Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Winter, Ali Smith



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Art works for a security company, spending his days trawling through the Internet trying to find copyright infringements, snuffing out the spread of small artists’ creative work. In his spare time he writes a nature blog, posts about imagined walks and encounters with nature, constructed via the internet instead of genuine experience. His girlfriend, Charlotte, tired of his apathy, leaves, smashing his laptop and hacking into his Twitter account to post fake news designed to discredit and embarrass. It is this which leaves him desperately in need of someone to take to his mother’s at Christmas. A fortuitous meeting at a bus stop provides him what he needs and he soon finds himself traveling to Cornwall with Lux who, he pays to pose as Charlotte.
We soon come to realise that his deception is not the only one. His mother Sophia and her sister Iris can’t agree on what happened during his childhood, who looked after him and when. The reader is never quite sure which account to believe but you’ll likely find yourself naturally leaning toward one. Iris is an activist and thinks of herself as a citizen of the world. Sophia can’t understand her lifestyle and dislikes immigrants, yet seems to trust Lux, originally from Croatia, more than her own family. Lux is refreshingly honest, intelligent, good with people, and subverts racial prejudices. She helps Art to see the ridiculousness of the government’s actions, sending out boats to intercept rescue ships sent to help migrants in trouble in the sea. The last section of the novel highlights the cruel way bureaucracy treats people, preferring to eject those who need help, blind to their humanity.

The novel is full of contradictions. Sophia is rigid and resistant to emotion yet has no trouble imagining a head around her home, ghostly yet containing no horror to her. She is a modern day Scrooge, resenting the intrusion of her family and refusing to eat any of the Christmas dinner Iris prepares for them.
The novel has an otherworldly feel to it yet remains unashamedly political. Ali directs her characters to highlight the folly of isolationism and reminds us that people are not mere statistics. She plays not only on the political challenges of the day, and indeed those of the past, but also the way we replace real life interactions with screen time and armchair activism. As always, she holds up a mirror to the absurdities of the day and encourages a more compassionate worldview.
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Wednesday, 18 March 2020

Harry Potter Knitting Magic, Tanis Gray



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Harry Potter and knitting fans rejoice, the official Harry Potter knitting book is here, and it’s beautiful. Full colour photos and knitting patterns ranging from toys to clothes to wash cloths, there’s bound to be something in here that makes your needles twitch. There are a lot more wearable patterns than I was expecting but there’s also plenty of stills from the films, concept art, and little snippets of trivia about the design and creation of the costumes used in the film.

Each pattern is rated on difficulty and all techniques have an explanation. Whether you want to wear your fandom with pride or have some more subtle references in your knits this is the book for you. There’s a clever illusion scarf suitable for beginners, a technique I haven’t seen before and can’t wait to try out, the standard house scarves and Weasley Christmas jumpers, and some more unusual designs (including some that we probably could have done without).

I wasn’t expecting there to be many patterns in this that I’d want to knit so ordered it through my local library but actually it’s such a well designed book that I might have to add it to my book shopping list.

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Wednesday, 11 March 2020

Work, Joseph Heller



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Vintage Mini, this is an excerpt from Heller’s second novel Something Happened. Bob Slocum is our narrator for a darkly humorous take on office life. Full of brutal truths followed by corporate platitudes, he doesn’t pull any punches. Slocum navigates the complex web of office politics by lying to his colleagues and sleeping his way around the secretaries, a not uncommon approach. He is keenly aware of the pecking order and the little power games people play, although he isn’t entirely immune from them himself.
A book very much of its time but also relatable to modern workers. He comments that he doesn’t intend to stay with the company for the rest of his life but is making no plans to leave, a familiar attitude to many. He is able to objectively see that his colleagues are falling for their own propaganda, believing that what they do is important yet seems unaware that he also falls victim to this on occasion.
A concise, witty take on surviving office life. I’m not rushing out to buy the full novel but as a vignette it works well.

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Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman


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Honeyman’s debut has received rave reviews and its fair share of awards, although it has also divided opinion. Eleanor Oliphant is thirty years old and lonely. Her colleagues think she is odd and are more likely to be found laughing at her behind her back than making conversation with her. This she can tolerate, the isolated weekends that are eased only with the help of a bottle of vodka however, are harder to swallow. Her case may be extreme but it’s not uncommon for people to find themselves with nobody to talk to outside of work. ‘These days, loneliness is the new cancer – a shameful, embarrassing thing, bought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it.’ Thankfully, even in the few yeas since the book was published, the conversation around loneliness has become more prominent.
There are a number of threads running through the story. It is hinted at early on that Eleanor suffered some trauma in her childhood which is alluded to throughout and gradually revealed in more detail. We are led to suppose that it is the events from her youth that are at the root of her na├»ve yet oddly formal behaviour, her inability to engage with the world in what others would consider a normal way. The further into the novel the more we see the connections between her past and her current mental state and self-confidence.  Her attempts at healing feel very true to life and are emotional to read
The other main narrative thread draws on common tropes found in rom-coms – a crush on a man that is obviously no good while remaining oblivious to the kindness of someone closer, and the physical transformation that a change of clothes and some make-up brings. These parts feel more predictable and cliched but make for easy reading.
An interesting, humorous read that gives you the perspective of a young woman who’s never quite learned to connect with her fellow humans. Her internal monologue shows her confusion with popular culture and the behaviour of those she meets, and although you root for her you can understand why people get off on the wrong foot with her. There are some inconsistencies and the ease with which she adapts to some of the situations don’t seem quite in keeping with her general character but overall this is a heartfelt, relatable read. 

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