Letter to an Unknown Soldier

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I have just added my letter to the remarkable Letter to an Unknown Soldier project. There is still time to send one, so what would you say to him if you had the chance?

I found this a really inspiring and moving project to take part in. We live in a world so self-centric that I think the time we take to stop and pause is rapidly getting eaten up.

I wrote about how the rest of the universe carried on whilst our planet went mad. How this soldier’s corpse was probably not cold before man found a way to bypass the massive and harness the tiny beauty of the atom to make everything seem deadlier.

I would really like to say a massive thank you to Emma who I poked and prodded for scientific history questions!

You can read my letter HERE.

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The book that reminds me of my English teacher, as pondered by #BookadayUK

Macbeth Theater Company poster by Daniel Warren Art http://www.danielwarrenart.com/

Macbeth Theater Company poster by Daniel Warren Art http://www.danielwarrenart.com/

Last week, #bookadayUK asked “What book reminds you of your English teacher?” I answered with the promise of an extended blog post on the matter, so here it is:

I had the horrible misfortune of being good at English at my Secondary school. This meant, that come GCSE time, I was hoiked into the top set.  Reward for all my effort and attainment leading up to this moment was leaving behind the warm sun-drenched, spider-planted world of Carrie’s War and a teacher who was a human being and entering the dark cornered world of, [lets call him] Mr Beckhead, Macbeth, and ritual humiliation.

Within minutes of entering Mr Beckhead’s class and finding a place, I was wishing I had left the dictionary alone a bit, used banned green ink more, or generally made a “not-done-me-‘omework-miss” nuisance of myself in the years leading up to my GCSE set-gradings. Your place in Mr Beckhead’s class was at the very bottom of the barrel and at the very end of his tongue lashing scorn.

Mr Beckhead was a horrible creature, strangely and constantly purple as though his Burberry shirt was buttoned up too far, or his Harris Tweed jacket was a little too tight about his port addled tummy. Though, attire aside, I think his Ribena berry complexion may have been drawn out by the fact he found himself teaching a bunch of  oiks in a nondescript comp and not quaffing lunchtime brandies at the Grammar school.

But, if that was the reason for such pent-up anger, it really was only up to him to sort that out. Why he decided to take his purple-faced shortcomings out on us I will never know.

From day one he made it very clear who was in charge, he strutted about his classroom with a Dracula-esque grin stretching the corners of his face, smelling blood and delighting in even the faintest flicker of  fear. He dripped with contempt, derision and temper. All of us who didn’t know any better (that teachers could be dicks) were immediately terrified. In the course of 50 minutes, English went from being my refuge at school – a place where I could equally shine and hide – to a place of nerve jangling angst.

I will always associate him with Macbeth in my mind. It was the first thing we studied under his tutoring, and having thought I’d got the cut of his gib, I spent my weekend pouring intensely over my essay. I wanted to sound as intelligent as I possibly could, I wanted to demonstrate all that “very good at English” I’d been getting since Primary school. I thought, if I can only show him that I got the play, that I could write an essay well, that I FELT the turmoil and suffering of these characters as if it were hitched to my own back, I would be ok. Those threats and insults he banded about during his bile-filled introductory welcome speech will be felt by others, I shall be safe from them.

I was delighted with the result, reading and rereading, convincing myself that my dazzling writing style had secured myself peace in his classes forevermore.

That wasn’t to be the case. As we filed into his classroom for the first time after handing in our efforts, his feelings towards them were clear. He leaned on his desk, legs crossed and stretched out in front of him, a tripping hazard he already knew not one of us would have the balls to ask him to remove. So having hopped over his brogues and sunken into my chair I let the horrible silence descend about us.

It seemed to go on forever, all of us twitching in our seats, some stifling nervous giggles, as his almost-smile crept from puzzled face to puzzled face. You could feel the whole room gulping.

“Well” he said, untangling his limbs and lifting himself to his feet, “what a terrible pile of essays you all managed to eek out over the weekend….just. Awful.”

I waited for the “except”: “except Hannah’s, whose insightful and reimagined exploration of the work I have already sent off to Cambridge”.

But none came.

In fact, he not only thought my essay was a debasement to his human rights to have to read, it was also one of a handful that he quoted from, just to illustrate how disgustingly illiterate, amoral and abhorrent we all clearly were.

I burned with embarrassment in my plastic chair, barely breathing and unable to tear my eyes from the table. Tears stung in the corners and the 45 minutes left of the class stretched out in front of me like death.

I would read all future set texts in a sweat – barely taking anything in, such was the blindness of my panic to make sure I got EVERYTHING right. Reading became something I fretted over and dreaded, something that could end in a very public tongue-lashing if I didn’t interpret stories in a way that was 100% acceptable to him.

Still, everytime I start to write anything I have to silence those quotes of mine that he spat out in front of everyone with strange delight. This was my first taste of rejection – public and bruising.

That is bad enough, but it is also impossible for me to untangle the genius of Macbeth from his clutches, he will always be a part of  any experience I have of The Scottish Play.

It just goes to show – you shouldn’t waste any of your time trying to impress A-holes.

In fact, the only time I can remember him giving me any praise was when I was awarded an A* in my Speaking and Listening GCSE (does that still exist?!) – I was arguing in defence of war….which says it all really.

I should say here that I have also had good English teachers too, but nobody earth-shatteringly inspiring enough to erase Mr Beckhead from my memory (his is the only name I can remember). It makes me sad for any other student who finds themselves in a classroom with someone of his ilk, shown-up and trodden-down, having all enthusiasm for books rung out of them. I was lucky, my love of books was already ingrained, and he wasn’t even enough to stop my desire to read (and god, how he tried), but this may not be the case for many students who never get to have a love of reading ignited in the first place.

That for me is more horrifying than anything the Weird Sisters could cook up.

 

I’m BACK! With a little late week four #BookadayUK round-up

Not sure what happened last week.

I didn’t publish a single post and left a writing project deserted on my desk.

It got quite hot.

My “actual work” days changed.

Other people happened.

This, it appears, is enough to completely throw me of my particulars and whereas other people would just cross and circle alternative days in their diary, I sat staring at my computer, worriedly twiddling my thumbs going:

“Ok, so I’m at work on Wednesday, which means I’m not writing on Wednesday like normal, which means I feel I have to do more than I can mentally handle on Monday. I’ve had adequate time to shuffle my mind around, but knowing this only makes the fact I haven’t even more looming and monstrous. It is very bright and strained outside and sunlight does appear to make me ill and pathetic. Think I might just work on nibbling my quicks instead this week…”

Deplorable quick nibbling

Deplorable quick nibbling

So, yeah – not great.

But this is a new week and even though the sun is still prodding at the corners of my eyes with its painfully sharp hate-sticks, everything else is as normal as it can be. So, onwards!

First things first, as I didn’t post my usual weekly #bookadayuk round-up yesterday here it is, all Monday-like instead:

The topics for July 2014

The topics for July 2014

July 21st – The novel you expected to hate, but turned out you loved

Bridget

A question I can answer easily as I am in fact still reading it – Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. God, I thought I knew EVERYTHING there was to know about this book, so omnipresent was it when it (and then it’s film version) was released. I don’t want to say it was an age thing, as I’m sure women my age were picking it up and reading it when it came out, but I would roll my eyes at any mention of this “irritating, self-obsessed 30-something”.

What a tit.

So, inspired by its inclusion in Hadley Freeman’s “Ten Awesome Books” (Be Awesome) I picked it up in a charity shop in Aviemore. And I am ABSOLUTELY loving it! Bridget has been a complete revelation, and like with actual humans who exist, I guess the moral of this story is – base your opinions of fictional characters on your own experiences of them. I’ll definitely be blogging about this more when I’m finished, which will be in the next half hour if my current reading pace is anything to go by.

July 22nd – The novel you most like to give to friends

this is water

Not a novel as such, but a book that was given to me and restored my soul so much I have taken up the baton and started passing it on myself – This is Water by David Foster Wallace. Many people are terrified of those three names spoken together, uttering them can send people into shivering, sweating fits as they remember tangled hours trying to get through Infinite Jest.

But forget about that, get a copy of this (or become my friend, OR go here) and you will get a dazzling, rousing, deeply affecting taste of how exceptional a writer he was, and what an utter loss to words his death is.

The students in that hall must have walked out on air.

July 23rd – Favourite novel with an exotic background

lord of the flies

Now, I’m not entirely sure what “exotic” means in this context. Never really having been abroad a trip to Dumfries and Galloway can fill me with splendid feelings of exotica. Also, as I bibbled on about above, I’m not much of a sun-lover and this is reflected in my choice of reading materials which are usually set in cloudy places with a chance of torrential, emotional downpours.

When I hear “exotic” or “sun-kissed island” or “beach read”, my mind just takes me to Lord of The Flies by William Golding. Not a book you can enjoy with an umbrella-bedecked cocktail maybe, but about as exotic as I get.

July 24th – A book that reminds you of your English teacher

As I said on Twitter, I have a whole post brewing for this so I shall leave it for now and get back to you, needless to say, it’s a memory not exactly all Dead Poets Society.

July 25th – Book that is your guilty pleasure

The List

I probably will hand this one over to The List by Joanna Bolouri, even though “guilty pleasure” seems a harsh way to describe it! However, its not a book my friends would have expected in my paws that’s for sure (“Hannah’s reading a pink book…is she…happy?“) and it was only when I had finished it that I clapped over it for a while, bleating on about how much of a riot it is! Rude, raucous and hilarious!

July 26th – The novel you wished you written

As a very frustrated writer who barely makes it past Chapter One of ANYTHING she writes my answer to this is:

ALL OF THE BLIGHTERS!!!!!!

July 27th – For National Parents’ Day – the best/worst parents

You know what’s coming don’t you…

If you have been following my #bookadayUK round-ups you are probably almost certainly going to skip this selection and go back to reading about cats against women against feminism. So, with that in mind, I’ll just put up a picture and shuffle away on my completely unoriginal heels…

atticus-jem-and-scout

#BookadayUK July 2014 -week three round-up

Week three! Hello!

The topics for July 2014

The topics for July 2014

July 14th – For Bastille Day, your favourite novel about or set in France

this is life

Ok, so the author had to gently remind me of this book when I exclaimed on twitter that I had NEVER read a book set in or about France, but once that reminder was duly made I was delirious as:

1) I was beginning to fear I was some kind of  narrow-minded reader with a desperate need to cast my book net a bit wider (quelle horreur!)

and

2) I now have the opportunity to urge you all to get on This Is Life by Dan Rhodes. How I forgot about this book, I will never know, as I absolutely loved it! Hilarious, inventive, thoughtful – I ate up every page. I will add the overlook to the other pile of stuff I have forgotten this year – LIKE MY MUM’S BIRTHDAY (sorry mum).

If you weren’t quick enough to get a copy of When The Professor Got Stuck in The Snow you should definitely pick this up instead!

July 15th - I totally missed this! Argh! Sorry! Can anyone let me know what the topic was?

July 16th – Favourite book to take to the beach

under your skin

I am not much of a beach bunny. Don’t get me wrong, I adore the sea, but my beach days are usually chilly and involve walking along as much of the front as possible, prodding at stuff. There’s not too much time to read when you are prodding at stuff. However, as the sun is beating down and I can get to the seafront by bus, if I was to go down I would be taking Under Your Skin by Sabine Durrant as its my current book and I am really rather enjoying it!

July 17th – Novel that surprised you most

gone girl

For all the wrong reasons – Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. If I had taken a pound from everyone who banged on about how brilliant this was I would be Scrooge McDucked by now. In fact, I should have taken a pound from all those who banged on about how brilliant it was as I feel like they owe me. I read it all, because I’m some kind of sadist, and you can read my review here.

July 18th – Favourite crime novel of all time

prime suspect

I don’t often read crime books, I don’t know why as I [mostly - see above] always enjoy them. Possibly not the greatest crime book ever written (in fact I believe it was adapted from the show’s screenplay), but simply for giving the world the remarkable and flawed Jane Tennison I have chosen Prime Suspect by Lynda La Plante.

July 19th – Most memorable plot twist

one day

Not so much a “twist” as a happening, but it has to be One Day by David Nicholls. I have never been punched so hard by a book, nor worried I might actually be ill over myself. A shocking, physical, moment the reader feels in the bones.

July 20th – Your Desert Island novel

tokill

It has to be To Kill a Mockingbird again! This novel has everything in it, I just wouldn’t need anything else and it would never bore me!

 

 

 

Judge a Cover Friday! The Accidental – Ali Smith

the-accidental

This was a book I bought based purely on the cover. At the time I was going through an ill-advised retro-hippy stage and I wanted everything about the prostate red-head on the cover.

Everytime I picked the book up I debated whether the girl was dead, on the brink of death, or just in the grip of momentary bliss. I wanted to know what pictures were on her camera, were they, as I suspected, mostly of herself or was she merely holding the camera for some other, unseen photographer.

I read this ages ago and really enjoyed it, I have no idea though, where my copy has gone! Ialso don’t know why I haven’t picked up anything else by Smith since, recommendations would be greatly received in the comments section!

What is your earliest memory?

So yesterday I posted about writing more, and how I had been using writingexercises.co.uk for prompts and inspiration. I also said that I would post the piece I wrote yesterday, so as I am true to my word and never lie, here it is.

 

What is your earliest memory?

The Great Memory by Valerie Hammond, 2007

The Great Memory by Valerie Hammond, 2007

When I asked, Science told me that my first memory was almost certainly not real. Anything you think you remember before two years of age was probably formed in your brain using material from other people’s anecdotes – little memory building blocks you borrowed and turned into something of your own. But, as with memory itself, it depends who you ask as to what Science you want to believe.

I have a vested interest in my first memory being real, so I’m probably going to go with whichever Science says I can believe in it. This winter-clad moment, when I wasn’t yet two, is my only connection with someone whose presence was much missed in my life.

I am small, not pram small, toddling small, but not full-blown conversation big. I am sat in front of a fire, a medieval grate towers in front of it like a castle, protecting my little person flesh against the whip of flame (there may also have been hired orcs standing guard on either side with water buckets at the ready, I was a well protected child, but I’ll accept their presence in this story is almost certainly down to one of those “conjured” memories). I am fussing with something in my lap, a doll I think, something handed down from my sister, but no less loved by me. I’m feeling its hair tag through my fingers, thinking to myself “I’d like this knotty, unmanageable hair for myself…I will make Having Awful Hair my life’s work” (there has to have been something that triggered my almost punishable neglect of my locks).

The rest of my family are in the room, standing behind the sofa that has been pulled up towards the heat of the fire. They are chatting happily, hovering by the door, anticipating something. My mum talks quietly, my dad’s belly fills with laughter, ready to be let free to bounce around the room when the waited-for moment comes. A sibling or two flits in and out of the corner of my eye.  The sky is just starting to slip into grey outside, we light the room with the fire and one table lamp – everything is soft orange.  It is cold outside and festive feeling inside, but not quite Christmas. There is excitement and peaceful contentment decorating everything – It feels perfect.

A bell chimes and people scatter, I look up from my toy for any instruction from mum, non are given so I stay in my position, finger-combing Tiny Tears. But I can’t ignore the influx that has roared into the room for long. A fierce love pours from the front door, the whole room has flooded with it in an instance. I look from person to person, trying to pick out the new one in the room. My sister laughs and claps her hands to her chest that is fit to burst, she has packed her bag with happiness and positioned herself firmly on the brink of Fun-To-Be-Had. A smile edges the corners of my brother’s shy mouth, his eyes turn up to the newbie, bright and shiny with boldness. Both my parents beam, picking up drink fetching and banter duties respectively.

It is then, having checked off everyone I know, that he leans into my orbit. I cannot hear the words he says, but his mouth forms shapes and I follow its dance. He seems jolly nice, I think. Thick rimmed glasses are perched on his nose and he bends down onto one knee with the unthreatening confidence of Family. He is like a sea-bitten Buddy Holly. I do not budge. I do not sharply shuffle, knees raw on the carpet, for escape behind my mother’s legs like I usually would. I sit there transfixed as he points at things and smiles.

Under his arm is a long green snake and after a time he introduces it to me. He weaves its head hypnotically towards me, to and fro, as though it has come to life before us. But I still do not budge, not even in the face of a marauding green serpent; this man is safety and he will stop dead any danger it may possess. He would wrestle the stuffing out of that thing should it turn on me. Somehow, I just know this. He turns the snake about and rattles its bead-filled tail at my nose, I giggle and grab for it.

He pushes himself up then, hand on knee, satisfied with Uncle-duty so far,  touching my soon-to-be nest of hair on his way up. He returns to the brood and the warmth of gleeful eyes. He has left the snake lying next to me, gazing happily into the fire with its goggly eyes. Its felt tongue sticks out the side of its long mouth at me. I am not sure if this deposit bestows ownership, but as I grew up, no sight of that snake went without a thought of him and the warmth and the love of that moment.

Ok, so the mind makes flourishes, but sometimes, I assure you, you should let it. The man who made my first memory will die in a clattering, undeserved way, walking to a telephone to ask for help. No one came to pat away the snakes that day. The reality of that is worth swapping for the conjured warmth of a toddler’s building-block-built mind any made-up day.

Getting my write on

...that, and inaction.

…that, and inaction.

As I only work part-time at the moment I have forced myself, kicking and screaming, to pick up my writing in a serious, and regular, manner (also, have you seen Jeremy Kyle lately – holy hell.). Writing is something I have always wanted to do, but it is a strange passion – you are filled with both delight and horror at the prospect.

But, mostly always horror.

For something I really enjoy doing, it doesn’t half take a cartload of motivation to get me to actually do it.

Do windsurfers feel this way? Do they really enjoy windsurfing, but spend days sulkily building up to pulling on the wetsuit before  going out and actually doing some windsurfing?

My friend Laura’s book, Queen of Bedlam, came out this year and do you know her secret? She just wrote it! (ok, so she used to get up hours before work and write before dawn, but you know, same fing) I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again, I KNOW that the first rule of writing is just bloody getting on with it, but sometimes I just feel completely incapable.

I used to use these excuses:

  • I’ve been at work all day, lifting things from one point to another, I’m so very tired. Can’t you just hold me?
  • I’m in a terrible rut of comparing myself to everybody else and just, well, whats the point? Sue Townsend happened already.
  • I’m 31 now so I CATEGORICALLY cannot have any rave reviews that say things like “Renowden, whose debut novel topped the Christmas charts when she was only 19, has just accepted an invitation to be the sole attraction at this year’s Hay-on-Wye
  • I don’t know what to write about…

Well, I will just have to shut those voices up, because:

  • I’ve been at work for SOME of the day, for SOME of the week and Davina McCall workout videos aside, I’m still pretty perky at 5pm. This is a privilege, so stop pissing about.
  • Comparison is completely stupid, futile and will get you nowhere so STOP IT.
  • The only thing not possible in a scientific way about this sentence is “19”. The rest of it could happen. And that’s science FACT.
  • Oh please…

Everyone, even you, has something to write about. But yes, I’ll accept, that sometimes you sit down and just nothing happens. You shake your pen about, drum the keyboard, ask someone to rub your shoulders, but still – nada.

And that’s where freewriting comes in!

For the past month or so I have been trying to put some time aside to write freely. Some days I will set a timer for 5 or 10 minutes and smash out any jumble of words that come to mind. Its quite spectular what the brain can come out with under pressure, and the 200 or so words I manage I can pad out and plump up in my own time. I now have a handful of “usable” short stories from doing this.

I used to do something similar when I was at uni; having just done an essay on Dadaism (yes, I did do English Literature, how I ended up writing about an art movement is another (not very interesting) story) I decided to spend months writing Dada poetry. This basically involved cutting up newspaper and magazine articles, jumbling up the words and pulling them one by one from a box (in my case a Tampax box – yes, I thought I was “that” person) to make a bizarre, and often hilarious, stream of words. Again, a suprising amount of workable material came out.

But, as we have pitifully established, I am not 19 so I can’t as easily get away with pretending to be part of Dada. So, instead, I go to this website writingexercises.co.uk for a fix of inspiration. This site is great, you can ask it to spew out a character name, a plot, a first line or a random subject and before you know it you are away! When I use this site I usually give myself 1000 words as a satisfying target to meet. I’ve been pretty pleased with what I have written so far, and I have had the chance to write creatively and biographically.

Now that I’m writing pretty regularly again, I’ve decided to post my efforts on the blog now and then. So don’t be shaken or ask “what the hell is she going on about? This isn’t a review of Franzen’s latest…” if a rambling spiel turns up on your feeds and in your inboxes. I was going to use Wattpad, but most of the advice I read pretty much concurred that if you already have a blog there isn’t much point.

I’ll have the piece (oh, “piece” !) I wrote today up tomorrow (“What is your earliest memory?”), I thought this post was probably enough of a meandering mash or words for one day.

 

#BookadayUK July 2014 – week two round-up!

The topics for July 2014

The topics for July 2014

Hello Week Two! I am in you!

July 7th – Most chocolately novel -it’s National Chocolate Day! – I’ve literally got nothing for you! Nope, nothing. I haven’t even read Charlie and The Chocolate Factory. Which seems like a horrendous oversight. Maybe this is my cue to do just that?

July 8th – Favourite Great War novel 

all-quietI usually read non-fiction when it comes to the World Wars, but All Quiet on The Western Front has been sitting on my shelf for about a year now. So, having seen that this was to be a topic this week, I decided to read it. I finished it yesterday on the bus, and it was all I could do not to ding the bell and fling myself into the nearest field for a sob. I probably should have done, this will be a book that will stay with me forever, and perhaps having a break down in front of some cows may have given me some closure. But I want this book to stay with me, haunt me and inspire me.

July 9th – Most irritating character in a novel

Meatspace  This is a pretty easy one for me and he’s from a book I read very recently, its Aziz from Meatspace. God, he couldn’t disappear from the page quick enough!

July 10th – Novel with most memorable picnic for Teddy Bear Picnic Day! 

the-wind-in-the-willowsThe Wind in The Willows, who wouldn’t want to be stretched out on that riverbank with Rat and Mole? Bliss encapsulated.

July 11th – The book that made you cry

tokillThe second appearance of To Kill a Mockingbird already this month! But this book never fails to make me weep for all kind of reasons – man’s pointless anger, a father’s love, justice, hope…its all here, nudging that lump up your throat.

July 12th – Novel that best conjured a place for you

vulgarthingsVulgar Things – another recent read, and another topic that I probably have many examples to choose from, but this really made an impression on me. Southend-on-Sea is a place I know fairly well and this book really bought alive the almost sinister clash of nature and town.

July 13th – Best title for a novel

Again, I’m completely stumped by this, and didn’t want to rattle out Mole and Mockingbird again! I think I might make this a blog topic further down the line, and list a top ten or something.

 

 

Why I Don’t Make Reading Lists

A few recent(ish) acquisitions...

A few recent(ish) acquisitions…

The book blog world is currently abuzz with people publishing their Summer Reads lists. I won’t be doing this. I am rubbish at this kind of structuring. Especially when its sunny and the tiniest hint of heat makes just getting out of bed a Krypton Factor-esque battle with nature.

It is tempting though, tempting to see if I could join in with something and perhaps learn a bit of self-discipline.

But just two seconds after writing “self-discipline” I know it isn’t going to happen.

I can see why people make lists at this time of year. Holidays are abound and kindle-free decisions have to be made as to which books will make it into the baggage allowance.

But weight restrictions aside, I can’t help feeling that listing books in this way is giving yourself unnecessary boundaries; self-imposed, teacher-less homework.

Everytime I finish something I know I will be spending the next couple of days, picking stuff up, turning it over, putting it down, picking it up again. And that’s what I love about that period between putting one book down and starting another. I sounds horribly corny, but you do need to root about for a while to find the book that feels right.

I’ve spent a while now going from one proof to the next in release date order and it hasn’t felt as organic (oh yuk! “Organic”?! Really, we’re going there?!) a process as spending those moments thumbing through a stack to find the book that fits.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate every proof I receive and am grateful for them, but my urgency to pay back publishers and authors for their generosity means I miss out on one of the simple pleasures of being a book-lover – those moments of browsing your own personal collection for a gem.

Sure, I always have a few titles that I’m eyeing up, but when I pick something up to start, I (hopefully) don’t know how its going to end, I can’t possibly anticipate that Book B will follow Book A as perfectly as my would-be list anticipates.

So with all these book lists going on I think it’s about time that I steered my blog back to its initial purpose – to focus on charting the books that have lain neglected on my shelf for YEARS, with proof reading as an added extra. Perhaps I shall try for one of each a week.

So with that in mind, and inspired by #BookadayUK’s topic from Tuesday (Favourite Great War novel), I have started a book I have wanted to read for years, but constantly browsed passed – All Quiet on The Western Front.

all-quiet

How to Build a Girl – Caitlin Moran

howtobuild

The Blurb:

It’s 1990. Johanna Morrigan, fourteen, has shamed herself so badly on local TV that she decides that there’s no point in being Johanna anymore and reinvents herself as Dolly Wilde—fast-talking, hard-drinking Gothic hero and full-time Lady Sex Adventurer. She will save her poverty-stricken Bohemian family by becoming a writer—like Jo in Little Women, or the Bröntes—but without the dying young bit.

By sixteen, she’s smoking cigarettes, getting drunk and working for a music paper. She’s writing pornographic letters to rock-stars, having all the kinds of sex with all kinds of men, and eviscerating bands in reviews of 600 words or less.

But what happens when Johanna realizes she’s built Dolly with a fatal flaw? Is a box full of records, a wall full of posters, and a head full of paperbacks, enough to build a girl after all?

This is a difficult review to write – I have always been a fan of Moran and was one of many women who jumped up on chairs to shout “I AM A FEMINIST” when she tore the book charts apart with the brilliant How to Be A Woman.

In fact, I loved her so much that I was baffled when people told me they didn’t like her. She so encompassed everything I was passionate about that I felt personally affronted, and a little bit like the person making these comments mustn’t be that great a feminist – as if Moran herself was the goddess embodiment of the movement. I defended her against some of my friends accusations that she was  “a keyboard warrior”, “unbearably smug” and “just a jumble of annoying facial expressions.”

Moran has come out and said her position in the feminist fight is resolutely sat at a computer writing rather than down on the frontline and I can see how irksome this is (especially to those I know who march and petition and bash down doors), but someone has to write a battle cry. Yes she can come across as a bit “smug” – but for me this is just another example of how women aren’t allowed to be pleased with their life’s work without being seen as showing off and not exhibiting the right amount of girly modesty.

But when it comes to this book, this book I looked forward to for months, that had me dancing around my front room when my B/F bought it home to me, that led to me wondering how many flappy bits of paper I would be inserting into it to mark all the wonder-nuggets within….

"Joy! My fella came home with this beauty last night! I wonder how many flappy bits this one will get...

“Joy! My fella came home with this beauty last night! I wonder how many flappy bits this one will get…”

….I was disappointed.

If I have read my How To guides correctly, the second rule of writing (after JUST WRITE DAMNIT!) is Write What You Know, and after one biographically-based non-fiction work, one biographically-based sitcom (Raised by Wolves) and now a second biographically-based novel, it is clear that Moran takes this rule very seriously and that to get me to engage with it again, it would have to be something pretty special.

The Author Note can protest all it wants to the contrary, but there is no getting away from the fact this is Moran’s teen years (again) wrapped around a few fictional incidents. The cover even shows a girl kicking her heels in a pair of Moran’s trademark DM boots. Moran’s story is an interesting and funny one – a monumental rise from benefits to bestsellers – but I can’t help wondering if this really is all Moran has to write about?

Before this book came out Twitter exploded in 140 character rage one morning when Moran made this comment to The Bookseller:

“It’s always about teenage boys going off and having amazing adventures. You don’t see teenage girls anywhere unless they’re being bitten by vampires so I wanted to write about a funny, weird teenage girl having adventures, particularly sex adventures.”

This was a bizarrely out of touch statement to make, and my Twitter feed swelled with excellent examples of YA fiction, from readers and writers, which represented funny and fantastic female characters (some that weren’t even interested in sex either, fancy that!). As a former children’s bookseller who mingled with the YA community in one way or the other on a daily basis, I couldn’t believe such an apparently informed person could make such a clanger. To my knowledge Moran never responded to this (please correct me in the comments section if I’m wrong), only to tweak the answer in a later interview to say it was more the dystopian novels she had a problem with:

“It’s so great that there are things like Divergent and The Hunger Games out there, but they’re set in horrible dystopias where a girl has the burden of saving the world.”

As the hashtag #whatcaitlinmoanshouldread will show you, Moran is pretty much dead wrong about this, and her comments make you feel a little like she is being a tad selectively blind.

Also, she can herald this as a new sex-adventure book for teenage girls as much as she likes, it doesn’t change the fact the book has been released for adults. I get that she likes the idea of girls sneakily reading this like my generation sneakily read Jilly Cooper, but if you are so determined to offer something you hope will inspire teenage girls – give it to the teenage girls. I am being cynical here (that’s me breaking the number one Moran rule), but you can’t help thinking that a) deep down Moran knows this story isn’t missing from the YA section and b) that she’d get an awful lot more sales from an adult readership that already loves her.

I’ll agree with her, it is hard to relate to girls existing in dystopian futures (although, bizarrely her own character becomes obsessed with wanking over gothic, satanic imagery so IT IS ok to like vampires and such, but only in a Moran way), but as someone who has struggled with employment in one way or the other since I left uni, the story of a girl walking into a dream job at 16 is pretty hard to relate to. And I don’t think people ignored the lessons of, say, 1984, just because it had an unreal societal setting.

Personally, I would take Katniss and her simmering inner strength over Johanna’s blathering on about sex like a six former at the back of the bus any day. And as this is so clearly Moran’s story, its hard to care about Johanna’s future when you know Moran’s ends up pretty brilliantly. All you do end up with is wondering when Johanna will have sex, and when she does, it is a pretty one-sided affair, something she initially relishes. It takes an uncomf0rtably long time for Moran to redress the balance and stop her character saying stuff about making men come being her job.

This book is also crammed with men and male accomplishment, female bands and writers are mentioned a bit, but most of Johanna’s idols seem to come from a very laddish place. I would have liked Moran to include more examples of creative women for her sneaky teenage audience to discover and be inspired by. Sure, Courtney Love gets a good look-in, but it’s Cobain’s face on the back cover.

It is also a shame that John Kite (the would-be hero of the piece) keeps referring to Johanna as “Duchess”. In my head he kept morphing into Jimmy Saville talking about his mum, and when a book covers older men having sex with a 17-year-old, it felt particularly ugh-some.

I can’t read anymore of me” Johanna laments on page 311, and by this time, neither could I. This book is testament to the contrived eccentricity of being a teenager and her top hat, name-change and general self-centred awareness becomes pretty grating.

But when Moran drops the narrative in Chapter 24 to offer her own voice and sisterly advice about building and rebuilding yourself, it is brilliant, and a timely reminder of how excellently she can put a point across (even if that point is the same “be yourself-whatever self, or how many selves that is” type of a point that appears in all those other books Moran says don’t exist). It’s just a shame the rest of the book contained such a unrelatable (to me) and slightly annoying character, this felt like the only moment where this became a book about TEENAGERS and not just about ONE TEENAGER.

The potential for something brilliant always bubbles around Moran, but for me this was a lost opportunity.

I would say, there can never be TOO many feminist friendly YA books (and argument Moran SHOULD have made), and its a shame this book will be shelved in the adult fiction section as it would have made a good companion to the  likes of Holly Smale and Dawn O’Porter. But as many enraged YA writers will tell you, they just don’t need her.

But I still love Moran, I read How to Be a Woman during a really painful,  difficult time and she was like this great towering powerhouse of advice and wit that helped push me through it. I will still read what she writes, as she writes like an astounding dream. I just really, really don’t need to hear this story, or badly pitched arguments about the state of YA,  any more.