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.

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.

do you have a favourite?

With the tag line ‘Do you love a book so much you want everyone to read it?’, last Saturday’s World Book Night got me thinking. Are there any books that you love so much you want everyone else to read them?

As an English Literature student, it is worrying that it hasn’t happened to me in a while. Most of the books that I loved before uni have been picked apart in seminars and now mean something completely different to me. Now, on the odd occasion that I actually love a book, I’m strangely possessive over it.

Emma suggested earlier that when you really truly love a book you want to keep it to yourself in case other people spoil it by not liking it as much. So maybe I keep the books I love to myself for sentimental reasons…or maybe I’m just a selfish and horrible person. I guess we will never know!

Either way, I thought I’d risk it and share my favourite book with you all. If you read it and don’t like it though…please don’t tell me.

I love Dodie Smith’s novel, I Capture the Castle. Tenderly narrated by Cassandra, the daughter of an eccentric and occasionally violent genius suffering from writers block, I Capture the Castle paints a rose-tinted picture of 1930′s rural England. The bittersweet coming-of-age tale is set in a tumbledown castle (with a suitably romantic moat) where, alongside her father, Cassandra lives with her frustrated sister Rose, her step mother (who has a penchant for getting naked in the rain), her little brother, and a desperately good looking gardener.

Nostalgic, wonderfully written, and littered with endearing characters, Smith’s novel leaves you longing for a tea-dress clad, poverty-stricken life in a freezing cold castle.

Published on www.razzmag.wordpress.com on March 8th 2011.


“Cosy, comforting and heartwarmingly romantic,  I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith captures everything I love about England – from Cassie’s wonderfully eccentric family to their beautiful crumbling castle.”

Published in The University of Exeter’s student newspaper, Exepose, on March 9th 2009.