Wednesday 24 February 2021

The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy

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Sally Jay Gorce is a young American in 1950s Paris, finding her way through the busy streets, cafés full of students having lively debates, and of course, falling in love, having affairs, and generally living life to the full. We first meet her in the morning, wearing an evening dress because she’s been unable to successfully retrieve the rest of her clothes from the laundry. She bumps into Larry, an old acquaintance, and instantly finds herself under the pressure of sexual desire. Unfortunately, mid-conversation, her lover, Teddy, a married diplomat, arrives and she has to make her excuses. We are instantly welcomed into her whirlwind of a life in which she finds herself constantly feeling out of place. Her voice is strong, humorous, naive, and oh so relatable. It is not the story itself that keeps you hooked but Sally Jay’s distinctive voice - think the endearing, lively voice of Cassandra in I Capture the Castle mixed with the humour and worldliness of Bridget Jones’s Diary. 

An aspiring actress, Gorce leaves a stable relationship for the chance to be in a film. Unfortunately, it turns out she is mostly needed to help the star with his English. Undeterred, she throws herself into the experience and enjoys the proximity to Larry that it affords. It is during this time that things begin to unravel and she sees people for who they really are. ‘That’s the story of my life. Someone’s behaviour strikes me as a bit odd and the next thing I know all hell breaks loose.’ We see this to be true several times throughout. Her innocence and hopefulness often blind her to the schemes of others, but when the time comes she’s more than able to hold her own.

Despite the light feel to the book, even amid some of the more serious encounters, there is a critique of the role of women, and a desire to be taken seriously. She is surprised to discover the expectation that she knows how to cook, sees that cooking and cleaning is the lot of other women but doesn’t see why it should be her fate too. Earlier in the novel, after an upsetting altercation with Teddy she comments ‘I reflected wearily that it was not easy to be a Woman in these stirring times. I said it then and I say it now: it just isn’t our century.’ This realisation doesn’t keep her down however, her insatiable zest for life moving her on to the next promising opportunity.

Gorce is a charming protagonist - honest and amusing, she doesn’t hold back. The writing is clever, conversational, and brilliantly astute. Sally Jay feels completely real and refreshingly candid, she’s a great character to spend some time with.

Saturday 20 February 2021

Bad Habits, Flynn Meaney

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This post is part of the blog tour for the novel. Thanks to The Write Reads and Penguin for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Alex Heck is embarking on her junior year at St. Mary’s Catholic School, a boarding school hundreds of miles from home with some very conservative values. There’s nothing she’d like more than to get herself expelled, her file of misdemeanours already overflowing with reports. Unfortunately for her, her dad is determined she should complete her time there and so she tries to come up with an idea so outrageous they’ll have no choice but to expel her. Putting on a production of The Vagina Monologues with the five other members of The Feminist Club seems like just the ticket, but she will, naturally, come up against a lot of resistance.

Her attempt to put on the play does run throughout the novel but isn’t really the main focus, rather a vehicle to discuss the problems that arise from living such a repressed life. It becomes clear that their sex education is severely lacking, and her sweet roommate Mary Kate can’t bring herself to say the word vagina or buy tampons (her mum posts her a supply). Alex has become the unofficial counsellor to her peers, being the person everyone goes to when they have a problem they can’t discuss with the nuns that watch over them. She may come off as brash and self-centred at times, but the messages about not being ashamed of the female body, and the right to have autonomy over what happens to it are important, and relevant to readers of any age.

Alex starts the novel very deliberately acting out and blowing situations out of proportion to make a point. Her quest for inequality does’t feel genuine but more an excuse to stand out and ruffle some feathers. Her outright dismissal of those who don’t hold the same views as her or who conduct themselves differently can make it harder to like her and undermines her pro-choice stance. However, as the novel progresses and she spends more time around groups she would usually avoid, it becomes clear that the stereotyped view she’s taken of them is often inaccurate. We begin to see the events that lead them to form the opinions they have, and although Alex is reluctant to admit she was wrong, there is some slight concession that other people can have a valuable input in the conversation, even if she still thinks her views are superior.

The boarding school setting is an ever-popular sub-genre of children’s and YA books, and Bad Habits gives it new life. It’s not all midnight feasts and hockey sticks at dawn, Meaney explores the struggle that Alex and some of her peers experience in trying to make sense of why their parents have sent them away. We see in the opening chapters how distant her own parents are and her dad, a St. Mary’s alumnus, refuses to admit what was right for him might not be for his daughter. Later in the book, when her mindset is beginning to shift, we see also how she has struggled splitting her life between California and school, completely separate from her ‘real’ life. The struggle to maintain friendships amid the disorientation of everything that’s changed while she’s been away during term time will be a familiar feeling for anyone who’s ever had to move away from their main support network.

This is an enjoyable read with a serious message amid the madcap schemes of rebellious teenagers and strict school rules. It’s written in such a way that we get Alex’s impressions of the other characters but can also see things that she is blinded to, offering us the opportunity to form our own opinions. The action takes place over only a few months but we see huge growth in many of the characters. That the side characters are also afforded the space to develop makes this a well-rounded read. 

Friday 12 February 2021

Botanical Curses and Poisons: The Shadow-Lives of Plants, Fez Inkwright

This post contains affiliate links. If you click through and buy I will receive a percentage commission at no extra cost to you.

This post is part of the blog tour for the book. Thanks to Random Things Tours and Liminal 11 for providing me with a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Inkwright’s second book focuses its attention on the dark side of plants, many of which are commonly found in the wild, and even our kitchens. The book opens with a few thematic chapters that focus on the broad history of plants and their uses. Within these pages we learn about Roman emperors who ingested small doses of poison daily to avoid succumbing to attempted poisonings, plants that try to protect against being eaten with their bitter or spicy taste (which humans happily ignore…), and the general trend of poisonings being associated with women. It’s a brilliant introduction that immediately grabs your interest and gives you a taste of the detail that’s to come.

The rest of the book takes a more encyclopaedic approach with plants arranged alphabetically. Unusually for this type of book, the writing is so engaging you can just as easily read it cover to cover or dip in and out as the mood takes you. Inkwright’s depth of knowledge and research is apparent throughout, revealing not just botanical detail but a broad range of social and political history. She acknowledges her sources in both footnotes and bibliography, so for those whose interest is piqued there’s plenty of further reading to be done.

There are tales of everyday foods that contain deadly secrets, the pips of apples and cherries both contain cyanide, for example. Plants have also played a potentially lethal role in the pursuit of beauty over the years. Cuckoo Pint’s roots were popular as an exfoliant in the medieval period despite its potential to blister and burn the skin. Atropine, found in Deadly Nightshade, was known to be used by medieval Venetian ladies to dilate their pupils. Unfortunately, frequent use could cause it to travel along the optic nerve and cause psychological damage. On the flip side, atropine has been used by opticians prior to surgery and can also be used to treat the ill effects of some other poisons. Inkwright teases out many of these contradictions and highlights the thin line between poison and cure.

She writes also of traditions that give plants a consciousness - basil is believed to belong to the Devil in some countries and thought to only thrive when it is cursed at or hated. Inkwright explores the rituals and beliefs that surround plants, often used in burial rites or to ward off evil spirits, and considers how these beliefs came into being and what characteristics have caused some plants to be associated with the underworld.

This is a visually appealing book, beautifully illustrated throughout and with a striking cover that will make you want to pick it up. You do not need to go in with any botanical knowledge, but you will certainly come out with lots of interesting facts. It will make you look at every day plants with fresh eyes and consider the role they may have played in historic events such as the Salem Witch Trials and even Van Gogh’s distinctive style. Pick up a copy to find out what role plants might have played in these and many more fascinating scenarios. 

Wednesday 3 February 2021

The Midnight Library, Matt Haig

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Nora Seed has lived a life of great potential - she could have been a competitive swimmer, in a signed rock band, married, or living the good life in Australia. Yet, at the age of thirty-five, she finds herself unemployed, alone, and miserable. The weight of regret lies heavy on her, along with guilt for the way she has let down so many people, causing a distance between her and those she loves. She doesn’t see the good she does, collecting medicine for an elderly neighbour or providing cheap piano lessons to a teenager that needs something to focus on to stay out of trouble. When her cat dies, it’s the last in a series of disappointments that she just can’t see her way through. She takes an overdose, but instead of finding herself in the afterlife she lands in an in-between world, The Midnight Library, where her old school librarian, Mrs Elm, explains that the library is full of all the lives Nora could have had, offering her the opportunity to see what would have happened if she’d made different decisions. If she finds the right life, she can stay there forever.

At first she tries to correct some of her biggest regrets and sees what her life would have been if she’d stayed with Dan, her ex-fiancé, hadn’t quit swimming, or left her brother’s band. In experiencing these other lives she realises that not only do they come with their own challenges, but also help her to appreciate aspects of her root life. When she enters a different life she doesn’t automatically receive the knowledge she’d have accumulated if she’d been there since birth and so she has many awkward encounters with people she doesn’t know, talks to give on subjects she hasn’t got the expertise to pull off, and histories that she’s unaware of. This naturally makes it difficult to settle into the life and leaves her feeling like an imposter. For the reader, it can offer some lighter moments, but also causes some frustration, it feels like a fatal flaw in the system. It also makes you wonder what happens to that version of Nora once our one has left. At times, she stays in her alternate life for long stretches of time, it would not be so easy to explain away any strange behaviour or the loss of memory for the period she was there.

As the number of lives lived increases she begins to lose sight of herself and wonders what it is that she really wants. There are some things that seem to stay the same no matter the life she steps into, and she begins to question if they really are different lives or if the furnishings have just changed. She comes to realise that every life has its good and bad points, there is no one perfect life. This is ultimately the message of the book, that all our lives are made up of the good and the bad, but that they are worth living. We do not control the outcomes of the choices we make and living in a way to please other people will never lead to fulfilment. 

Nora is the main focus and we only see other lives through her own, but it becomes clear that many of the damaged relationships she believed were caused by her own poor choices are actually more to do with other people’s own struggles. She learns to look beyond her own regrets to see more clearly the lives of others. This also helps her to make peace with the way some of her relationships turned out with people who are no longer around to make amends. She has the opportunity to see that it’s not her fault that she has been the brunt of unkindness and that even if she’d sacrificed her own desires in favour of others’ there would still have been conflict and disappointment. It also helps her to understand why people behave the way they do, by seeing the same weaknesses recur in others she is able to get to the root of their decisions and their outcomes. We see side characters also struggling to find happiness in their varied lives, of their core nature never really shifting whatever circumstances they find themselves in.

This is an interesting read with a promising premise. The trajectory of the story is fairly predictable and a little twee at times, but the messages about self-worth and not letting regrets limit you are valuable. If this book finds you at just the right moment it could be life changing. Whether or not you need to hear that your life matters, it’s an enjoyable read and might just help you let go of any regrets that have been niggling at you.