Village Stroll

It’s been a beautiful weekend to say goodbye to August. So to chill out, relax, and enjoy the sunshine, we decided to have a little village stroll! To see my street photography, you can check out my street photo Tumblr. But below you can find some snapshots of the beautiful market town of Hitchin and its lovely little shops and architecture.

 

Film Photography Projects

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I have just received two new SLR cameras that I purchased through eBay for about £30 each, with lenses included.

When I first started studying photography, practising film photography with the Olympus OM10 – my first analogue SLR – was a huge learning curve. It was challenging and therapeutic and cheap! Since then, though, the winder on my OM10 has been a bit sticky and my photos aren’t always coming out very well because the film can get trapped. But, since I already had a few manual FD lenses that I use via an adapter for DSLR video, I figured it would make sense to order some film and a new Canon FD SLR for a low price on eBay and do some film projects!

I now own the Canon AE-1 Program, which is in exceptional condition, and which I am using with my Canon FD 50mm f/1.4, and also the Canon FTb – also in amazing condition – with a Canon FD 50mm f/1.8 and a Canon FD 28mm f/2.8. I ordered some cheap ISO 200 colour film for summertime photography, from Kodak, which I’ll be using for my early tests. And then I’m waiting for some more expensive and higher quality Ilford ISO 400 black and white film to arrive, which I’ll be doing some street photography with. I’ll also be doing some fun Fujifilm Instax projects too.

In the next couple of weeks I hope to have some blog posts up with my experiences and results and hopefully some great shots! It’s going to be so much fun.

(The photo above is an iPhone shot from my Instagram. You can follow me there if you fancy.)

Summer Skies

Summer days are full of warm light; that dusky skyline refracting pinks, oranges, reds, and golds across the cool blue vista above like the crystal clarity of chilled wine in a glass. When the sun begins to set and the shadows lengthen, the worlds enters the golden hour. An hour when nature, architecture, and landscapes are bursting with texture, colour and life. It’s a photographer’s dream. So I took my camera out one evening and explored this twilight world of balmy breezes and golden clouds and the results are below.

For higher quality versions of my photo work, please visit my photoblog or 500px portfolio.

Wrest Park

The nineteenth-century stately mansion, Wrest Park and it’s grounds, resides close to the village of Silsoe in Bedfordshire and not too far away from where I live. It was a balmy summer’s evening, so I grabbed my camera and we took a stroll around the house in the golden hour. For better quality pictures, or to buy prints, you can visit my photoblog or my 500px portfolio.

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Book Review | Deathless by Cat Valente

Deathless (Deathless, #1)Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

MINOR SPOILERS

Deathless by Cat Valente is a retelling of a classic Russian fairytale, known as The Death of Koschei the Deathless or Marya Morevna. The original tale has many versions and variations due to a long oral tradition, as well as books, films and published sources like Alexander Afanasyev’s folktale collection. The story follows the immoral Koschei, an immortal being who kidnaps young women. Ivan Tsarevitch is married to the beautiful Marya Morevna, a warrior, who leaves their castle to go to war. As she leaves she makes Ivan promise he will not look in the dungeon, but curiosity wins and he finds Koschei chained to the walls. Marya was one of the young women kidnapped – one who escaped him. Koschei tricks Ivan into freeing him and steals Marya. Ivan must overcome Koschei’s deathlessness to defeat him and win her back. The original tale is one of war, death, and love.

Cat Valente’s retelling of the story is a wonderful addition to the already rich canon. Choosing instead to focus on Marya Morevna herself as the centre of the story, Valente creates an incredibly interesting heroine whose story of girlhood, war, and innocence lost is as twisted as it is heartbreaking, as fascinating as it is disturbing, as warm as it is pitch black. All of the traditional elements are there, including some stolen from other tales, and they come together wrapped up in a tale of war, love, and death that is inter-weaved with modern day Russia. By combining a dense tapestry of sociology, politics, and psychology in this fanastical world, Valente is able to draw parallels between the themes of the story and the endless march of history. One of the most impressive aspects is the way she dissects the nature of fairytales themselves – the desire to retell a story over and over, to learn the same lessons, to live the same thrills, until such a time that a catastrophic shift emerges in culture or society that changes the way the story is told forever. Valente’s own retelling is an example of this. By making the story about Marya, the story can reflect something new.

To pick apart the themes of this book is a hard task. Whether it be the twisted, desperate, imbalanced, and painfully sad war of love between Marya and Koschei, or the bittersweet sting of mortality that rings through the pages as Marya and Ivan fall in love, or the sheer breathlessness of industrial death, the story offers up so much to think about, to question, to dwell upon. It’s a book that thoroughly deserves a second read and will no doubt offer much more to ponder and contemplate. The smallest of touches can offer the most pleasure to a reader. The sad situation of the rusalka is a particular touch in this book that I am really fond of.

Besides the story itself, however, the prose is absolutely beautiful. Sparkling with fluid and vivid descriptions of stark urban landscapes, colouful fantasy worlds, memorable characters, and little scenes that are worthy of being captured in a painting, the book overflows with unique imagery that brings the world to life with visceral clarity. The prose, from the very first page, is like a fine feast that you simply dine on. Honey and wine. Ice and smoke.

Cat Valente has instantly become one of my favourite contemporary writers and I will be seeking out the rest of her work. For anyone who loves a dark fairytale, a fable about war and death and – ultimately – life, this book is a treasure chest of wonders.

// Goodreads //

Book Review | 52 Weekend Digital Photo Projects by Liz Walker

52 Weekend Digital Photo Projects: Inspirational Projects*Camera Skills*Equipment*Imaging TechniquesMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

Digital Photo Magazine is probably familiar to all new DSLR users and it certainly helped me out a lot when I was first getting into photography. So when I saw this book on sale in The Works for only £3.99, I decided to was an absolute bargain. Filled with ideas for photographic and Photoshop projects to test the boundaries of a photographer’s imagination, technical limitations, and to inspire creativity, this book offers lots of fun and practical ways to fill your free time with photographic goodness!

The book has several different sections that offer tips, advice, and challenges is several different areas of photography. It follows the structure of the seasons, which all photographers will appreciate – after all, how often have you found your creativity stifled by miserable winter weather? Offering specific ideas and challenges suited to the weather conditions available helps. Along the way it explains and introduces the newbie to technical staples of photography and explains key concepts that beginners might not have grappled with yet – white balance and exposure compensation being prime examples. It covers indoor and outdoor shooting and even covers the use of speedlights. There’s a handy section that talks about the necessary kit required, discussing tripods and more.

It also offers one of the most accessible introductions to Photoshop. Photoshop is a notoriously difficult software to get used to for beginners and many texts are dry and full of technical detail. Here, though, the fun and practical challenges will help photographers get used to Photoshop whilst engaged with a creative activity rather than through swallowing dry chunks of abstract information.

It’s not perfect. People will more than an intermediate grasp of phgotography might find it a little basic, but it isn’t aimed at them as an audience. Beginners will find it fun and inspiring. Everyone else will still surely find the ideas, tips, and suggestions very valuable for how they encourage and inspire new ideas.

For the photographer in your life, this is a bargain and a book that will help pass hours dipping in and out and creating great photos.

Book Review | Wreck This Journal by Keri Smith

Wreck This JournalMy rating: 2 of 5 stars

Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal is really an exercise in letting go. The catharsis that many people seem to feel by totally breaking the unwritten rules about destruction and books and order and creativity is part of this journal’s appeal. The idea is that you get the journal and, rather than filling it with writing and observations, you loosely follow the destructive instructions to inspire creativity, live life differently, and simultaneously “ruin” the book.

Lots of people probably feel a real sense of relief from being able to rip apart a book. Emotive responses no doubt range from guilty pleasure to delighted glee. It’s not merely the way it makes you think and feel differently, though. The book also inspires a totally unique kind of creativity. Everyone’s book will end up looking completely unique to the person who made it. It also shakes up your daily routine by making you do things for no reason. There’s an aspect to it that reveals a person’s mind, attitudes, and personal tastes. For those who find their lives stuck in a rut, this book will shake up your lifestyle, make you question assumed truths, encourage you to think differently, make you do things you’ve never done before, help you find new ways to be creative and artistic, and much more depending on your personality. It really does offer a lot for those who need a new outlet.

However, for all the positives, not everyone will appreciate this. At £7.99 RRP, this is quite a pricey product if the intent is merely to destroy it. I have never been a person who is particularly uptight or orderly, so I didn’t really feel much cathartic pleasure in the instructions. It felt a bit pointless. Also, the fact that it encourages you to really rip the book up rather than create something beautiful out of it felt a bit nihilistic and left me feeling flat. (This is totally subjective, of course, you can literally do whatever you want with the book.) If the book’s instructions were a little more artistic, social, or questioning, I think I could have loved this. As it is, it just isn’t for me.

For those looking for a new way of thinking that will shake their creative lives up a bit, this probably makes a good novelty gift.

Physical Books | Random Thoughts

In the past I’ve talked a little bit about how much I love books on this blog, but my love of books has morphed and changed over the years and I’ve come to a sort-of revelation about why.

When I was very young I was guilty of the abundant book worship that you find amongst people who self-diagnose themselves with that awfully-named condition of being a bookworm. It consists of discovering that you like to read books, then subsequently that you adore some books so much you can’t put them down, then having to fill the void left by the last book with a new one, then spending all of your free time reading and getting increasingly furious when people interrupt you, then starting to deify books to the point that you cannot bear any kind of “vandalism” to their physical form because you perceive it as a grievous slight on the book. Ultimately, you end up sort-of considering the physical form of a book rather sacred. This leads to weird rituals about book-keeping – the way you order them on their shelves, clean them, hold them even – until you start thinking that people who fold down pages instead of using a bookmark are the personification of Satan himself. (And they might be, to be fair.)

But, in the end, you find you have developed a curious attachment to books as relics and objects – not just for their primary function, which is to deliver you a story.

By the time I finished studying English at university, my bookly love had waned slightly. Carrying heavy textbooks from class to class each week (The Norton Anthology of Shakespeare, anyone? Look it up.) became a back-breaking misadventure. Trying to read humongous text books before the next lecture became an endurance task for the biceps. And trying to find books that had been out of print for years became the London-library-hopping equivalent of the quest for El Dorado. Eventually the internet and the Kindle app on my smartphone were the only viable solutions with such a huge reading list. I started thinking about all the wonderful stories I’d read for free on my iPhone Kindle – Henry James’s lesser-known short stories, re-readings of the Brontes – and I was slightly peeved at my former self for being so obsessed with physical books. That abundant book-worship started to seem a bit masturbatory, if I’m being blunt. And so I’ve regressed slightly and find myself less concerned about occasionally bending a book spine or scuffing the cover.

But then it all changed again. I was reading up on Shakespeare – because he’s an interesting fella, dontcha know – and I learned about how his works were eventually disseminated and it got my mind racing. On QI they once discussed a theory about how the Romantic poets may have had hallucinatory experiences just from reading books alone because books are transitory objects – they actually start decaying once they are made because the paper is instantly affected by the acidity of the ink – and they have mould on them. In old books, this can cause hallucinatory effects on people. This instant decay seems to directly juxtapose the fact that books are often the way through which the words of authors survive beyond the bleak mortality of human life. It was the case with Shakespeare. His plays were compiled and published as the Folios and Quartos and that is how his work survives today. Without those publications, his contribution to literature would have been lost. In fact, one of his plays was lost. So it is only through the endurance of physical books and their relevance as evidence, relics, objects, things, that we know what Shakespeare once wrote. Similarly, the world’s first recorded story was found in an ancient ruined library in Sri Lanka. And the chequered history of the human race destroying these centres of knowledge is significant. And becomes even more significant once you realise that those books were already in the process of a slow march toward decomposition. It seems like a profound reason to love books as things as well as stories. Especially as they have such a physical affect on us in return. (As Rupert Giles remarks in the first season of Buffy: “Books smell musty, rich. Knowledge gained from the computer has no texture, no context.”)

In recent years, I’ve found myself considering that there is a widening between the way we see books and ebooks. Ebooks are convenience, ease, but books are artefacts and possessions. When I realised how much I loved George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, I bought all of the books as a special boxed set. Despite the fact that they are pretty chunky books I bought them as books instead of ebooks because I knew I’d want them forever. There is a permanence to books that ebooks cannot give you – it is that certainty of form, context, survival, and yes, smell. I once adored books as though they were sacred because it gave books such a wealth of meaning in my life and my self-imposed identity of “bookworm” (still think it sounds super gross) but after re-learning that the value of books should only first be measured from their content, I’ve yet again found myself falling in love with books as books. I’m a reader and a bibliophile and I don’t think that’s going to change. Libraries are treasure chests of adventure, romance, drama and philosophical truths, but they are also graveyards for the thoughts of the greatest minds the world has seen and even they will one day return to dust. It’s so sad, but it makes me happy I live in an age where I can have a mini library of my own while I live.

Book Review | Looking for Alaska by John Green

Looking for AlaskaMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

Looking For Alaska is not the first John Green novel I’ve read and I think I was spoiled slightly by reading The Fault in Our Stars first. The latter is an exceptional book that I won’t do a disservice by meagrely trying to explain all of its merits here. Alaska, however, whilst sharing many of TFIOS’s thematic content and ideas, is a very different book. It took me a while to really appreciate it, but ultimately it’s another reason to love John Green’s work.

Miles leaves home to go to his dad’s old boarding school, looking for, in a dead man’s words, the “Great Perhaps.” He is searching for something bigger and more exciting than his life offers him. Instead he meets a bunch of very real teenagers with very real problems and the endlessly fascinating Alaska – who he immediately has a crush on.

The story explores relationships, friendships, adolescence, loss, sex, and much more and does so in a way that completely acknowledges how hard those things are to deal with without romanticising big issues or condescending to the audience. When I was the age of the characters in the story, I felt quite often that stories aimed at my age group were trivial and sometimes slightly warped in how they oversimplified the problems of adolescence, but this book does not do that. It acknowledges that teenagers experience problems as hard and deep as adults do – sometimes brutally. The way it deals with the psychology of guilt, grief, and the uncertainty of life is particularly profound for a YA novel.

A must-read for John Green lovers; a should-read for teens everywhere; and a pleasant surprise for everybody else.

Wetlands by Charlotte Roche | Book Review

WetlandsMy rating: 3 of 5 stars

Charlotte Roche’s novel Wetlands caused a huge stir when it came out because it broached the subject of women’s bodily autonomy and the hyper-hygienic culture that tells women often to be ashamed of their bodies and its functions. Some people called it a great piece of feminist writing and others called it hackery. It probably lies somewhere in between, but what I cannot fathom is why some people have decided it’s “porn”. This attitude gives me a genuine, head-scratchy, WTF moment. So I decided to marshal my thoughts in this (very subjective, to be fair) review.

When I first read this book, I was in my last year studying English Literature at university. Pretty much any book that caused a furore immediately made it to the top of my to-read list, especially books that concerned women – I am and always have been a feminist, but literary feminism is particularly intriguing to me. My initial thoughts were that it was badly written and not original at all, but, in the book’s defence, it broached topics that many women had probably never had the chance to explore in their rather oppressive cultures. The narrative is structured in such a way to allow the reader to follow as Helen explores her own body – anatomically, sexually, and un-hygienically in many ways. She talks about sex in a way that eschews the mainstream culture that tells women that their sexual autonomy is not their own and subverts ideologies about women’s sexual pleasure that the mainstream often puts second to male pleasure. Some of these ideas might be new or interesting to people who have had limited education about sex or perhaps limited experience, but I couldn’t help but feel that a lot of the “revelations” about women’s sexuality can and have been discussed, explored, and expanded upon better elsewhere. I mean, a lot of it is surely common sense? She also explores her body outside of society’s super hygiene-obsessed ideas. She pushes herself in weird ways that toy with pleasure, pain, germs, scatology and much more. Once again, whilst many people may be refreshed to discover that mainstream ideas about women’s bodies and hygiene is in fact quite limiting and often misogynistic (in that women’s bodies are treated less like the living, breathing organisms that men’s bodies are, but more like living dolls) it is also quite badly handled. It feels more like it is pushing for shock value rather than a genuine exploration of women’s bodies as living, breathing entities. For people who already accept themselves as fully-formed human beings outside of the limited representations of women that are found in media and culture, this book will just feel like a re-hash of common sense ideals in a narrative that is constantly reaching for shock value over depth.

That said, though, this book is surely valuable to some people. The fact that so many of the negative reviews I’ve read of this book begin with “Do not read this – this is not what you were expecting…” before going on to make clear that what they were expecting was porn is surely indicative that books like these are somewhat necessary. The book’s central themes – that women’s sexuality exists outside of a man’s desire for her, that women’s bodies are not living mannequins but in fact living organisms filled with as much “gross” stuff as anyone else’s and that that is not shameful – criticises the exact culture that encourages people to assume that a book written about a female body must therefore be porn for other people’s pleasure and feature a hygienic, airbrushed, sexually desirable central heroine. Also, for women who live in areas, places, or cultures that will never allow them access to education that subverts these ideals, books like this must surely subvert those ideologies enough to give those women the chance to start thinking about their bodies in new ways. I only hope that they explore the ideas presented here elsewhere afterwards.

So, whilst this book offers a fresh new perspective, it is definitely badly-written and doesn’t handle the thematic material well enough – choosing shock over depth. But the fact that this book has inspired so much debate is surely to its credit; after all, the fact that women’s bodies are considered “one of the last taboos” is one of the most idiotic notions of twenty-first century life. Violence and oppression are worldwide problems, but a women’s own autonomy over her body and asking society to view it as a human entity rather than a sexual object or living doll is somehow taboo? Give me a break. We should be well past this by now.

Book Review | Sugar Rush by Julie Burchill

Sugar RushMy rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sugar Rush is Julie Burchill’s YA novel about a middle-class teen girl named Kim who is forced to leave what she sees as a comfortable, if dull, private school education to go to a state school, where she encounters the casual drinking, drug-taking and sexual culture that comes with being in a more working-class environment. But she also meets Maria Sweet a.k.a Sugar, the hard-drinking, hard-partying, flirtatious rebel and so called “Queen of the Ravers” and suddenly finds herself questioning her sexuality.

(I read this book after the success of the TV show and I must disclaim that I was disappointed by this book because I much preferred the show, so my review will be biased.)

I was a teen girl when I read this novel and I wanted so desperately to like it in the same way that I had liked the TV show, but I found it slightly strange to read in book form. Characters I’d loved and sub-plots that were funny or poignant in the TV show had clearly been fleshed out a lot from the book and I really missed their presence in the story. Having said that, though, the book has some really interesting and complex characters and themes that were under-served or less explored in the TV show. The social themes that explore class and race are much more successful in the book because they are filtered through Kim’s narrative, giving a more balanced view both dramatically and comically. And Kim’s narrative is not a preachy polemic from the author but more an attempt at the real voice of a teen girl with ideas about those things shaped by life, prejudice, subversion and everything else. The show had a voice-over, but it wasn’t lingering or anywhere as in-depth as the book so Kim’s narrative offered new angles. The complex issue of Kim’s sexuality was explored more dramatically and emotionally in the book too, whereas in the show it was sometimes (albeit successfully) played up as a crush for comic effect. Seeing representations of female sexuality in fiction is another thing that this book does well. Some really controversial sexual behaviours were represented, but I didn’t feel as though the female characters were being shamed for their behaviour by the author – it was more a chance to explore the social attitudes to women and sex as well as the interior thought processes. But really I am over-analysing at this point. (Having said all of this, though, some of Burchill’s other writings have displayed female sexuality as contemptuous and worthy of ridicule in comparison to male sexuality, which makes me question my interpretation of this book.)

Julie Burchill’s journalistic writing is not something I’m particularly keen on and, although I am an absolute feminist, some of her writings on feminism are pretty much the kind I find genuinely problematic. When I read this book I didn’t know that, but looking back some of her more extreme ideas may have been what, on a gut-instinct level, I disliked about this book versus the show. And in comparison to the richly fleshed out show, which was fun and more comic than this book, I just didn’t find it engaged me very much.

People who haven’t seen the show will probably love this book and I’d especially recommend it to teen girls for whom sexuality, drinking culture and hedonism are not often talked about openly or honestly in culture and, considering you’re probably living it, you should get the chance to read about those things objectively – a chance that this book affords.

Book Review | The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night CircusMy rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Night Circus is a YA novel from debut author Erin Morgernstern and follows the tale of the mysterious, eponymous circus from its inception and throughout the late eighteen-hundreds and early nineteenth-century, as it parallels the lives of two precocious young people whose lives are irrevocably entwined in ways they cannot yet fathom.

The Night Circus is a mystery: coloured solely in monochromatic blacks, whites and greys, the circus is as unique to look at as the way it operates and what you’ll find inside. It arrives without any warning, departs without notice, only opens after midnight and is full of magical tents and spectacles that seemingly cannot be explained. The origins of the circus are a mystery and the purpose of it seems only to charm. It snares many who experience it and they become enamoured of the circus’s magic. The people who perform its magical feats are less-known by visitors, but it is their story where the most intrigue lies. Marco and Celia are magicians and conjurers in the circus, but even they are not aware that their lives are irrevocably linked. As their stories play out and their destinies come into focus, the circus is merely a backdrop to the game being played out in its arena.

The Night Circus was a read I highly anticipated since the praise for the book was so high and it just sounded beautiful. In many ways it was. The description was luscious, lingering and luxurious. Visually, this book had imagery and an aesthetic all its own and it was quite ambitious in that regard. The circus certainly sounds amazing and the places, buildings, costumes, food and much more simply sounds stunning. However, for all the indulgence, pomp, grandeur and more, the description of this book as a celebration of the “fin-de-siecle” attitude couldn’t be more true. (The “fin-de-siecle” was a late nineteenth-century literary phenomenon that celebrated or at least explored the culture of decadence – meaning a culture of degeneracy or decay founded upon a luxurious indulgence in the wonders of mere aesthetica at the expense of deeper morality and meaning.) This book suffers in that regard, however, because, for all its charms as a visual spectacle, the novel is not primarily a visual medium and the attributes usually required for the narrative to be engaging weren’t really present – for example, the characters lacked motivation and the typical quirks of personality that draws you in and makes you love them. So whilst the story was beautiful visually, it was rather soulless emotionally and psychologically. If this had been written for the screen, though, I imagine a well-edited script could offer all this and more and justify the luxury of the imagery.

Overall, this book was all it promised to be and more but sadly it lacked the usual emotional connection you find with protagonists of YA fiction. Whilst it was beautiful and evocative, the story felt a little dry and lacked a real impetus to drive the plot forward which would usually come from deeper characterisation and a sense of real threat hanging over the characters. I would recommend this book for lovers of art, design and possibly even film and it makes a quick read for YA lovers. I was just a little sad that it lacked heart and fire after showing such promising potential.

Book Review | The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

The Invention of Hugo CabretMy rating: 5 of 5 stars

MILD SPOILERS

The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a hugely original piece of work by Brian Selznick, that brings to mind a curious mixture of other modern influences like the work of Shaun Tan and Edward Gorey, but comes together to create a storytelling experience of words and illustrations that is quite unlike anything I’ve really read before.

The book opens with a little orphan boy named Hugo who lives in the walls of a train station in 1930s Paris and works as the timekeeper for the station’s twenty-seven clocks. Hugo must steal food from the station shops to survive and tries to go unnoticed by staff lest they send him away to an orphanage and therefore away from his beloved father’s possessions. But one morning, an unfortunate encounter with the old man who runs the toy stall in the station sets Hugo off on a journey to discover the truth at the heart of a mystery.

The book is endlessly engaging: Hugo and Isabelle are great children characters, full of the wonder, curiosity and kindness that the best children in literature have always had. The subjects of clock-keeping, automata, magic, train travel and film-making were all illuminating and evocative. And the way the book was put together with the drawings, both structurally and aesthetically, made the whole world of the story more dense and rich.

I wish I had had the chance to read this book as a child, but, as an adult, I can appreciate the beauty of the illustrations and the sweet charm at the centre of the story that lingers on and is worthy of many more revisits.

Book Review | The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith

The Cuckoo's CallingMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

MILD SPOILERS

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a book I would never have heard of, I won’t lie, unless it was made public that it was written by J.K. Rowling. I’m a huge Rowling fan, so I ordered it the moment I heard. J.K. Rowling made the really bold move to write under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith in order to let this book generate its own buzz and criticism without the pre-judgement that comes attached to the Rowling brand name. I wish she could have had more time to let that happen because it must have been a really refreshing experience for her and I’m going to try and write this review without any of that prejudice either.

The Cuckoo’s Calling opens with a tabloid-hunted supermodel, Lula Landry, falling to her death from the balcony of her luxury penthouse on a cold January night. In amongst the whirlwind of media speculation following her death, rumours of suicide, murder, and secrecy erupt, whilst the police investigation is scuppered by witnesses who are just as interested in selling their stories or keeping their own secrets as they are interested in serving justice. But Lula’s brother can’t let go of the idea that Lula’s death was suspicious and he hires the shrewd ex-military private eye, Cormoran Strike, to find out.

This book was a really fun and engaging read. Cormoran Strike is a great lead character: a man with a complex past that has left him with many demons, both mental and physical, but also a strong sense of justice. His assistant Robin wasn’t given as much time on the page but I can’t wait to see more of her: excitable, warm, clever, inventive and prickly at times, her friendship with Strike was really realistic and I want to see where it goes next. Each of the secondary characters was fleshed out and realistic, with motives, desires, world views and personalities that were distinct, often palpably so, which made it feel real and uncompromising at points. The central mystery is filtered through this social melee, with a bit of social consciousness (the story touches on the complexities of gender, race, family, wealth, social class, and mental health) and criticism of the media frenzy that often dehumanises its subject. I was quietly impressed by how the book allowed the reader to see deeper and deeper past the media spectre and into the real life of Lula Landry. It was a really compassionate portrayal of the victim that is sometimes missing from crime fiction these days.

My only criticism of the book is really that I felt Robin was a little under-served and I wasn’t too keen on the way the character’s appearances were described. There seemed to be a lot of description that dwelt, quite clinically, upon character’s features but did not reveal any personality through the description and it spoke of a slightly disturbing deterministic attitude about how appearance affects personality that I don’t really believe in and find quite an uncomfortable notion.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a great addition to the crime genre: at its heart, it unravels a genuinely intriguing whodunnit that keeps you on your toes, but truly it is the social commentary and the wonderfully complex characters that fuel the true mystery of this book and flesh out the bitter-sweetly mortal message about human life and death that are at its core. A great read that promises more engaging mysteries to come.

Book Review | A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas CarolMy rating: 5 of 5 stars

Charles Dickens’s classic short story A Christmas Carol is so familiar to us all and so embedded in popular consciousness that even people who haven’t read the book know the story almost inside out. If that isn’t testament to how easily this book skewers a universal attitude and feeling about Christmas, then I don’t know what is. Dickens is said to have “invented Christmas” with this book and, in the sense of moulding a cultural ideal, then that most certainly is true. The popular ideals that Christmas should be a time for generosity and family and friends and gaiety and not a time for greed, commercialisation and profit-making are what this story is all about and it still lingers with us to this day. Even the aesthetic of this book – snowy Victorian London, with its fog and people all bustled up in scarves, and with its boys having snow fights and carol singers under gaslamps and gluttonous feasts of turkey – are all images we still associate with Christmas time. Even the words Scrooge and humbug have escaped the pages and made it into the everyday conversation of people who’ve never read this book. It’s a wonderful example of just how important a story can be.

The story starts with old miser and notorious grouch, Ebenezer Scrooge, bitterly condemning the festive joyfulness of other people as silly by shunning his own nephew, refusing charity to people collecting for the poor and scolding his clerk for feeling too cold in their icy offices, most of which is in aid of protecting his own fortune and solitude. But Scrooge’s ways are doing him no good and when he finds himself alone in his cold, empty house that night, an old friend arrives to convince him of the damage he is causing in the most convincing way…

The story is essentially one of love, happiness and redemption. The Christmas setting is wonderful for this, but the story is universal all the same. The idea that someone can grow up bitter through circumstance, lonely through loss, and greedy through selfishness, but who can be changed and helped through the memory of good gone past and through seeing other people’s lives from an objective perspective is a good lesson for anyone to learn about life. The message that happiness is doing good for others, that joyfulness is seeing other people laughing and happy, that life is to be lived with glee and generosity at any age is beautiful, simple and true. No wonder it’s such a heart-warming book for Christmastime.

To get in the spirit of Christmas, I would recommend anyone to go back and revisit Dickens’s own original tale and feel the glow of Christmas that this story can’t help but ignite.

Book Review | The Sign of Four by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Sign of FourMy rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Sign of Four is the second novel in Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary Sherlock Holmes stories and it shows both a refinement of Doyle’s writing style and the evolution of our favourite pairing, Holmes and Watson, into the professional and personal friendship that readers come to know and love throughout the series.

The Sign of Four starts with the young Mary Morstan coming to Holmes as a client. Since the disappearance of her father, Mary has sought out any information she could find about what may have happened to him, without any luck. But when she sees an advert in the newspaper inquiring about her address, she responds to it hoping for a clue and instead finds her self more perplexed than ever. Every year since, on that date, she has received a single pearl in the mail. It’s up to Holmes and Watson to find out who the mystery sender is and find out what happened to Mary’s father.

The second instalment in Holmes’s adventures is more pacy, tightly-plotted and just as dark as the first. Doyle retains as much mystery, eeriness and danger as in the first story, but the structure is even more pleasing: the story rockets past, never ceasing to be engaging and unpredictable, never quite giving up its clues but never making the reader feel completely oblivious either. The death early in the story has creepy imagery that even modern readers will find disturbing and the mystery itself in uncompromising in how ruthless the characters can be. At the same time, the story is a thrilling adventure tale as our two heroes race to find the answers – and most impressive of all is Doyle’s ability to find moments of lightness and humour in this that help to further and deepen the friendship between the main characters. It’s easy to see why the Holmes’s stories are considered classics of the adventure, thriller and mystery genre and why this formula is so popular today in blockbuster movies – although the original tales take some beating in my opinion.

Sherlockians will have re-read this a thousand times, new readers will be really pleased with this instalment of the series and anyone who hasn’t read it yet should do themselves a favour and pick up a copy now!

Book Review | A Study in Scarlet by Arthur Conan Doyle

A Study in ScarletMy rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Study in Scarlet is the first novel in Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary books, following the exploits of the eccentric, infallible, infamous and genius consulting detective Sherlock Holmes, and his friend and colleague, former soldier, Dr Watson. As a long-time fan of Sherlock Holmes (as a casual reader and having written part of my dissertation on Doyle’s books), I always felt that you couldn’t have asked for a better way to start the stories. Whilst the later novels and short stories are preferable to me, A Study in Scarlet always seemed to epitomise the ethos and atmosphere of the stories as well as cementing the wonderful partnership between Holmes and Watson.

A Study in Scarlet opens with Dr Watson returning from war in Afghanistan where he has been wounded and finding himself looking for new lodgings. Through a fortuitous series of events, he meets the eccentric Sherlock Holmes, an amateur detective, and suddenly finds himself embroiled in a dark and ominous murder investigation. It seems a highly perplexing and almost impossible task to find the killer, but Holmes’s quick mind and sheer brilliance in employing logic and analysis soon unravel a mystery full of hatred, betrayal and revenge.

This particular story is dark, twisting and unpredictable and displays Holmes’s unique skills of deduction just as clearly as Doyle’s skills in structuring a complex tale as a writer of mystery. His ideas about crime and investigation in Victorian London must have been engaging and addictive to his contemporary readers, especially those living in the city itself – a place teeming with crime, unsolved mysteries and a new kind of urban space the likes of which the human race had not yet seen and which gave criminals a place of almost total anonymity and a crowd to get lost in. Such foreboding and potentially terrifying subject matter is woven into a tale that is as creepy as it is thrilling.

But ultimately, it’s the introduction of Holmes and the Holmes and Watson partnership that makes this book so special. As a long-time reader, it’s hard to not have a deep-seated affection toward the story that brought two characters together who go on to have such wonderful adventures.

Absolutely everyone should read this book and the rest of the series too – if you don’t you’re missing out!