Tag Archive: Reading


Image result for How not to be a boy In the last year I’ve been lucky enough to experience two works of art that have really ‘spoken to me’, having never really understood the phrase before. The first was the touring production of Rent in October 2016 (after which I spent several weeks sobbing). The second was How Not to Be A Boy by Robert Webb.

I knew from pre-publicity that this book would be right up my street, and I was correct. Not only was the main thread relatable, but How Not To Be A Boy is beautifully and passionately written by Webb. I absorbed this book. It was actually ‘unputdownable’.

How Not To Be A Boy is Webb’s memoir with a focus on the pressures he encountered to conform to society’s ideas of masculinity. Webb writes honestly about his upbringing and childhood, and with hindsight is able to identify some of the dangerous messages he was given which effected his adult life. It begins with his closeness to his mother and difficult relationship with his father, and ends with his modern day struggles to steer away from following his father’s path.

Webb’s discussions on gender go beyond the ‘blue for a boy and pink for a girl’ debate, and he relives insightful anecdotes, (some warm, some hilarious, some tragic), in a way that had me unable to resist the urge to fling my hands in the air and shout ‘Amen!’.

Webb talks about the patriarchy, and how the rules and gender stereotypes created by society are damaging to both women and men. A striking moment is when he talks about how ‘clever’ boys and girls are viewed by society. He notes how when labelled ‘clever’, girls have to respond with how hard they’ve worked for it, whilst boys are expected to shrug it off, as if it all came naturally. If you’re a boy who does well at school, excuses have to be found for this ridiculous behaviour, and often you’re labelled with having no common sense. ‘He’s a clever lad, no common sense though.’ (How many times did I hear that growing up?)

A common thread throughout  is of males suppressing their emotions. One of the most heart-breaking parts of the book comes at the mid-point, where Webb tells of the loss of his mother. Webb writes about his grief and suffering so eloquently that it’s frustrating to comprehend why we are constantly told to ‘man up’ and hide our true feelings. We’ve all had experiences with this, to various degrees, and it’s important that Webb highlights the problem in his book. With almost three quarters of suicide victims in the UK being male, it’s of vital importance that we breakdown the ‘man up’ culture and talk about our problems, as Webb does in university. The patriarchy strikes again by enforcing a false notion that only females open up and talk about their feelings. What a dangerous message. Webb talks candidly, and admirably, of his battles with suicidal thoughts and his subsequent therapy sessions, in a way that may give hope to many.

How Not To Be A Boy also brings to light just how old fashioned words such as ‘masculinity’ and ‘femininity’ are. As Webb explains, all they do is conjure up archaic stereotypes which, in 2017, are unnecessary. He describes masculinity as a repressive process which needs to be recovered from and explains how the term only really means ‘not being a woman’. Why not a woman? Women are strong, brave, loving, thoughtful, sensible, loyal, trustworthy and millions other admirable adjectives so….why do we have to avoid being like that? Why do we need these words?

The restrictions that we live under should be blindingly obvious, but Webb unmasks these hideous stereotypes with flair and style, adding his own thoughts, warm humour, and prompting many outbursts of ‘YES!’  from this reader. In an era where people are angry at clothes shop for removing labels, and the walls of gender stereotyping are being slowly eroded, How Not To Be A Boy is essential reading and a book I won’t be forgetting in a hurry.

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Read for Speed

 

‘I read Harry Potter and the Cursed Child in a three hours’ – Former school friend

‘I couldn’t put the book down…I read it in a day!’ – Some Twitter guy 

‘I couldn’t wait to get the end so I read it an afternoon’ – A woman in a shop 

As you know, I love reading. I read every single day and have cupboards, drawers and shelves teeming with books. I even have book wallpaper in my living room, for crying out loud. I’m a book person. A booky. I’m also a Harry Potter fan so when my copy of the Cursed Child arrived last Sunday, I was a bit over-excited. I was book-ravenous. Itching to get going. I examined its cover, I stroked it and, yes, I admit, I sniffed it. I couldn’t wait to read it.

But there was also a part of me that could. I’d waited a long time to find out what the next Potter installment involved and I was hesitant to race through the book because…well….that would mean reaching the end sooner (said Captain Obvious). Yes, I wanted to devour every little secret hidden in its pages, but I also wanted to enjoy the story and take my time. [It took me just over 24 hours. With restraint.]

Anyway, taking to twitter, I noticed a lot of people bragging about how fast they read the novel and it got me thinking….why? Alright, I did rush Curse Child but in my defence I’d pushed my self-control to its absolute limit. Also, it was a play script so it’s naturally going to read quicker than a novel. But why do people feel the need to rush read?

Reading, for me, is a hobby. It’s what I do for pleasure. It can sometimes take me a month to read a book that I’m really enjoying. Sometimes people ask me how long I’ve been reading a certain book for and I might say ‘Oh about three weeks….but, you know, I’ve been so busy with work…’

Straight away I feel like I have to defend my slow reading. Being busy might be true, but sometimes I’m taking my time because  I’m enjoying the story, making the most of spending time with characters and living in that world. I shouldn’t feel pressured to read faster – where’s the fun in that? Who rushes a hobby? Who wants to rush enjoyment? What kind of mad person does that?

So, to the skimmers of the World I say ‘Slow down! Relax! And enjoy!’. Embrace the slowness. Enjoy each story. Our lives are busy enough as it is so why should we deprive ourselves of our enjoyment by forcing it to end sooner? To the slow readers, I salute you! If you’re a passionate reader, I invite you to take a seat, delve into your nearest paperback and immerse yourself in brilliant new worlds, one chapter at a time!

*puts feet up and opens book*

 

I solemnly swear that you won’t find any spoilers in this review.

I have devoured Cursed Child, barely putting it down in the 24 hours since it arrived. Initial responses were mixed. It made me feel a lot of emotions. I felt excited on opening the beautiful golden cover. I relived that childhood delight at a fresh Hogwarts story. I felt nostalgic at the initial references to the HP world. And then I felt just a tiny bit sad.

Cursed Child is everything a HP fan could have wanted from the very first page. A fresh new story combines old with new in remarkable fashion (…….and that’s all I’ll say on that matter.)

Revisiting the much loved characters of the series could have easily been a disaster but Cursed Child succeeds on every level. It doesn’t feel forced or gimmicky. We see some familiar characters, we hear of others, some don’t appear at all. It’s all very natural and never gratuitous.

The shift in format also works very well. Though some have argued that the absence of prose diminishes the magic of the story, I think it strengthens the drama. After all, this is a story that is meant to be viewed, not read. The dialogue is powerful and true to the characters. Ginny Weasley in particular sparkles through the page with her fiery wit. The struggle between Harry and Albus is beautifully written, as is the friendship between Albus and Scorpius. The pressure these boys are under, living in their parents’ shadow, is intricately explored with plenty of thought provoking discussions.

What’s remarkable about Cursed Child is that so much has been kept secret. It’s a testament not only to the creative team but to the fan base that nothing has been revealed. The best way to read/see this story is by being completely spoiler-free, something that’s very tricky nowadays.

On closing the book, I was a bit sad. Sad that this probably is the last time we’ll see these characters, though I was so grateful to be given one last visit, and overjoyed that it was a successful one. (Though I’ve said before Rowling has the upmost respect for her characters and her work – it was never going to be a flop, she wouldn’t allow that.) Mainly, I was sad that I hadn’t waited and watched the play first. Yes, I’ve loved reading the story, but seeing it would have been spectacular. The many twists, turns and reveals that happen would, I imagine, create a truly epic performance. There were moments in this story were I had to close book and take a minute to think ‘how on earth do they pull that off on stage?’. Experiencing this live must be very special (and that’s all I can say because I promised not to spoil).

So Cursed Child is a treat for fans but my advice would be to wait it out for tickets and resist reading (but if you are impatient, like me, you are forgiven). It’s a must read, but even more than that, it’s a must see, and I’ll definitely be getting tickets.

Mischief managed.

The great HP re-read continues and this week it is book five’s turn.

It’s the largest book (it could easily be used as a weapon) so I strategically planned to read to it over the Easter Holidays so I would actually have time to read and it wouldn’t take me thirty years to get through it (I have a chapter-a-day habit during term time. Any more than that and I, frustratingly, end up falling asleep.)

It’s been a good ten years since I read this series and, although I remember the gist of each book, a lot of things have slipped my mind – which in a way is great because it’s like I’m a new reader again. This book certainly coughed up a lot of surprises for me. I’d forgotten about occlumency, sirius’ mother, Bellatrix’s connection to the Malfoys, and Grawp. I was also surprised when Lockhart popped up in St Mungo’s. I’d signed Lockhart off as a character we wouldn’t see again so it was great to have that short scene, even if it was tinged with sadness. I can’t help feeling sorry for Lockhart. I know he was a first class prat but still….there was a moment of sympathy as he signed those autographs in his hospital bed. But of course, the main emotional pull of that chapter is the appearance of Frank and Alice Longbotton. Alluded to in previous books, this was our first glimpse at the severity of their condition and the impact it has had on Neville. Alice handing Neville a bubble gum wrapper was very touching and it’s easy to see how, as Dumbledore later explains, Neville could have easily been in Harry’s shoes. You can’t help feel immediate hatred for Bellatrix Lestrange before she’s even introduced! Her callous destruction of the Longbottoms serves as a warning of just how dangerous she can be….

Speaking of villains, this year’s Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher is probably the most evil yet – Dolores Umbridge. I remember her being my favourite DADA teacher because she was just so vile.  Umbridge’s danger is palpable because she is so desperate to rise to the top and please those in authority. I’ve met so many Umbridges – backstabbing, manipulative and quietly wicked – with a sickly sweet exterior. Ruthless throughout, the moment she suggests using the cruciatius curse is actually gasp-inducing. She a true villain. A villain that could be found in day-to-day life. She could be in any place of work , any family or on any street. That’s what makes her so frightening – we all know a Dolores Umbridge.

In terms of magical creatures, we’re introduced to the Thestrals in this book. JK has a clever habit of harking back to past stories with the invisible creatures pulling the Hogwarts carriages finally being revealed as Thestrals – dark, winged horses that can only be seen by people who have witnessed death. The mythology and legend surrounding the Thestrals is interesting with wizards believing them to bring bad luck due to their connotations with death. They’re described beautifully in the book and synch well with the darkness of the novel. 

Harry is certainly changed since Goblet. He spends a lot of the book arguing with his friends, which does get slightly tiresome. Hermione and Ron are relentlessly loyal to Harry so it is frustrating that he keeps snapping at them. His relationship with Cho provides a glimmer of happiness in quite a bleak book, but even that fizzles out due to her mistrust and Harry’s indifference. Cho was a promising character in Goblet, but in Phoenix she comes across as fickle and …well…a bit unstable. Yes, she’s grieving for Cedric, but nobody seems very sympathetic as she continues to breakdown in tears. I would have been interested to see Cho and Harry date but this was not meant to be and by the end it’s clear this relationship is a non-starter. I suppose it’s in Cho’s interest to stay away and stay safe.

This is certainly the most emotional book so far. Rowling set the bar in the final moments of Goblet, with the death of Cedric Diggory, but the last few chapters of Phoenix certainly meet that standard. The death of Sirius, Harry’s last remaining hope of family, is a suckerpunch. Voldemort using Harry to lure Sirius to his death is a clever move by Rowling which also gives way to some tragically dark moments. Harry’s resulting guilt is beautifully written – his angst, frustration and pain as he wanders the grounds of Hogwarts is very touching but the most poignant moment comes in his last conversation with Luna Lovegood. Luna seems to wander purposelessly throughout the book but she is finally defined in this last moment with Harry. It transpires that people have been taking oddball Luna’s possessions. Harry offers help but she proclaims

‘[I’ll] wait for it all to turn up…it always does in the end.’

Totally lost on me the first time round, but now as an adult I can see Rowling is using Luna to give profound advice to Harry. Nothing lasts forever and in the end everything works out one way or another. Another emotional moment comes from fan-favourite Dumbledore, as his finally explains the truth about the prophecy to Harry. Dumbledore is notably absent throughout most of the book, and here he explains he was deliberately avoiding Harry for his own protection. As Dumbledore admits his mistakes and reveals that he ‘simply cared too much’ for Harry, the reader can’t help feeling touched by the Headmaster’s attempts to keep Harry safe. His final admittance that he thought Harry had enough responsibility without being a prefect is a very strong moment and perhaps a defining one in Harry and Dumbledore’s friendship.

Goblet marked the start of a dark spiral to the finale and Phoenix certainly develops that. The death of Sirius, Harry’s last caring relative, begins Harry’s journey to adulthood and marks the death of his childhood. Not only does he now have to face the challenges of all young adults, but he also has that little problem of vanquishing the Dark Lord or dying at his wand. Yup, dark stuff.

 

The first book on my 2016 reading list was After Alice by Gregory Maguire. Maguire’s signature move is to take familiar tales and flip them on their head. This time it was the turn of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. After Alice begins shortly after Alice has taken that faithful tumble and we join Ada on the search for her friend. Ada encounters Alice’s snooty older sister, Lydia, who is reading A Midsummer Night’s Dream beneath a tree. The story splits off here as we follow both girls in the aftermath of Alice’s disappearance. Ada finds herself crashing into Wonderland whilst Lydia remains above ground, bickering with the Victorian servants and falling for the charms of an American gent.

It’s this split in storytelling that makes After Alice a bit…well…odd. It’s hard for me to criticize Maguire’s work (because I really do think he’s a genius) but I can’t help feeling like After Alice is a bit rushed. The majority of the story takes place above ground in Victorian Oxford. A place which, let’s face it, is considerably less interesting than Wonderland. I found myself hoping that the next chapter would rejoin Ada down under but was disappointed to find another chapter set in the grounds of Alice’s home. It feels like Maguire has wasted an opportunity to Oz-ify Wonderland – expose the darkness and revel in the absurd. That’s what he does best. Ada’s encounters with the inhabitants of Wonderland – particularly the Mad Hatter and the March Hare – do feel wonderfully genuine and reminiscent of Carroll’s original creations. Maguire has certainly captured the quirky style of Carrol but too much time is spent in the real world. It feels like Alice is having all the fun in Wonderland and we’re stuck on the wrong side of the rabbit hole, missing out on one hell of a party.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy this book, it’s just that I was expecting more from it. Wonderland, like Oz, is an impossible place and therefore bursting with possibilities. To get the chance to write in a setting like this is a writers dream and, whilst it’s clear Maguire has a lot of admiration for Carrol’s work, it feels like more could have been made of his opportunity to explore this world. There are some lovely moments – Ada’s freedom from her iron equipment, Siam’s decision to stay and a reference to Victorian’s needing a whacky fantasy novel – and Maguire has created a likeable character in Ada.

The Wonderland stuff works pretty well. It just feels like we should have more of it. The London based stuff is where the novel sinks slightly. A lot of conversations seem more like extracts from a thesis rather than a novel and I’m not really surely what the point of Lydia’s hinted relationship with Mr Winter was. It was an interesting touch to have Charles Darwin appear as a friend of Mr Winter’s and Alice’s father. Darwin and Carrol are two figureheads of the era so Darwin’s presence feels right. His final words on the human being’s capacity for imagination is also a neat way to end the story.

Overall, After Alice is a must for any fan of Maguire or Carroll but don’t expect another Wicked. The front cover declares it a ‘Christmas gift to the dear reader of Wicked in memory of Alice in Wonderland.’ I think this is pretty accurate. I’d be grateful to read any new work from Maguire, particularly if it’s within his fantasy style, and After Alice does feel like a love letter to Carroll’s work, but to not explore Wonderland further, Maguire is clearly mad. Then again, all the best people are.