Boy Parts by Eliza Clark: book review.

Like the rest of my social media feed, I have read Boy Parts recently. I am a big fan of Influx Press as a publishing house and trust what they publish, but as soon as I found out this book was mainly set in the North East, I had to buy it. As you probably know if you have been here for a while, I care a lot about seeing the North East represented positively but also realistically in media.

Boy Parts is mainly set in Newcastle and follows Irina who takes explicit photographs of average looking men. She works a dead-end bar job but is offered a career defining exhibition in London. This could be her chance to escape her post-graduate rut and be the world-famous artist she knows she is. This is gross, darkly funny, and so Northern. The part complaining about the train that stops at Northallerton really spoke to me and love that classic North East niche content.

Irina is terrifying and I kinda mean that as a compliment. She is not a good person but she is addictive to read about. She is dry and witty, she is complicated and troubled, she is simultaneously such a real character but also clearly a work of fiction. I do not get completely lost in a book often but this one I did. I read this over four days and when I would put the book down I would feel slightly dazed as I re-entered reality. I still feel a bit empty now and I’m considering re-reading it again before 2020 ends (if it ever ends).

What this book must be applauded for is its depiction of the North East and especially Newcastle. Clark has first-hand experience of the North/South divide from living in both Newcastle and London and the novel embodies that really well. When I moved out, I didn’t move to Newcastle instead I moved out of the North east. That is a story for another time and not relevant to this blog but the way uni culture is shown in this book is one of the reasons I didn’t upgrade to Newcastle after I left Middlesbrough. The appropriation and embodiment of working-class culture by middle-class students and the ridiculing of the North East accent in a North East city. This book is a lot of things but it is very much a book about class structure in British society. I was constantly nodding and recognising conversations in the nightclubs and in the bars Irina occupied because they were real. Irina’s time in London also amplifies the class divide within the arts. The other artists at the exhibition are from wealthier backgrounds and see Irina as a charity case. She must feel so lucky to be given an opportunity because that doesn’t happen in the north. This comment sticks with Irina but it also spoke to me. Irina deserves her gallery space because of her talent but many see her as the token Northerner for “diversity”.

The acknowledgement of the North/South divide reminded me of Saltwater by Jessica Andrews, which was one of my favourite books last year. Saltwater is a much more fragmented novel and delves deeper into finding yourself in your roots but, like Boy Parts, it is another great example of being a Northerner in a Southern environment. Irina, like a true North East lass, dresses up for her exhibition but she arrives overdressed. The legendary Oscar Wilde said “You can never be overdressed or overeducated” but it turns out you can be overdressed for a fancy exhibition. Irina dressing up whereas everyone else around her is not highlights the difference in North and South cultures.

Boy Parts is very much of its time and that’s what makes it so brilliant. I know exactly where in Newcastle we are talking about. I know that meme reference and the significance of that film reference. I love the idea of readers visiting this in a couple of decades time and simply thinking “what”? Clark’s Irina offers interesting and daring takes on contemporary art and culture. It is effortless and hilarious.

I have seen Clark’s novel compared to the works of Ottessa Moshfegh and American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. I can see some similarities, and if you like these writers than this is the book for you, but Boy Parts is something else. This book is a diamond. It is fresh and intelligent. I hope Clark continues to receive recognition for her debut as it is everything contemporary literature should be.

This review is a bit rambly and disjointed but that is the purpose of this blog. It fills me with joy seeing such amazing North East talent. I will be reading everything Clark brings out in the future.

boy parts2

On writer’s block and other things.

I hope that writing this will work as some sort of reset for my brain and get me out of my slump. I should be impressed I have managed two months of lockdown before I hit this wall but now I am here and I am finding it really difficult.

Most people’s productivity is suffering. Being stuck inside and dealing with so much uncertainty is tiring and anxiety inducing.

I cannot do my job from home so I am currently being furloughed. When I was first put on furlough I had time for my projects I try to do in my little bit of free time I usually have and I wanted to catch up on my reading. I wanted to take an online course and pick up Spanish again. I was going to finally try to like knitting.

I had writing projects that I had been chipping away at since the start of the year and, with the deadlines coming up, I could treat them a bit like a job to encourage me to have a routine. I submitted my PhD application. I revised and resubmitted a journal article I have been writing for some time. I needed to submit these pieces in April so I sorted that out and signed those projects off after two weeks of lockdown. Now what?

I wanted to have some time off. Working in a shop whilst the world seems to be falling apart around you is incredibly stressful and to be frank it was quite scary so I wanted to rest. However, I don’t know how to rest so I signed up for an online course and decided to pick up Spanish again after a 7-year break. I’m still practising Spanish albeit not as much as when I first downloaded Duolingo but I need to keep my streak. I have given up on my online course. I think I have missed two assignments. I enrolled in a free course on reading photographs and completed the first four weeks but it wasn’t what I was really wanting so I’ve just not logged in since.

On the writing horizon, I have some ideas I want to work on and I have the foundations for my projects. That’s as far as I can get. When I sit down, I struggle to think and make progress. I doubt my ideas and try to find substitutes.

I’ve always had an overwhelming sense of imposter’s syndrome but I normally don’t have the time to listen to it. Take for example my paper I have just resubmitted. The only time I could edit it would be an hour or so each day after work and on my day off. I had my issues with it for various reasons but I trusted my project and continued. When lockdown started, I had a lot of time to dedicate to it and doubt the words on the page. I ended up doing something really stupid and writing 3000 new words for a different argument that I ended up rejecting and going with my original idea. I struggled to say no to myself and I created extra work that I can’t really recycle. It is just sat there in a file on my laptop.

My gut instinct is usually right and I follow my heart with my writing. I hope this word vomit will somehow let that click for me because I am struggling. I am struggling to write and I am struggling to read. Although I do these things because I enjoy them, I also enjoy to sense of accomplishment they make me feel. As someone who needs to feel productive all the time (which is unhealthy and I need to work on), failing to perform both of these tasks is really have a negative influence on my mental health.

I really hope I am having an off week and my circumstances change soon. I’ve hit different barriers in the last two months and I have managed to overcome them and I hope this is just a small one. It’s strange and it is scary. We are all going through these weird emotions and unlearning things we have spent a long time doing whilst learning new ways of living. Let’s just hang in there.

Existential Playlist: 2020 Vision

In 2016, I made an existential summer playlist. I wrote that post at around 2am and I am doing the same for this one right now. I have been in lockdown for 2 months now and it has been a rollercoaster. It has been a productive time but I have also done nothing. I have went from having 90 minutes – 2 hours a day free time to 24 hours and that has been a difficult thing to adjust to. I have kinda accepted lockdown life for what it is but it hasn’t stopped me regressing just like everyone else. By week 3 I had downloaded my archive for my old twitter account and I’m listening to albums I haven’t listened to since I was 15.

In honour of this weird time, I present you with a playlist. It has a heavy 2005-2013 indie vibe which correlates with my teenage years. I always think it’s 2008 or 2012 but now I have turned that up a notch. Quite a few tracks are actually new songs but the bands are ones I have listened to since I was a teenager.

1. The Coast is Always Changing – Maximo Park

Of course a Maximo Park song was going to be on this playlist. I have had to restrain myself from making the entire playlist full of their songs. I haven’t seen my family in a while; I don’t know when I can next see them. All I can do it wear my transporter bridge necklace and listen to Paul Smith’s North East accent.

I listen to this band for nostalgia reasons and to help cure homesickness. I find a lot of their lyrics relatable as I think everything they write – especially in the earlier albums – embraces North East culture.

The reason I picked The Coast is Always Changing to be on this list is for the lyrics “I’m only happy when I move away” and “I am young and I am lost”. Both lines speak to me. I hadn’t listened to this song in a while and it came on the other day and I had a little cry.

Everyone is in a weird position right now but I had and still have plans for big changes in my life and the current situation we find ourselves in has made that harder. This song encapsulates this uncertainty and vulnerability I am feeling right now.

2. Ain’t it Fun – Paramore

The lines: ‘ain’t it good to be on your own/ ain’t it fun you can’t count on no one’ hits hard, okay?

I’ve recently listened to Hayley Williams’ new album and her latest single ‘Dead Horse’ is brilliant. Whilst listening to that on repeat, I started to listen to some old Paramore songs. I’m not a fan of the self-titled album but I do like ‘Ain’t it Fun’. When I listen to it now, it speaks to me a lot more than what it did when it was first released.

Being an adult is hard. Being an adult who doesn’t have a very stable life and does not live anywhere near their family is also hard. My goal in life has always been to be able to rely on myself and to survive independently. As I get older, I still agree with that statement. The idea of not having to rely on other people makes me feel safe but over time I have learnt you need other people in order to be safe and continue with your independence. It’s a hard pill for me to swallow but this song reminds me of the bleakness of adulthood but presents it in an upbeat way.

3. One More Chance – Bloc Party

This song is on here because it’s a great song and it’s my favourite Bloc Party song. I remember when this was first released in 2009 and I saw the music video and it changed my life. 11 years later, I still listen to it on repeat. It has carried me from teenagehood to adulthood and I can see myself still playing this on repeat when I’m 80.

4. I Never Go Out on Fridays – The Vaccines

I never went out on Fridays anyway because I was always at work. That aside, this song is the anthem for lockdown. I’m so glad The Vaccines resurrected this song because we actually can’t go out on Fridays. Or any day really.

This is a classic Vaccines tune and it speaks to my life outside lockdown because if you have ever seen me in a club I’m always complaining about the music and people.

5. Dirty Air – Two Door Cinema Club

Again, another super catchy song. Dirty Air reminds me of city life I can no longer experience. It also reminds me how polluted the air was. I can technically see where I work from my house because I live at the top of a massive hill and usually it is covered in smog but most days that view is now crystal clear.

6. Lost in Yesterday – Tame Impala

This is The Slow Rush‘s ‘The Less I Know the Better’.  It’s groovy and I’ve had this song on repeat since it was dropped.

“Eventually terrible memories turn into great ones.”

‘Lost in Yesterday’ is a song about nostalgia and how easily we repeat memories and read different meanings into them. I am an over-thinker anyway but I am currently experiencing the joys of going over old memories and thinking how great the past was when it probably wasn’t as good as what I remember.

7. Ready to Start – Arcade Fire

Arcade Fire are one of my favourite bands. The Suburbs is one of my desert island discs and I think it’s genius. ‘Ready to Start’ has been in the background to many key moments in my life and it is still as relevant as ever now.

It’s anti-climatic, much like how life feels right now. The entire song you are waiting for something to drop and then it ends. When I first heard it, the build up to nothing annoyed me but now I think it’s perfect. Right now, I feel like we are building up to nothing. We don’t know when lockdown is going to end. I don’t know if I can do the things I planned to do. We don’t know what life will be like. The energy this song builds up throughout mirrors what lockdown feels like to me.

8. Little Dark Age – MGMT

I listen to MGMT’s debut a lot but in the last couple of weeks I’ve been drawn to their last album. ‘Little Dark Age’ is the title track and, like ‘One More Chance’ and ‘Lost in Yesterday’, is a song I have on repeat.

It’s dark, weird, very indie disco. I’ve included this because I’m listening to it a lot and I’m probably going to associate it with lockdown when I listen to it in the future. Nice one, Amy.

9. Everything Else Has Gone Wrong – Bombay Bicycle Club

Bombay Bicycle Club were the last band I saw live before lockdown. I was so happy at the gig and danced so much and I miss that feeling.

The title of this song says it all. The video for this song matches the dystopian aesthetic Bombay have used during this album cycle but since March this song has taken on a whole new meaning.

Translated fiction and non-fiction recommendations.

A few years ago, I posted a piece on discovering translated fiction and the joys of reading books that are not originally written in English. Books in translation are my go to and (especially during times like these) I find myself wanting to travel the world through books.

I would like to recommend a few pieces of translated work I have read this year and hopefully inspire you to try some of these books!

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I can’t believe how long I have put off this book. I bought my copy in a secondhand bookshop as an undergraduate. I’ve moved city and got another degree since then and I have constantly made excuses not to start this. I thought it would be too complicated and the names and historical context would go over my head.

Obviously, I was wrong and I can understand why everyone speaks so highly of Marquez’s work. Spanning generations of one family and the city they built, this is a rich and intoxicating microcosm of Colombian life.  From love, death, war, and revolution, this book makes you feel everything.

Untold Night and Day by Bae Suah

This is a fever dream of a book and really displays the art and talent that goes into being a translator. Deborah Smith, translator of Han Kang’s books into English, showcases the talent of Bae Suah.

Suah creates a disorienting and strange story following Kim Ayami as she works her final day at work in an audio theatre for the blind before it closes permanently.

Character descriptions play an important role in this story as nameless characters appear and reappear throughout the narrative.

This is set during an intense summer evening in Seoul and as the novel progresses, the overwhelming heat creates a chaotic but truly original narrative.

Untold Night and Day reminded me of of City of Glass by Paul Auster in terms of style. After reading this, I need to pick up everything Bae Suah has written.

Kim Jiyoung, Born 1982 by Cho Nam-Joo

Kim Jiyoung has received a lot of hype in the press and rightly so. This has been compared to Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata both due to it’s commercial success and in its portrayal of sexism women face.

This is simply genius. Cho Nam-Joo showcases the difficulties and sexism girls and women in Korea face from before they even exit the womb. Kim Jiyoung’s life is a commentary on what it is like to be a Korean woman but also has universal impact as many of the horrific things Kim Jiyoung faces are things either myself or women I know have dealt with.

Cho Nam-Joo backs up her narrative with footnotes to articles that prove the things her protagonist is facing are not matters of fiction, which I found really interesting. Including footnotes prevents anyone from saying “This is just fiction. This doesn’t happen in real life”. However, the footnotes also symbolise how women feel the need to back up what they say and present “hard proof” that their statements are genuine. I found this really powerful and quite frankly genius.

The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa

Shortlisted for the Booker International 2020.

Yoko Ogawa creates a magical version of an Orwellian nightmare. A young woman lives on an unnamed island where objects disappear. Once an object is gone, the entire island lose all previous memories associated with the object. A small percentage of the population still have their memories, but the Memory Police act as state surveillance and make sure these islanders and objects disappear.

The back of the book describes The Memory Police as ‘a surreal, provocative fable about the power of memory and the trauma of loss’ and I think that sums the story up perfectly. The book was strange, terrifying and explores collective memory and what would happen if we lost it.

I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me by Juan Pablo Villalobos

This will be released on the 30th April 2020 and was sent to me by And Other Stories for review.

A Mexican student called Juan Pablo Villalobos is about to fly to Barcelona to start his PhD. A gang are threatening his cousin and order Juan to work for them. His mission is to travel to Barcelona and find Laia, a Mexican student and daughter of a corrupt politician, and make her fall in love with him.

Part campus novel and part gangster thriller, this novel is absurd, funny and quite meta in some places. This is a hugely entertaining read and deals with quite difficult subjects such as immigration and family relationships.

This is told in multiple perspectives through the use of different narrative styles, such as diary entries, phone calls, and letters.

A Silent Fury by Yuri Herrera

I will end this list with a non-fiction recommendation. This will be released on the 16th June 2020 and was sent to me by And Other Stories for review.

On March 10 1920 a fire broke out at the El Bordo mine in Pachuca, Mexico. The company who owned the mine stated no more than ten men remained in the shafts. The mine was shut for 6 days and once it was reopened the death toll of eighty-seven. Only seven men survived.

Based on research he conducted whilst obtaining his PhD in Hispanic Languages and Literature, Herrera carefully reconstructs this tragic event and questions who is to blame.

Herrera investigates the story of the survivors, the women waiting outside the mine after the fire, the reports and the context of the mine. Essentially, he leaves no stone unturned.

A Silent Fury is a sensitive piece of work and gives a voice to the victims and their families. It is also incredibly political. Herrera asks you as the reader to question the sentences you read on the page and makes you decide for yourself if this was an accident or not.

I read this in March and I am still reflecting on it. It makes you reflect on the poverty and abuse of the mining community and the devastation that has passed through them during this event.

 

That is a brief summery of some translated works I have loved recently. I am working my way through my unread books whilst I’m stuck in the house and I am excited to travel to different parts of the world whilst sitting in my chair.

The Book of Sheffield edited by Catherine Taylor – review.

I would like to thank Comma Press for sending me a review copy of The Book of Sheffield edited by Catherine Taylor.

Sheffield is my adopted city. I am both a local and an outsider. I have experienced the city as a student and I have experienced the city as a home and my place of work. All of these experiences are different but all of them create Sheffield for me.

Sheffield is many things. It’s the most politically active place I have lived. The cities industrial roots can be seen everywhere. From the top of my road, I can see the Brutalist architecture of the city centre and I can see the edges of the Peak District. It is a city of contradictions and it is a space where different cultures and interests collide.

The Book of Sheffield consists of ten short stories that manage to embody Sheffield’s personality. From student radicals to refugees, this collection shows the many faces of Sheffield and how every experience in the city is valid. Catherine Taylor opens the collection with an introduction, quoting from George Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell’s impression of Sheffield in the early twentieth century is less than favourable. He describes the city as ugly and industrial. Taylor acknowledges this and expands on Orwell’s description of the city and how much it has changed in 100 years. Taylor’s introduction familiarises the reader with Sheffield, whether they have lived their all their life or know nothing about the city.

My favourite stories were ‘The Time is Now’ by Naomi Frisby and ‘Like a Night out in Sheffield’ by Johny Pitts. Told backwards through diary entries, Frisby’s story is about a Sheffield band and the conflicting feelings of being an artist wanting to stay in their hometown and the need to move away to be successful. I loved the artist conflict and the personal relationships between the band members.

‘Like a Night out in Sheffield’ is about a young man on a night out trying to find his friends and also trying to get with a girl at the university. He lies about being a university student so  he can fit in with a girl he likes but he feels alienated by his friends because he enjoys independent films. Pitts’ character is a melting pot of influences and does not fit into one stereotype. I simply loved this story because it is a really realistic depiction of a night out. It’s funny because it is relatable. Pitts uses Sheffield dialect which makes the story feel homely as I was reading it in the accent of a lot of people I speak to on a daily basis. As Pitts’ protagonists drinks more, the language in the story reflects that too as spelling mistakes and grammatical errors are present in the text.

Naturally, Sheffield is a key character in the stories. Seeing the hills near where I live, the parks I walk through, and areas where I work represented in literature is exciting and gives me a sense of pride. The familiarity of these locations adds an extra element of reality to these stories. Seeing different areas of Sheffield in these stories highlights how the landscape differs depending on where you are in the city. As someone familiar with the geography, it reminds me how unique this city is. If the reader does not know Sheffield, these stories show Sheffield is not the ugly city Orwell claimed it is – it is much more complicated than that.

If you are a Sheffielder, you need to read this collection of short stories. This collection showcases the amount of talent Steel City has and how one city can inspire such a diverse range of stories. If you are not from Sheffield, read this anyway. These stories erode the assumption that it is grim up North. Northern writing is vital if English literature is wanting to represent the country its namesake belongs to.

book of sheffield.jpg

My favourite books of 2019.

I love the end of the year. I love reading about people’s highlights, what their favourite books were, what the achieved in the last year (and in this case, the last decade).

I want to review the last year and the last decade of my life privately in a notebook but I am here today to keep up my tradition on this blog to post my favourite books of the previous year.

Looking at the list of books I read in 2019, I think this year has been my most interesting reading year. 2019 has been the year I have fallen in love with short story collections. 2019 has also been the year I found new and exciting Northern voices in literature.

Last year I said my Masters degree and my job influenced and changed my reading habits. My job has definitely impacted this year’s reading as the majority of the books I read were published in the last few years. I have noticed I am not interested in the same narratives I was interested in when I was a student or a teenager and that’s okay. I am excited to see how my reading taste continues to change with the passing of time.

Anyway, let’s get onto the books that defined 2019. I have selected 6 titles and these 6 books are really something special.

Before I get to the final 6, I am going to start with the honourable mentions: Witch by Rebecca Tamas, Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson, Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith, Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fangirls by Hannah Ewens, Lanny by Max Porter, The Sundial by Shirley Jackson, The Universe and Me by Toria Garbutt, In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Revolting Prostitutes by Molly Smith and Juno Mac, My Cat Yugoslavia by Pajtim Statovci, The Luckiest Guy Alive by John Cooper Clarke.

I am saving my favourite book until last but the rest are in no particular order.

6. Common People – edited by Kit de Waal.

This anthology is so important. Common People brings together established authors and emerging authors as they discuss what it means to be working-class.

What I love about this anthology is that it shows that there is no “one size fits all” to being working-class. I believe the media paint being working-class as a very black and white picture however it is much more complicated than that.

A recurring idea in this collection is what it means to be a working-class writer. The essays in this collection made me realise I was not alone in some of my feelings and about lacking a home. Not quite belonging in a writer’s world but also not belonging from where I am from. What I thought was a me problem is actually something many other working-class people face.

Common People ends with an essay by Dave O’Brien about class in the publishing industry. I think every publishing house needs to read this book and celebrate the entirety of the UK – not just London. There are many amazing Northern presses who show how amazing the North is but larger publishing houses should open up offices in the North and the Midlands to allow a more diverse range of voices to contribute to the world of literature.

5. On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous – Ocean Vuong.

I read this in December so this is a last minute addition to this list. I noticed this book as soon as it arrived in my bookshop and then it was following me everywhere on social media.

This book is as beautiful as everyone says it is. Vuong is an artist and his use of language is truly exceptional.

I do not want to say too much about this book in case anyone hasn’t read it yet, but I really lost myself in the writing.

Calling it now, this had to be a classic in years to come.

4. Salt Slow – Julia Armfield.

As I mentioned earlier, I really got into short stories this year. I have read several collections but Salt Slow made a lasting impression on me. I am obsessed with this.

This short story collection explores the female body in unusual, creepy and sometimes grotesque stories. Armfield’s language is extraordinary and the stories and so different to other things current out at the moment.

I found this collection really powerful and it actually inspired me to write some fiction. Armfield is a masterful storyteller and her writing inspired me to push myself outside of my creative comfort zone.

3. Saltwater by Jessica Andrews.

Yes to North East representation!!!!!

Fans of Sally Rooney, read this. I am obsessed with this book I didn’t realise how much I needed it until I read it.

Again, this is a book I discovered at work. When reading the synopsis and finding out it was set in Sunderland, I knew I needed it. I read it on a journey back to the North East and it brought so much emotion out of me.

The writing is poetic, the structure is unique, and Andrews writes gems like this:

“I am always travelling far away from the people I love. I am constantly searching for something I cannot articulate, uprooting and disappearing based on an abstract feeling in the pit of my belly.”

When I read this, I had to put the book down and walk around the room. I know it sounds dramatic, but this really got to me and summed up how I have felt ever since I was 18. To see my feelings in someone else’s words on paper was a strange and powerful experience.

Saltwater is about Lucy and follows her through her life in Sunderland, London, and rural Ireland. It mirrored a lot of my life – moving away from the North East to pursue something creative assuming city life would be amazing and exciting when the reality is it is lonely and an alienating world when you do not share the same experiences as people wanting the same things as you.

This made me think a lot about home and what home really means.

2. Lowborn – Kerry Hudson.

I have seen this on so many people’s ‘Books of the Year’ lists and rightly so. Kerry’s memoir really got under my skin. I went to see her talk about her book at a literature festival and I cried through the entire talk and then almost cried on her when I spoke to her (if Kerry ever reads this, again I’m sorry about that).

Lowborn is a memoir/report on Britain’s poorest towns. As a child, Kerry moved around regularly with her mother – going wherever a job or opportunity would take them. Kerry recounts her childhood and the poverty she grew up in and also revisits the towns she once lived in to see if anything has changed.

A copy of this book needs to be available in every school, every library, and people in privileged positions certainly need to read this.

I can’t quite put into words how important this book is.

1. Ironopolis – Glen James Brown.

This will come as no surprise as I have shouted from the rooftops about this book ever since I read it and I have bought so many copies for people.

The only time Middlesbrough is in the media is for negative reasons. Seeing the media portray the town in such an awful light boils my blood but seeing people glorify and romanticise the town annoys me too. It’s a place that deserves better, more funding, more help for the people who live there.

Ironopolis IS Middlesbrough. Brown captures the town so well. The people, the politics, the worries. I’m so glad to see Middlesbrough portrayed in a realistic light. This isn’t bleak or romanticised, it is a hopeful text.

I would suggest reading my review to know my full views otherwise I will be repeating myself but I will be putting this book into the hands of everyone I meet for the rest of my life.

2019 books.jpg

And that’s a wrap! I’ve noticed a lot of the books that made my favourite pile really showed me something about myself.

This year has made me hopeful for the future of publishing as I am seeing more Northern voices and those voices are not there to say it’s grim up North.

Okay, so see you again at the end of the year for my favourite books of 2020!

2020 (mostly bookish) goals.

Despite 2019 being the longest year of my life, I still can’t believe we are at the end of another decade! I’m not going to write a massive paragraph about the 2010s and reflecting on life but I will say I feel like 2020 is the start of a new chapter.

I am here for my annual 2020 book goals. This year is going to be a bit different; I am going to add some not strictly bookish goals but probably relate to books anyway. I have just read last year’s post and I think I did a pretty good job at reaching them. I read lots of music related books and definitely read more than one a month and I have read a lot of books this year from indie publishers. Looking at my favourite books I have read this year (which will be revealed in a separate post) most of them are from independent publishers. I will go into more detail in that post but I love how indie publishers push the publishing boundaries and make room for voices I have rarely seen in literature.

No surprise here, but I didn’t finish my tbr pile. I have read a lot of my older books so most of the books currently on it are new. I have 34 unread books which I know will go up at Christmas because I’ve bought my own books but my unread pile is in a better place than this time last year.

So let’s kick it off then:

1. Read my tbr pile.

Until the end of time this will be my first goal. I am excited about all the books on it whereas last year I could name a few I was definitely putting off but have finally read this year. I doubt I will get to 0 but I would be very happy if I finally got to under 10 unread books.

2. Begin rereading the Chronicles of Narnia series.

I remember when I moved to York I noticed some hardback editions of the Chronicles of Narnia with the original illustrations and covers in Waterstones. When I was a child, most of the books I read were from the library and I like to collect my favourite childhood books in the editions that I read them in. I read the paperback editions with these covers and always wanted to buy the hardback editions but could never justify the price. Now that I’m a bookseller, I thought there’s no time like the present so I have gifted them to myself for Christmas with my sweet sweet bookseller discount.

Originally, I read the Narnia books years ago in publication order. In 2020, I want to begin with The Magician’s Nephew and work my way through the books in chronological order. I do not aim to read all of them next year but I definitely want to start this project.

3. Read ALL the music memoirs.

The joy of memoirs written by female rock musicians being a new trend in publishing means I have already read most of them. In 2020 I want to reread the music memoirs I have already read and get to the newer releases. Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein is high up on my reread list.

I am going to speak this into existence now: I want to start my PhD soon. I want to familiarise myself with the texts I want to look at and take notes. I am very familiar with the memoirs of Patti Smith, Kim Gordon and Viv Albertine but I think I will reread Just Kids and To Throw Away Unopened as it has been a while since I have read them. I might (I probably won’t) dedicate a month to reading music memoirs and have it as a mini project.

4. Read more books about cities.

I love researching cities and analysing cities in literature. I’ve recently bought Jonathan Raban’s Soft City as it is a book that really shaped my knowledge and arguments about what cities can represent. I have not read it since my final year of uni and I want to reread it again. I also want to get to Olivia Laing’s Lonely City as well as any other books on cities. If you have any recommendations, please share them!

That’s it, really. It looks like I want to do a lot of rereading in 2020 which would be nice.

I don’t know, I have a good feeling about next year. The last few years have been pretty tough to be honest but I felt like I hadn’t achieved a great deal this year. Although I feel that way, I am looking at it from a slightly different perspective. I feel like all the work I have done in the last year will make 2020 brighter. Or, at least, I hope it does. I’m really determined to think critically about books again and share that in my professional life. I’m feeling ambitious and I hope this time next year I can look back on my reading and see that.

I will post a best books of 2019 list next week or the week after. I have read some amazing books this year and I really cannot wait to talk about them!

Ten years of gig-going.

Two days after my 14th birthday, I went to my first gig. Well, that’s technically a lie. My first gig was on Scarborough beach when I was 9 for a band my dad loves and all I remember from it was building a sandcastle for drunk people to trip over. This was the first gig I went to out of choice.

I went to see a band called Kids in Glass Houses. The year was 2009 and they were about to release their second album. I couldn’t believe a band I liked were playing my hometown. I had no one to go with so my dad took one for the team and went with me. I remember being so excited to see this band who I would watch on YouTube and the thought of seeing musicians in real life blew my teenage mind. I remember wanting to be cool and wear clothes I really liked and I honestly don’t know how my mam let me out of the house that evening. This was before I could dress well. I wore my favourite blue checked shirt and purple skinny jeans (I know, I can hear you laughing – this isn’t my proudest moment) because if they were good enough for Pete Wentz then they were good enough for me. I also had my first pair of converse and chipped black nail varnish. I felt so cool when in reality I was far from it.

The gig was at a venue called Empire and is a place I hold close to my heart. I’ve been to terrible club nights there and I have also been to terrible gigs there – but it was my first introduction to the gigging community.

I was probably one of the youngest people there. Majority of the crowd were in their late teens/early twenties. I stayed towards to edges of the room but as soon as the music started and the band started to play, I felt this emotional connection with a group of strangers. We were all screaming the lyrics at the top of our lungs and jumping around. For months, I didn’t shut up about this gig and I wanted to go to as many gigs as possible.

From the ages of 14 to 16, I went to a gig every couple of months. It was mainly emo bands such as Paramore, Panic at the Disco, Madina Lake (a massive throwback), to name a few. I travelled to Newcastle and Manchester for the bigger shows but most of my gigs were in Middlesbrough. Empire was home to my music adventures. I got a pretend leather jacket from ASDA and danced and screamed until my body ached. For a few hours, I could escape reality and feel the bass vibrate through my body. I would show up to school the next day with a sore throat and temporary hearing loss because I stood to close to the speakers at the front.

It was my freedom and my rebellion in a way. I went to most of my gigs with friends and usually an accompanying adult. Going to cities like Newcastle made me feel grown up and made me realise a lot more exciting things were happening outside of the town I lived in. I knew my parents didn’t feel comfortable with me catching the train to different cities and going out late on school nights so a part of it felt like I was living the typical teenage life. I would come home stinking of cigarette smoke (it took a while for my parents to actually believe me when I said I wasn’t smoking) and going to school on a few hours sleep but it was all worth it for the happiness and escapism I felt in a crowded venue with my favourite bands performing in front of me.

Before cuts to the arts, my town had a couple of mini festivals. When I was younger, my “thing” was to find up-and-coming bands and be able to know who every musician was in Kerrang magazine. These festivals would always have small bands – with the exception of the headliner who would be someone like The Proclaimers – but that felt like heaven to me. These would be bands I would’ve read about on the ‘on the radar’ pages in music magazines and I would find it so exciting that they were playing my town. The more gigs I was attending, the more I would recognise people in the crowds and it made me feel this sense of belonging. I befriended metal heads, emos, and fans of classic rock. All of these sub-genres of rock music felt like extended family and I grew in confidence. Before going to gigs, I thought no one in my town liked the same music as me so it was exciting to see I was not alone.

I did love my emo music (and I still do) but I was very much a hybrid of emo and indie culture. I listened to My Chemical Romance but I also loved Arctic Monkeys. I had grown up listening to The Stone Roses and was a fan of Yeah Yeah Yeahs since I was about 7 because I thought Karen O was cool and she still is a person I greatly admire. As I switched from reading Kerrang to reading NME, my gig-going habits also changed. In 2011, I went to my first indie gig. Arctic Monkeys in Newcastle. It was Suck It and See era, Alex had just got his quiff a month prior to the gig and I was still mourning the end of his relationship with Alexa Chung. The Vaccines were playing and I was so hyper to be in the same room as two of my favourite bands. I still have the t-shirt from that gig and I’m proud that it still fits. That gig meant everything to me and it still does 8 years on.

I had just turned 16 but the summer before I had started a scrapbook of things I was into and images of what I wanted to be. I bought my first piece of vintage jewellery (a 50p brooch from a farmer’s market), bought Angles by The Strokes and listened to it on repeat, and I was trying to discovery what my fashion sense was. My scrapbook was a collage of badly cut out images of Hayley Williams, Alexa Chung and Natalie Portman – all people who I wanted to dress like. Stills from Wes Anderson films I was yet to see and photos of mods and rockers were also badly stuck into my scrapbook. I was building an identity around indie music, films and models. That scrapbook was the beginning of the person I now am. I graduated from Peter Pan collar 60s dresses to 70s flowing paisley floor-length dresses, band t-shirts to brightly patterned blouses. All of this made an appearance in that scrapbook. Going to that Arctic Monkeys gig allowed me to live a little bit of the dream I had created in that scrapbook. The people were real, the clothes were real, the music was real.

After finishing school, I went to Leeds festival for the first time. I feel like going to a festival is a rite of passage for any school leaver. 2012 was a vintage year for Leeds fest. I saw Bombay Bicycle Club, Foo Fighters, The Cure, Kasabian, The Black Keys, Florence and the Machine, The Vaccines, Foster the People and so many other artists I still listen to now because clearly I haven’t developed much since 2012. It was a weird experience and an exhausting experience but I discovered I love being in a massive field listening to live music. I still have my Vaccines t-shirt I bought at Leeds Fest and it is still a staple item in my wardrobe.

IMG_20190824_174309_237[2417]

Around the age of 18, going to gigs was a weekly occurrence for me. I worked behind a bar and worked box office at a couple of local music venues. I listened to everything from washed out punk acts, indie bands, and psychedelic groups. I listened to a lot of psychedelic to be honest. Working there and going to battle of the bands every Thursday in a rundown pub in town was my escapism for the chaos I felt was surrounding my life. Live music drowned out my negative thoughts and worries for a few hours. I grew a lot from working in music venues. I certainly grew a thicker skin from dealing with drunk people and quite a male-dominated environment where I was often the only girl there. My music horizons broadened and gigs got me out of the house and felt like a safe space.

One of my favourite venues was a tiny working men’s club in town. A gig promoter who ran shows there always got bands before they got big to play this tiny venue. Over the years I had seen the likes of Pete and the Pirates (now Teleman) and Catfish and the Bottlemen before they had even released an EP. A gig that sticks with me the most though is seeing Palma Violets in 2012. Earlier that week, they had debuted on the cover of NME, who were raving about them and talking about how crazy their gigs were. I haven’t really heard of Palma Violets since 2013 (are they still going?) but that gig was one of the sweatiest, funniest gigs I have been to. The ceiling broke and I don’t think it has been properly fixed since.

When I moved away for university, I pretty much stopped going to gigs. I went to a couple of ones back home for indie stars I had loved since being a younger teenager, such as The Last Shadow Puppets, but I did not really attend many in my university city. Not many bands I listened to gigged in my city and I didn’t fully take advantage of listening to local bands. I did get more involved in the literature scene in my city but I missed music. During my undergrad I kinda lost my music identity because I wasn’t going to gigs or listening to new bands but other aspects of my life flourished. I wrote a blog post about it at the time but I started listening to older bands like the Velvet Underground to inspire me and as a result that has influenced my academic research.

When I moved to Sheffield, everyone told me I had missed its golden age but it was exciting for me. I went to Leadmill on my first night and was so excited when I saw the names of so many bands I liked written on the walls. I went from going to no gigs to attending gigs quite regularly. I saw The Big Moon, Miles Kane, The Wombats, and Bombay Bicycle Club – all bands and musicians that shaped me as a teenager. I even started to go to gigs alone which didn’t help my anxiety but it allowed me to see new bands I love, such as Pip Blom. I went to Birmingham and Leeds for gigs. I went to venues I remember reading about when I was 14 and wondering what they were like. I finally went to Rough Trade. I feel like I have experienced so many things my younger self could only dream of in her bedroom in a north east town.

IMG_20190527_094917_941[2418].jpg

Obviously, I am an adult now and I have a job so I have more freedom to travel to places and buy tickets to concerts but sometimes I catch myself and remember how visiting these cities and seeing these bands once didn’t feel like a reality to me. At gigs now I am more aware of my surroundings. I have no time for people invading my space too much or making me feel unsafe – these were things that didn’t really occur to me when I first started going to gigs but over time have realised when I go to see certain bands. Although I am in my early (we could maybe argue I’m almost mid-twenties now but we are not going to) twenties, I feel old at gigs. I no longer want to be at the front, I choose practical clothes over cool clothes, and everyone around me at indie gigs looks 12. I went to Leeds festival this year and realised I was the old person. Majority of the people I passed were younger than me. In the grand scheme of things I am young but ten years of my life is a large chunk of my life and I can’t help but reflect on ten years of attending gigs and how that has shaped me as a person. I love gigs and I am at my happiest when I am listening to live music. I just can’t believe I have hit the ten year mark. I can’t wait to see what gigs I go to in the next ten years.

It has been a while

So it has been a while since this blog has been active. I’m here. I still exist. I’ve just been existing elsewhere.

Since February, I have been working on various writing projects. I will share these when the time is right but those have been my priority. I haven’t done much writing in the last month but a girl needs a break.

I’ve been using my Instagram account a bit more (account name same as this one) to share photos of  books and write mini reviews. I have wanted to post full length blog posts on books I have been sent for review – and I will try in the future – but a lot of my writing takes place on my commute which I find difficult and I don’t have the energy to write lengthy reviews. I’m adjusting to new work hours and I am hoping once I have settled into a routine I can dedicate more time to actually finishing the new pieces I’ve been writing and publishing them.

Today is my first day to myself in around 3 weeks. I am spending it sleeping, reading (because funnily enough I haven’t done much reading lately even though I am a bookseller), and listening to live sets from my favourite bands. I feel so calm and peaceful and I’m thankful I am being nice to my body and I am allowing it to rest.

I’m going to keep this short and sweet. In the next week I am pushing myself to send off some things I have had sitting on my desktop for a couple of months because I’m too scared to send them off.

I want to try and use this blog a little more for the exact reason why I decided not to delete it years ago – to share imperfect pieces of work. I don’t use this platform to share my greatest work. I have drafted pieces for this blog this year. I had one about my relationship with fashion and throwing out clothes I no longer need. I didn’t post it because I thought it was stupid and no one would care. Although this a public platform, it doesn’t matter if that post was stupid and self-indulgent, this blog is here to keep me in the practice of writing with the odd semi-decent book review thrown in for good measure.

Soon, I will rewrite that post about fashion. I will write a bit more about music and the nostalgia culture I have for noughties indie music, and I might even write about bookselling. Most of the writing I have been doing this year has been for publication and I think I need to return to here and post some pieces that are for no one except for myself (but of course anyone is free to read them if they like).

Anyway, let’s aim for me to post one thing on here in October!

Ironopolis by Glen James Brown: Book Review.

Before I begin, this is going to be a very emotional review and a very personal one. For those of you who know me in real life, you will know I am from Middlesbrough. I moved away for university and didn’t move back. When people ask me “Do you like Middlesbrough?” or “What do you think of Middlesbrough?” I struggle to give a clear answer. It’s not easy for me to travel home so I do have some nostalgia for the town but I listen to a lot of (and I mean playing the same several albums on repeat on my commute to work every day kind of a lot of) Maximo Park and that cures the homesickness. If my family didn’t live there, I would have no reason to visit the town. I have always felt like it is a place stuck in time, tucked away in the North East of England and forgotten about, and the town feels enclosed where the walls have ears and everyone knows everything about everybody. This is something I have struggled to explain to people who are not from Teesside and I didn’t think there was a way to let people know and understand that kind of environment.

That is, until I read Ironopolis by Glen James Brown. This book was recommended to me by my friend’s uncle (shout out to Pete) and author Kerry Hudson mentioned she had read it and reviewed it for The Guardian so instantly I ordered it into my bookshop. The novel is set on the fictional Burns Council Estate in Teesside and is composed of several interweaving story lines. The sections of the novel tell the stories of several different characters living on the estate. The Burns Council Estate threatens to be rejuvenated and the characters fear losing their homes and the community they have built up over decades.

What I cannot stress enough is how real the experiences are in this novel. I know of men like Vincent Barr. I have been to New Years’ Eve parties that are the same down to the playlist every single year. I am familiar with what it’s like to work on a council estate and the community feel of the customers who enter the shop. Brown has managed to bottle up life in Middlesbrough and pour it into his book and he has done a brilliant job. I was brought to tears by how complex and human the characters in Ironopolis are.

Each story is told in slightly different formats; for example, ‘Day of the Dark’ is told in epistolary form whereas ‘UXO’ is told in the form of an academic essay or article. As the novel progresses, characters mentioned in previous stories reappear and events overlap which creates a rich tapestry of life on the estate. This is done so tightly and pretty much to perfection. There is so much happening in this novel – whether it will be the personal stories of the characters, larger story arcs that span several stories or the political commentary on life in the North East – it is all brought together so perfectly and every detail in this book is important.

One thread that explicitly connects all the stories together is the presence of Peg Powler. When reading Ironopolis I thought “why does that name sound so familiar?” and after a quick internet search loads of childhood memories came flooding back. Peg Powler is a water spirit who in British folklore haunts the River Tees. If you misbehaved as a child, you would fear Peg Powler creeping through the pipes and snatching you while you were on the toilet. I remember when I was 10 years old there was an exhibition in the local museum about the River Tees and that was how I discovered Peg Powler. I was scared of the toilets at school because I thought she would be in there. Peg is mentioned by most of the characters in someway or another which highlights the shared identity of Teessiders. Whether the character is in Thornaby or Boro town centre, they all have a friend in Peg.

Brown does not shy away from politics – and rightly so. Drive up the A19 and the skyline greets you with steelworks and the Transporter Bridge. The steelworks are an unsettling spectre looming over Teesside as many steelworkers lost their jobs in 2015 when the majority of the steelworks closed down. Ironopolis spans over fifty years yet the threat of the closure of the steelworks is always present:

What ‘trade’ is there? Since I was a lass, the forges have been privatised, consolidated, chopped up, sold off. Why make steel here if it’s cheaper to ship from China? Everybody is being made redundant – tens of thousands of people. Whole communities. Ironopolis is falling. (pp.32-33)

Eventually, Ironopolis did fall. Knowing the fate of the steelworks makes for a difficult read as you know many of these characters will inevitably receive the same fate many people I know did in 2015.

The renovation of the estate and shops closing down is also a reality that many Teessiders have faced or witnessed. Every time I return to Middlesbrough something else has disappeared and not been replaced. Houses are demolished, families are forced to relocate and to sell their houses at a lesser price than what it is valued for. Businesses are lost. Communities are broken up. This is seen in so many areas of Middlesbrough (and across the country) and it is such an important issue to address in fiction. This is not made up to create a narrative; this is a harsh reality many people are forced to live with.

I read this with a pencil poised in my hand ready to highlight sentences. So much of this novel spoke to me and really got under my skin. I saw myself in Una when she said, ‘People think I’m the weird one for seeing this place for what it is’ (p.54) and how I was so desperate to leave. Most of all, I saw a mindset that I think really embodies Middlesbrough culture and it unsettled me. Early in the novel, Jean writes in a letter: ‘I dread he forgets there are other ways to view the world, so thinks the world around him is the only one there is’ (p.33). I have moved several times and I feel like I have grown as a person yet I return to Middlesbrough and I feel like nothing has changed. People get their haircut at the same place they have been going for twenty years, eat the same meals, watch the same TV shows. It feels very ritualistic. There may be some comfort in this but it also highlights how the town can feel like a bubble. This bubble is something that should be challenged as there is life beyond your front doorstep.

This review feels very self-centred; however, this book got such a personal response from me and moved me and that’s what I think great literature should do. This is a phenomenal piece of literature and is represents working-class communities so well. I was worried this would either be poverty porn or romanticise Middlesbrough in a way I think would not benefit the town. It did neither of those things. Ironopolis is raw, it is truthful, it perfectly captures community in Teesside and the power of it (both the good and the bad). This text should be celebrated for what it is doing for Middlesbrough in literature. Much like The Mighty Redcar, which broadcasted in 2018, Ironopolis is rewriting Middlesbrough’s legacy in the media. Forget being the worst place to live in 2008, or the worst place to be a girl in 2016, or being made fun of that one time Top Gear visited, lift up works like Ironopolis which represents the complex nature of Teesside and how it strives to rise from the ashes.

Up the Boro and all that.