But lets end 2012 on a high note. Happy New Year Everyone!

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Merry Christmas Everyone!

Merry Christmas to all my lovely blog readers!

My only advice this Christmas day is to dust off your copy of “Mog’s Christmas” and to read it to someone young enough never to have heard it before!

For me, its not Christmas unless I’ve read about “trees that walk”, or have newly been reminded of how Mog is coaxed off the roof. This year is actually Mog’s 40th Birthday! Let’s celebrate in style.

Thank you again, Judith Kerr, for all the hungry tigers and forgetful cats that have caught my imagination and which undoubtedly set me en route to a career in publishing.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’ve spotted my 6 year-old cousin and I think I know something he’ll enjoy…

mogpan

The Outcast : not a book to cast out

A very quick post this week, as I am in the midst of my first working week for Felicity Bryan Literary Associates and busy in anticipation of Christmas!

“The Outcast” by Sadie Jones.

I was recommended this book by both Caroline Wood- the Agent at Felicity Bryan who looks after Sadie Jones- and the work’s ever-so-slightly impressive Costa Book First Novel Award (which it won in 2009)!

The novel is slow-paced and while the characters are sometimes caricature-esque in the extremity of their composition (golly what a sentence), ‘The Outcast” is undeniably dramatic- testament to the author’s history as a creator of screenplay.

The Outcast provides its reader with a peek at a world without the therapy or the modern understanding of grieving and child-psychology that so often prevents ostracism and and psychological damage- the harsh reality of a stiff-upper-lip Britain after the Second World War. With romance, loss and a damaged soul for its protagonist, this book has all the lyricism to make you read it voraciously till the end.

A very heavy read indeed: the work could have been counterbalanced with a little irony or even perhaps some humour, but all in all a very satisfying book to devour. Not one for a lonesome evening in though.

The Outcast is published in the UK by Harper Collins and the latest novel by Sadie Jones, “The Uninvited Guests” was published in March of 2012.

Pinterest mood board for “The Outcast”:

The Call of the Wild : Not just a children’s tail…

Image

Jack London- oyster pirate, fabulist, troubled father, socialist, hobo and literary big-dog penned his most famous work, The Call of the Wild in 1903.

Jack London’s fable of the magnificent dog, Buck, who through kidnap, hardship and cruelty finds the blood of his wolf ancestors rising within him was an instant success with popular readership and remains a standard for children’s fiction writers and dogs alike to live up to today.

The story opens with Buck, a proud and mighty St. Bernard-Scotch Collie dog living a cushy existence in California as the canine companion of a respected judge.

To settle a gambling debt, feed his horde of children and fulfill turn-of-the-century racist stereotyping, ‘Manuel the gardener’ steals Buck and ships him to Seattle, where he is sold to cruel men in pursuit of the Klondike fortune in Canada. Thus begins an epic of human brutality and ignorance, a battle against the elements, a rush for gold and Buck’s transformation from house-pet into force of nature.

This book is beautiful and as powerful as it’s canine protagonist. Children and adults alike will be wowed by the ferocity and truthfulness of the narrative. You will fall in love with Buck and through him come to see humans for the strange creatures that we really are.

It’s a relatively short book, but this is storytelling at it’s best. This book has ambition, love and the type of adventure you can only get from the suggestion that there is a world different to your own just across the border; whether it’s Canada, the past or even The Wild.

Let yourself be called.

The pinterest mood board can be spotted at:

The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. unsettled me

I have just finished reading the strange and sad The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B by J. P. Donleavy.

I was recommended Donleavy by a good friend, and picked up a little battered copy of the book last week when I spotted it under a pile of F. Scott Fitzgerald novels in a second hand bookshop.

I’m not sure what to make of the book.

The novel follows the bittersweet life of the eponymous protagonist -an aristocrat named the ‘last shy man’- from birth until his mid twenties. Balthazar B (the reader never being lucky enough to know their character’s surname) is unassuming, intelligent, vague, dandyish and (mysteriously) wealthy. Ba
lthazar is easily led, and falls haphazardly often into beautiful and dangerous scenarios.

The novel made me sad and angry and impatient all at once. Perhaps because I recognise a great deal of my own indecision and fear in the persona of Balthazar, Donleavy’s character, I found myself angered by the wayward turns and missed opportunities in his life. I was upset and amused in equal measure by the casual tragedies that punctuate the novel.

I was horrified by the debauchery of Balthazar’s irreverent, sexual and indomitable companion Beefy. I was pleasantly surprised that I could still be horrified by an irreverent, sexual and indomitable character of any kind, and chuckled often while reading.

If a novel’s success is measured by its ability to shock and move a reader, then Donleavy succeeded with Balthazar B. If however, for you a work’s success is found in a feeling of satisfaction, enlightenment or happiness at the turn of a novel’s last page, then Donleavy and his Balthazar are not for you.

Donleavy Large

my mood board for The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B. :

I wolfed down Wolf Hall

The very first thing I chose to read after finishing my hard, hard Masters dissertation was the very wonderful Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.

While the sequel, Bring up the Bodies astoundingly repeats the success of its predecessor and also won the Booker prize, this is not why I chose to read Wolf. Well, it was mostly not that.

It was for the most part because Hilary Mantel received her honorary degree from Exeter University at the same ceremony that I received my (honoured but not strictly honorary) undergraduate degree last year.

I was touched to hear Hilary Mantel talk about how beautiful Devon is in her speech at my graduation, and her deep connection with the wild West Country. Mantel spoke of the history at Exeter- a deep well from which fiction and inspiration could be drawn. Of the promise she had felt as a graduate, and the promise she sensed from the ex-students in the room with her.

I remember the shuffled embarrassment I shared with the few other English Literature graduates who had also failed to read her Man Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall.

But I didn’t get a chance all year! I promise…

So while a weighty, award-winning historical tome of fiction may not be the usual choice for a wind-down read, I leapt at the chance to lose myself in Mantel’s Tudor world. And I am so very glad that I did.

This book deserves to be every bit as decorated as it is. While I took a little while to accept and adjust to the superhuman prowess of Mantel’s protagonist, I soon became completely lost in a world both familiar and completely alien.

Wolf Hall conveys a sense of Tudor England which is new and also very old: Mantel’s London is every bit as Catholic as the cities of France and Spain- effigies and prayers dominate the streets and there is a real sense of almost Mediterranean emotion and gesticulation.

The world of Cromwell, Mantel’s shady and accomplished protagonist, is one which is at once reigned over by God-blessed kings decked in gold and also one manipulated by shadowy deals undertaken by unknown merchants, money traders and political aspirants in taverns.

Wolf Hall encircles the story of Henry VIII’s first earth-shattering divorce in the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell-  a fictional self-made man who enters the courtly company of prominent historical figures such as Jane Seymore, the Boleyns and Stephen Gardner.

An intimate telling of a story we all know.

Detailing the well-trodden steps of Tudor history newly with the earthy perspective of a Tudor man, Mantel reveals to us a London with familiar road-names, but unfamiliar roads. A world with surprisingly familiar faces.

Bring on Bring up the Bodies!

Master’s degree completed! Sorry for the long paws between posts!

A month or so ago I finally finished the Master’s degree that I’ve been working on for so long. Unfortunately, the final stretch of the course involved the dissertation, which robbed me of the time I could have dedicated to the Well Read Panda.

But it’s finished, and it went really well, so I’ll be back here and posting more regularly than ever before on what’s good to read!

In the meantime, enjoy this little guy.

This is how surprised I felt when I realised I finally had time to blog again (and how I look everytime I realise I get to read books without taking notes! 🙂 )

 

vxKOi

A chick among the chickens

My boyfriend’s family are poultry farmers in North Yorkshire, and last year he took me in to see the little yellow chicks as soon as they had arrived.

I was struck by how many there were, and how similar and distinct they were to one another. So many birds passing nameless through that shed. How small a mark each little chicken’s life makes on the world around it. I picked one up and held it for a little while, the moment staying with me.

I wrote this poem earlier in the year and edited it with the kind help of the poet, Alyson Hallett.  

     
Roll back the sun
turn off the lights,
let even the dogs go quiet
for just a moment.

Hold your hands as if in prayer
as you grip the small one-
a small thing
the colour of June
and hear her heart
against your thumb.

No mother hen to look for you,
you won’t be missed.

But I’ll remember as I hold you,
and after too.
  

Lolly Willowes or the very Deadly Dissertation… in a lather over Sylvia Townsend Warner

My MA dissertation will be all about the very glorious Sylvia Townsend Warner and animals, or the way in which her lyrical, beautiful writing manipulates our idea of the inhuman in order to  throw back at us a very accurate rendition of humanity.

Or something.

Sylvia Nora Townsend Warner was born in 1893 to a house-master at Harrow School for boys.  As a kid, Sylvia enjoyed a very classic childhood split between the education and refinements of London and the wild South West of England. An only child, Townsend Warner was close to her father and subsequently devastated by his early death as she entered adulthood.

Although Townsend Warner grew to be  known for her work with Tudor Church music at the close of the century’s first decade, and was involved with in a passionate relationship with the (married) music teacher at her father’s school,  at the outbreak of the first World War she moved to London and took up a post at a munitions factory. Although Townsend Warner would later associate with some of the literati of her day, she kept to herself and subsequently her first novel was an electric success suspected by no one…

Townsend Warner wrote constantly until her death in ’78, and is perhaps best remembered as a regular, witty contributor to the New Yorker, for whom she published over TWO HUNDRED STORIES throughout her lifetime. She wrote about turtles and convents. Historical and Romance novels. She wrote guidebooks and adventure books. She adopted tens of cats and dogs (and one goat). She lived an openly committed lesbian life with her lover, Valentine Ackland. She was a talented diarist.

She is unlimited by genre.

Her beautiful poems, her haunting, funny books and her history of service in the Spanish Civil War remain largely unremembered.

until now!

Though this incredible woman deserves more than merely an obsequious blog post and a surely over-reaching MA dissertation, this post will not attempt at her biography.

Instead, this post, however, will be a review of a very unique little critter, even amid the clamouringly odd-and-varied Townsend Warner ouevre: her very first novel, ‘Lolly Willows or The Loving Huntsman’ (published in 1926).

Lolly Willowes, in brief, follows the life of a spinster. With incisive humour, Townsend Warner cuts into the notion of the spinster as the superfluous and dependant freak.

The eponymous heroine, Lolly, begins her life as the doted-upon daughter of a landed gentleman with two other sons also. A the traumatic death of her father (sound familiar?) the family begins, over many years to rearrange itself, with Lolly finding herself pushed and stifled to the outside. Lolly enters for many years a dreamy state of indifference and resignation to her role, until, at the close of WWI, she awakes as if from a coma and leaves her family behind. Lolly Willowes tears away to the wild countryside and finds within herself a devilry which shocks, amuses and unhinges her readers.

I won’t give any more away.

I’m sure there will be more posts of the lovely and indisputably underappreciated Townsend Warner in the coming months. I’m begining to feel as though I know her, in part because I’m spending so much time buried in her diaries and her unpublished letters. The Dorset County Library has been so generous and let me ransack the archive for material.

It’s so comforting to know that you are appreciating the work of an author with whom you feel as though you would really ‘get on’. I suspect that Virginia Woolf wouldn’t think much of me, or that Hemmingway wouldn’t consider me at all for example.

(Charles Bukowski, the subject of my BA dissertation may try to get on with me, but that might not be such a good thing. I digress.)

Lolly Willowes or the Loving Huntsman is a magnificent story: a subtle yarn which weaves together spinsters, modernism, upper-class apathy, pacts with the Devil, witchcraft, countryside and kittens.

The more people that read this magical book, the better.

Pinterest mood board for Lolly Willowes can be seen here:

Otter Nonsense

A little poem I’ve been working on with the aid of the wonderful and accomplished poet Alyson Hallett. Having her read over and comment on my work is amazing. Aren’t I lucky.

Otter Nonsense

 

Otter Nonsense

my writing on a yellow page

(this silly sheet)

swims and dips

akin a fettered, old

and tattered otter-

nonsense words

in this

my stained and pointless

yellowed blotter.

 
Poor old and tatty,

written otter-

hemmed between

the reed-like lines

of this dank and dirty,

stagnant, earthy,

crumbling,

ever-humbling

paper river-bed.
  

A Royal Flush: A Dog’s Story by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is an author known for the weaving and lyrical complexities of her work, but in Flush, her protagonist saw things strictly in black and white.

Because Flush is a Cocker Spaniel.

Flush is the biographical account of the dog belonging to Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

The book fawns at the knees of the modernist genre, written in a stream of consciousness style from a disquietingly different perspective.
The novel begins with the pedigree of the Spaniel, in a clear spoof of the heraldic English classes. The dogs are themselves as pompous and self-important a the kings and knights whose laps they sit on (and there are very few things more funny or pleasing than a snobby dog). Woolf is meticulous in letting us know that Flush is a top dog- perfect along the Kennel-club lines, and a king among his own kingly breed. Flush is gifted to Elizabeth Barrett, where a great love affair dawns between the sickly woman and dog, and a confined but intensely happy account of their life together follows until the arrival a beau, Robert Browning.
Flush is thrown into jealous passion by the arrival of a rival to his mistresses affections, but the love between Barrett and Browning forces changes in the dog’s life as well as that of his owner. By the end of the novel, Flush is free of the heavy class restrictions of his breed, and is running through the fields and streets of an Italian town.

I won’t give away any more.

The book, which is based largely on Barrett Browning’s memoirs, is also the ac

count of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s life and musings, a critique of urban life and a clever reflection of the menaces of fascism which Woolf faced in her own time.

What is most interesting though, are the emotional and philosophical musings of Virginia Woolf through Flush himself. The connection felt between dog and poetess and the distinction between the ways they see the world. Barrett Browning is disappointed when Flush fails to be charmed by landscape views, and Flush whines with frustration at Barrett Browning’s intensely sedentary existence.
The novel holds the distinction of being the first I have ever read electronically, and the strangeness of the medium matched the atypical perspective of the protagonist. This book melds the romantic and emotionally charged style found in To the Lighthouse, with the meandering awareness of time found in The Years and the political zest (though more subtle here) which characterises A Room of One’s Own. But most notably, the book is an exercise in the kind of whimsy normally reserved for Sylvanian families.
(You know what I mean: those little toy chipmunks and squirrels dressed up to be homeowners and river-boat sailors? Wind and the Willows meets Lego? I digress)
Woolf herself disliked the success of Flush for exactly this reason: though it became one of her bestselling books, selling nearly 19,000 copies in the first six months, Woolf never saw Flush as serious- it was at best a distraction from important intellectual writings and at worse the kind of fiction expected of lesser, strictly female, authors.

I liked it. Not as much as I liked To The Lighthouse, but still. Flush is playful and I enjoyed the canine’s pomposity at the beginning, as well as his gradual moderation as he grows to be long in the tooth on the streets of Italy. Woolf manages to capture the unadulterated joy we humans imagine a dog feels while he runs in long grass, and accurately surmises the hound’s sacrifice when Browning converts him into a lap-dog. Flush is full of the tug betw

een adoration and wildness that I imagine a dog must feel about his owner.

I enjoyed seeing Victorian London through the eyes of a russet-coloured, gentle and silly dog. Flush is alone among Woolf’s books as being primarily very funny. I excuse the whimsical frivolity of the book because I enjoyed it, and because it introduces a human weakness (namely for dogs and for humorous fantasy) into Woolf’s repertoire which ironically makes her seem more human and less of a severe and political figure. Every dog has it’s day, the fact that this wasn’t Woolf’s makes her all the more readable.

To err is human, to forgive canine?

 

link to the pinterest mood board:

Kim. A strange and beautiful India by Rudyard Kipling

Having been set ‘Kim’, a novel by Rudyard Kipling for my very last Seminar, I was thrilled to find that not only was it completely wonderful, it was also not the pre-emptive and unauthorised biography of the voluptuous Kardashian.

I have found myself feeling nostalgic and nervous in this lead-up to my final academic class. I feel like I should be handing out a school shirt for people to sign. Where’s my leavers book?

Come 4pm today and the start of the seminar, I expect a heavy gravitas to fall upon everything the lecturer says. I have to remember it’s not the last time I learn anything, just the last time I’ll do it in a classroom. With this in mind, you can imagine how much I expected from the last book I would ever be told to read by a teacher.

‘Kim’ didn’t disappoint me.

The novel, which was first published in 1901 is the story of a masterful little street urchin’s adventures through an India on the verge of the modern. The eponymous Kimball O’Hara is the orphaned son of an impoverished white soldier who charms and rules the city streets of Lahore. In pursuit of his own prophesy involving a rampant red bull, Kim joins a Tibetan priest in search of an enchanted river- embarking on a journey which will starkly change the lives of those who meet him.

Kim, ‘friend of all the world’, is race-less and age-less. An Indian Puck who speaks all the languages of India, and whose faiths are many, depending on who he loves in any given moment: Kim follows a Buddhist, was raised a Hindu, wears the turban given him by an Afghan and is forced into Christian schooling.

This book is filled with enough tastes, smells, colours, fabrics, jewels, poverty, spirits and languages to populate India anew. Even in this cosmopolitan, global world, the young protagonist’s ability to leap from class to class, place to place and race to race is unmatched and still astounding.

Enviable. Interesting.

‘Kim’ sent me to a hot, dusty and intense place where the radio and the sewing machine co-existed with prophesy and magic. A world where imperial spies and Pashtun horse dealers dodge assassins and war-talk creeps among bazars. Warrior Sikhs sit beside farmwives and Tibetan priests on train carriages which chug sluggishly to holy waters.

Read it.

My pinterest mood board for Kim can be found here: 

Trigger Happy

Running ever such a little bit behind on my MA work, but wanted to give my first post for April! So I’m reposting a poem which was published online last year!

I was directed to the site, ‘weirdyear’ by a professor from Pittsburgh. I was told that it was a good platform to get published on, as they are just that little bit pickier than your average web publisher and they have a simply huge readership.

I was surprised they liked ‘Trigger’ best of everything I sent them, as it is one of my first pieces, but there you are.

When I got the email telling me I would be artist of the week starting 5/8/11 I excitedly put the 5th of August down in my diary, not bearing in mind that the website was American. Therefore, the 8th of May and my first online publication came and went with very little pomp. Probably for the best.

Trigger Happy

 SLAM.

Two bullets from one aimless pistol.

Shot through a back door,

Cigarette smoke drifting by the hinges.

Hurled into a night that smells like sweat and smoke and him

And makes my heart jerk.

Makes my hands shake.

 
Two shots into one night

Leap the fence

Hands to the floor

Shake shake

He draws me up and

We ricochet down one dark street

Firing shouts as we go

We’re young and we do what we want.  

The link to the website below:

http://www.weirdyear.com/search/label/Victoria%20Leech%20Mateos

Ash Lea. A poem

Whenever I can, I visit the lake district with friends. There is a house there where someone dear to me would always go with their family.

It is small and built of slate. It has no heating, no phones, no cd player and definitely no internet. The house has a rich library of four records: ‘The Best of Boney M’, Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Dreams’, The Beatles’ ‘Sgt. Pepper’ and ‘The best of Simon and Garfunkel’. The house sits beneath massive ridges and green, green fields and hosts a consortium of sheep in its garden. The front door is red.

Like this poem, the house is called Ash Lea.

Ash Lea

 

 

Plummy, thickset heather

growing close by Slater’s bridge,

dipping perse

and easy into water

where you would swim

when you were growing too.

 

 

Smells of history

round a swampy mere

where purple plants torn up by children’s

chubby fingers

were carried back

like precious treasures

to Ash Lea.

 

 

Mauvish heads

jammed with clumsy concentration

in to dusty jars

like scented English feathers

to sit, lake-ish offerings

on your family’s kitchen table.

 

 

Strange

to be jealous of a flower.