if you love your books, let them go

One day on a bus home from my sixth form college, I found a book underneath my seat. White, gold-edged, and claiming to ensure that your chosen man falls head over heels in love with you, this book was titled The Rules: Time Tested Secrets For Capturing the Heart of Mr Right. Scrawled on a pink post-it stuck on the cover were the intriguing words: Free book. Look inside for details. www.bookscrossing.com.

Now, with advice like “Don’t leave the house without wearing makeup. Put lipstick on even when you go jogging!” and “If you have a bad nose, get a nose job”, I’m not sure this book has been especially useful. In fact, it probably filled the head of my 17 year old self with some very questionable notions. Even now, the feminist in me wants to cry when I read phrases such as “Men like women who are neat and clean… why not please them?” and “Wear black sheer stockings and hike up your skirt to entice the opposite sex” (some classic advice there!) but I like the concept. Somewhere out there is a person who has been affected by this book. Maybe (though I doubt it), they’ve even found “Mr Right” because of it, and with the help of BookCrossing they have been able to share the book they love with others.

This, alongside March’s World Book Night, where the tagline was ‘Do you love a book so much you want everyone to read it?’, got me thinking. Some people believe that there is nothing sadder than a book that will never be read again. They think that we should rehome our read books rather than leaving them sat lonely and dejected on our book shelves. I, however, have to disagree. As a rule, on the odd occasion that I actually love a book, I’m strangely possessive over it. When I love a book, rather than sharing the literary joy, I take pleasure in adding it to my ever-growing collection. However, after visiting BookCrossing’s website, I’ve started to change my mind. With the inspired tagline ‘Welcome to the world’s library’ their website has got me in a sharing and caring frame of mind. So I’ve picked a book that I know in my heart of hearts I will never read again, I’ve printed off a BookCrossing label, and I’m going to let go. Tomorrow I’m going to release my book into the world of book sharing and leave it on a train.

All you have to do to join me and start sharing your favourite books is visit the BookCrossing website. You can set up an account for free, print off labels (you can even personalise them with photos of your beaming face if you like) and start releasing your books out into the wild. Share a well worn book, an old favourite, or maybe one that you think other people could appreciate more than you. With BookCrossing’s website you can track how far your books have travelled, who is reading them and whether or not they are enjoying them.

If you love your books… it’s time to let them go. Happy sharing!

Published on June 2nd 2011 on www.litro.co.uk.

summer reads, whatever the weather

The British summer is almost, but not quite, upon us. April taunted us with the promise of a long, hot summer, only to pull the carpet out from under our flip-flops and replace the cloudless bank holidays with grey and drizzly 9-5s.

Maybe you are in the middle of exams or just plain sick of work? Perhaps you’re eagerly awaiting your summer holiday or maybe, like me, your student bank account won’t let you book one. Either way, while we are all stuck inside dreaming of the sunshine, here are a few books to give your imagination an ash-cloud free holiday.

Cider with Rosie (rrp £7.99)

Who needs to go abroad this summer? Cider with Rosie is a beautifully written memoir of Lee’s childhood spent in the lush Cotswolds. Lyrically written, Lee evokes a postcard worthy picture of rural England before high speed trains, mobile phones and the internet. Reading Lee’s gentle descriptions of sunlight speckled fields, rural festivities, and long summers is almost as good as being there and will certainly make you want to don a daisy chain and lie in a British meadow.

A Room with a View (rrp £8.99)

Perhaps a staycation is not quite your thing? E M Forster’s A Room with a View has the best of both worlds. Opening in Florence, Forster’s tale follows Lucy and her troublesome love life through rustic Tuscany back to Surrey’s undulating countryside. Forster’s descriptions of love in Italy will undoubtedly distract you from your dreary your office and the dribble of rain on your window.

Eat Pray Love (rrp £7.99)

Fancy a more extended trip? Elizabeth Gilbert’s international best seller, Eat Pray Love, takes you on a journey through Italy, India, and Bali. Satisfying even the most demanding holidaymakers’ desires, (gorging on ice-cream, achieving spiritual peace, and toying with a summer romance) after finishing Gilbert’s autobiographical journey of self discovery you’ll feel like you’ve been away too. On top of that, Gilbert’s descriptions of her exploits with Italian cuisine actually made my stomach rumble; I’ve never felt more like dropping everything and finding a cheap flight to warmer Italian shores.

These books will give your imagination a well deserved break while we wait for the British summer to start, but if an imaginative holiday just won’t cut it, pick up a travel guide!

Published on May 25 2011 on www.litro.co.uk.

review: the hand that first held mine

Moving and bitterly sweet, The Hand That First Held Mine is Maggie O’Farrell’s fifth novel and winner of the 2010 Costa novel award. Exposing the fragile nature of our human relationships, O’Farrell’s novel paints two compelling portraits of women separated by fifty years.

O’Farrell’s novel cuts between two timelines; following the life of beautiful and headstrong Lexie as she struggles to find her place in 1950’s Soho alongside a haunting depiction of Elina’s attempts to cope after the traumatic birth of her first child. Effortlessly constructing the tales of these two women, O’Farrell calls into question the relationship we assume to be the most stable of all, that of mother and child. Although the connection between the two women isn’t revealed until the very end, these two storylines are seamlessly sewn together throughout. Whilst Lexie falls helplessly in love, Elina battles with the bumpy terrain of motherhood. Lexie’s chapters are dynamic whilst Elina’s sections, though intensely absorbing, are disorientating; as Elina cautiously navigates the first few weeks with her child, O’Farrell creates gaps in the narrative which leave us reeling. As Lexie’s life and loves are told in fast forward, her vibrancy set against the static nature of Elina’s chapters, with painful empathy we, like Elina, feel confused and overwhelmed.

O’Farrell’s honest depictions of life’s darknesses and pleasures are at times almost too poignant to read (her depiction of Lexie’s suffocation after returning from university verges on painful for a soon-to-be graduate!) We are led through Ted and Elina’s story at the same pace as they are, acutely aware of the gaps in our own knowledge. But in Lexie’s chapters the narrator intriguingly hints at her fate. Leaving us uncomfortably more knowledgeable than our loveable protagonist, we know from the beginning that she is heading for disaster: “She has no idea that she will die young, that she does not have as much time as she thinks. For now she has just discovered the love of her life, and death couldn’t be further from her mind”.

As O’Farrell herself has recognised, there are more than just our two female protagonists in this tale. The Hand That First Held Mine constructs a picture of bohemian Soho as vivid as the John Deakin images that initially inspired O’Farrell to write. Connecting these characters through the streets they walk on and the buildings they enter, London acts as a reminder of the stability of stone and the fleeting nature of our human existence. As Ted goes for coffee in the very same building where Lexie works we are reminded of the way in which each building must house the imprint of its past. The nostalgic portrayal of London is tainted by our knowledge of Lexie’s fate and O’Farrell’s focus on how our capital city has itself changed beyond recognition in a mere fifty years.

Elina’s visit to a John Deakin exhibition cleverly exposes both the connection between O’Farrell’s two main characters and the ultimate reason why this tale is at times so uncomfortable to read. As we see Lexie, our bright and vibrant protagonist, transform into an unidentified woman in a black and white photograph, we are reminded of the inevitable passing of time. Elina describes Deakin’s photography of 1950’s Soho as being “kind of melancholy…because they capture something that’s gone” and I think that O’Farrell’s novel could be described in the same way. Littered with references to loss and the unreliability of memory, The Hand That First Held Mine forces us to question our own fragile existence. Just as Lexie’s ghost haunts Elina’s London, this novel will stay with you long after you have finished its last page.

The Hand that First Held Mine is published by Headline Review, RRP £7.99

Published on May 18 2011 on www.litro.co.uk. and in Exeposé, The University of Exeter’s student newspaper, on May 22 2011.

perfect for scribbling: my favourite notebooks for budding writers

Last Thursday I handed in my creative writing dissertation. The product of four long months of hard work, seven packets of chocolate covered digestive biscuits, and one notebook.

By the time I reached the word count, in between bouts of crying and stress induced eating, I was just about enjoying myself. But in January, faced with weeks and weeks of writing ahead of me, the last thing I wanted to do was pick up my pen.

In the midst of my desperation, I started to think that it might have something to do with the pen itself and my notebook of choice, in this case an A4 Pukka pad. Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve got nothing against Pukka pads; they are perfect for lecture notes, essay planning, list writing etc. But when it comes to writing creatively, when you sit down to begin that long awaited novel, you are going to need something a little more inspirational.

For the procrastinator extraordinaire (myself included), stationery shopping is the logical start to any writing project. Before you begin your sonnet, embed your clauses, or open up thesaurus.com, you need to fully immerse yourself in the importance of your stationery choices. There are so many questions that need to be answered… Soft or hardback? Lined or plain? A4 or pocket-sized? Leather or fabric?

Luckily for you budding writers/procrastinators out there, I’m a bit of a stationery geek so I’ve done some window shopping and found seven of the best notebooks that will help you get your scribble on.

1. There is nothing nicer than the smell of a real leather notebook. £33.75. Roma from Papuro. www.papuro.com

2. THE “legendary notebook” favoured by artists and thinkers alike, Moleskine journals have a special place in my heart. If they were good enough for Hemingway and Picasso, they are good enough for me. £8.99 small soft cover from Moleskine. www.moleskine.co.uk

3. We all need a little bit of inspiration every now and again.  If you find yours when musing about the literary greats, this little notebook, from the appropriately titled ‘Lofty Thinking’ range, could be your perfect writing companion. (price on request) by Eccolo. www.eccololtd.com

4. For those of you with ambitious aspirations, this notebook will help you on your way. £27.50 from Hope House Press. Available from www.notonthehighstreet.com.

5. And if you’ve set your sights a little higher, this notebook might be the first step towards commercial success. £5 by Waldo Pancake. Try www.reallygood.uk.com

6. Perhaps you are more of a travel writer? Bombus allows you to pick your own front cover for this notebook. Anywhere in the world, New York, Barbados, Basingstoke… your choice. £26. Available at www.notonthehighstreet.com.

7. If all this notebook shopping isn’t helping your stress levels, perhaps destroying this journal will put you back in a creative frame of mind. My favourite pages include: ‘drawkcab etirW’, ‘Document your dinner (use page as a napkin)’, and ‘Shower with your journal’. Being instructed to destroy a book is a very liberating experience. Filled with random acts of creativity, although I wouldn’t advise using this journal as the place to start your novel, it will definitely spark your imagination. £8.99 from Penguin. www.urbanoutfitters.co.uk

Although stationery shopping may seem like a trivial business, I personally think that you can never underestimate the power of a good notebook. I think I have mine to thank for my finished dissertation (though I am yet to find out how thankful I should be. I don’t get my degree results for another five weeks…)

Published by www.litro.co.uk on May 12th 2011