Best posts I’ve read all week (a lazy list)

Yes, it’s one of those posts where I feel I should say something but I haven’t quite finished the books I’m reviewing and my hands are sticky with the thrilling exploits of apple-eating, and I don’t want to clog up the keyboard.

I also like doing lists.

Please buy this for me. From (click to go-go-go)


“Graduates: you’re doing it wrong.” – Stef Hall has written a fantastic post over at Atwood Tate; An Open Letter to Graduates is essential reading for anyone who feels like they’re butting their head against the publishing door.

Ellen at witnesstoexperience made me laugh and think with her post London centricity – especially with the line “I found my passion for theatre in Birmingham (I think that’s actually the only thing I’ve ever found in Birmingham).” Ellen is also blogging every day for a year, so she’s braver than I am.

And awesome news from Myriad Editions! Their Quick Fictions app (which I reviewed last year!) has been ranked in the Top 5 Apps by the Sunday Times. Read more of their exciting developments at Myriad’s homepage.

The Bell Jar (of anti-ageing cream)

Look what they’ve gone and done to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

Going straight to the heart of the matter: women are angry because make-up has been used as a tool of oppression. You are not good enough – buy this eyeliner. You are looking sexually non-viable – purchase this cream. Your age is showing – use this gel or you will never find love again.

And yet here we are, with Plath’s beautiful, angry piece about adulthood, confusion and being fucked up and not able to help it – with this cover.


Am I angry?


I’m sort of glad.

Glad because, by marrying Plath’s message with an image people associate with airy vanity, we can highlight this struggle.  Plath’s novel is heavily infused with a bewilderment about how young women are meant to behave. A girl’s own worst enemy – because society is telling her she must look a certain way, and her bone structure and complexion was never designed that way in the first place – is her own reflection.

To me, that cover embodies so much of The Bell Jar’s sadness and rage. If anyone’s going to reduce it to “silly woman applying make up”, they’re backing out of the fight, and refusing to engage with Plath’s concerns. And if someone picks it up accidentally whilst seeking out lighter literature – well, they couldn’t read a better accident.

ETA: Simon Usborne’s article in The Independent includes a small round-up of quotes – this one in particular makes me furious:

Jack Noel, a designer at Walker Books, said the cover “looks like it belongs in the chick-lit section at an airport WH Smith,” adding: “They may as well have called it Bell de Jar,” a reference to Belle de Jour, author of the Diary of a Call Girl books.

Noel manages to reinforce the notion that “chick-lit” is an actual thing (as opposed to being made up of light reading, romances, family tragedies etcetera etcetera) AND slut-shames at the same time by implying that pornographic literature is automatically lower than ‘real’ books. Splendid. Only, not.


ETA 2: Faber respond on 7/2/13:

The image on the cover picks up on the beginning of the story, where the narrator is an intern at a women’s magazine in New York in the fifties and is encountering the conflict between new freedom and old assumptions about women’s aspirations.

Our intention for this cover was that the image of the expressionless woman ‘putting on her mask’ and the discordant colour palette would suggest ambivalence and unease. The copy on the back of this edition makes reference to the narrator’s depression and suicide attempt.

Read the full response: The Bell Jar 50th Anniversary Edition


Tidal, Emily Snow

Title: Tidal

Author: Emily Snow

Publisher: Emily Snow Books

Kindle, £1.85

Rating: 1/5

From Emily Snow’s blog. Click to be taken there.

New year, same genres. The wave of Kindle porn keeps insistently rolling on. That would be just dandy, if the porn was actually any good. Will there ever be a decent, balanced erotic novel with good vibes and wholesome messages? Let’s see.

One of the most recent contenders is Tidal by Emily Snow, which has apparently sold many copies. I’m not surprised. Erotica does that.

This time around, young actress Willow (who apparently has brown hair but who I just see as Lindsay Lohan) has just been released from rehab and is offered the lead part in a remake of a surfing film. It seems that sports where you fall over a lot are a great place to get some hot sex, because Willow has handsome devil Cooper as her coach. The obvious happens.

It’s a hastily-written book with the expected structural and linguistic issues. Throughout the book it is obvious that Snow cannot decide on her target audience. She liberally peppers speech with swearing (which, instead of causing shock or impact, comes off as childish). Irritatingly, she props up her story with near-constant references to popular culture, which instead of supporting the narrative comes across as Snow trying to shoe in some relevance to today’s young adults. It is a very lazy tactic.

Initially, though, Snow’s writing is all right. Her lead Willow is believably damaged and vulnerable. In particular, the way in which she is used by her jet-setting parents as a source of income is sadly credible and those moments are genuinely very moving. If Snow was just to focus on the way Willow rebuilt herself and her confidence, I would be on board with it. I found myself hoping for that.

And as far as the erotica goes, it’s a lot more realistic that 90% of the market. Cooper actually uses a condom (I could have high-fived Snow for putting that in). Snow writes sex well, if a little tamely.

But those brief sparks of decent writing stand out like sore thumbs, because the rest of the book is awash with misogyny. Cooper is a nasty piece of work for a character who is meant to be a romantic lead. He repeatedly enters her personal space when she is unwilling to have him there – he drops by her beach house after she has specifically told him she wants to go to bed (rampant consent issues right here). He calls her “Wils,” a nickname she hates, even after she asks him not to. Disturbingly, he tells her that she is unable to get away from him because she needs his help to train for her film. Essentially, Cooper is an attempt to copy the cold, intense personality of Stephenie Meyer’s Edward Cullen, but comes across as manipulative, cruel. For someone who is meant to be a desirable human rather than a supernatural being, Cooper is a frighteningly unforgiving bully. It’s terrifying. Willow is a broken woman with two stays in rehab to her name and she gets this soul-destroying brute as her love interest?

Only one thing tops Cooper’s awfulness. His even more loathsome friend Eric greets Willow by telling her he masturbated to her music videos. And he’s meant to be a comic character. Er.

Willow’s responses at these points are troubling too. She claims she hates Cooper (rightly so) but in the same sentence reveals how much she wants to kiss him, because he is handsome. She appears to think that Cooper’s good looks and “sexy” accent (Australian) override his inappropriate behaviour – a damaging lesson. It is worrying to think about how the book could teach more impressionable female readers about the “acceptable” way to be treated by a potential partner.

As for Eric, she lets him hug her, basically saying it’s nice to be around someone with a sense of humour. OK. That’s… healthy.

It all calms down a bit when Willow and Cooper form a proper couple, but with a first half as shocking as it is, Tidal and its existence is unjustifiable.

So, there we have it. More misogynist rubbish to pack into the erotica market. If you’re a woman reading this book and you find Cooper a turn-on, I feel for you. Your self-esteem, like Willow’s, must be through the floorboards.

Got a book out this year? Get it reviewed!

So you’ve been published? Great! You want to run it past someone honest and sometimes scathing? Good on you for taking up the gauntlet!

Here’s how you do it:
1. You take note of how I can be blunt and to the point, but also full of praise if your work is good enough!

2. You pull up your chosen email client and start an email to fictavia (at) gmail (dot) com with “book review” somewhere in the subject!

3. You summarise your blurb, genre, intended audience and anything else important that you’d like me to know, and send it to me!

See? It’s easy!

I will read any genre, but prefer first-time authors because I like the little guys. They deserve their breaks!

Get in touch!

Exclamation mark!

Thanks, adulation and round-up

There was wine, there was humour, there were books. FICTAVIA has grown into a nice little blog with its pool of lovely followers (hi guys!) and more views for my grumpy rambling than I thought I could get or was worth.

This year has been a bit difficult for me, as I finished education and have started to try and find a job. Fictavia started off as a small project to save me going completely crazy. It’s grown an impressive amount in four months.

I’ve also been lucky enough to be taken on as a reviewer and features writer over at FOR BOOKS’ SAKE. Two more articles from me are due early in the new year – I’ll post the links when they’re ready. And  I got to write a guest post for one of my favourite blogs, THESE LITTLE WORDS

In the new year, there will be more book reviews. There will also be more humour posts and other miscellanea, as I move from a simple books blog to a more varied presentation of who I am and what I think.

Basically, starting this blog has saved a tiny bit of my sanity and opened up some opportunities for me, and that wouldn’t have happened if people weren’t reading my posts or tweets. So – I’d like to extend a big thank you to all who read my posts. You’re all great.

Link – my thoughts on The Glass Delusion by Abi Curtis

Recently I was kindly asked by Lizzie of These Little Words to write a guest post on one of my favourite books of 2012. I chose The Glass Delusion by Abi Curtis, and you can read the post here.

The link has also been added to my Elsewhere on the web tab, which can be found here.

Girl in White, Sue Hubbard

After a struggle, I finally finished Girl in White by Sue Hubbard (Cinnamon Press). Art critic Hubbard branches out into books to explore the life of German Modernist artist Paula Modersohn-Becker. Modersohn-Becker died a short time after giving birth to daughter Mathilde, whose curiosity is the impetus for this novel.

Unfortunately, Hubbard is too good at her day job. The prose is stretched thinly over solid facts, and the mixture does not work, instead creating a stilted structure. The writing style is rather old-fashioned, using a storytelling/reporting style in order to relate a lot of information in a short space of time. This makes the prose rather dull. It would have been more interesting if the action being described was to unfold first-hand for the reader to witness properly.

Sometimes the dialogue reads as stilted and very non-naturalistic. Often, Hubbard falls back on simplistic telling instead of showing, not bothering to explore concepts properly. Sometimes the writing is downright lazy. A castle is “like something out of Sleeping Beauty”; a bed is “like something out of Heidi”. Hubbard should have used her own words to communicate her own meaning, instead of borrowing images.

The clumsy wording continues throughout. Sometimes, phrases are awkwardly put: “a cheekbone pressed against an unshaven cheek” is possibly meant to refer to the cheekbone inside the skin. The structure of the sentence would suit the cheekbone of another pressing against an unshaven man – but that makes very little sense too. Another example is “[Paula] handed him a rose. But he turned away without taking it”. How can you hand something if the recipient doesn’t take it? “Offered” would work better.

Occasionally, there are fleeting moments of charm – such as when Paula gets to grips with the English phrase “learning the ropes”. However, the choice to constantly switch from moving, fully-characterised moments to other, inconsequential passages leaves the reader no time to process or connect with the events or characters. Too often there is irritating painting talk: both Paula and Hubbard come across as obsessed with painting but not necessarily in a good way.

Not all of the characters are fully formed or particularly tangible. Paula’s father is an exception, but even this is sometimes inconsistent. The narrative would be much more interesting if it focused on far fewer relationships and concentrated on building them up, instead of featuring a huge cast of brief appearances.

Overall, Girl in White reads like a first draft. It’s trying to portray a family affected by war (something Sue Eckstein does much better in Interpreters); it’s also an attempt to evoke connections through works of art, except it cannot stand up to the subtle charm of Orange Prize winner Téa Obreht and her debut The Tiger’s Wife. I didn’t hate this book – I just felt indifferent.


Nudity! Goths! Lace ruffs! Book characters I had a crush on.

At the risk of undermining all my credibility (if I have any), I’ve decided to share with you three embarrassing facts from my early reading life.

So I present to you the three characters from literature that I had a crush on. Intellectual, no? The point is, I got that much more into reading because of three pretend males. Don’t act like that’s weird.

3. Hamlet, Hamlet

OK, so this one is sort of cheating. Sometimes we like things because we associate them with other things we like. Sounds simplistic? It is. It’s exactly the same as liking the song that you associate with a significant other. (Never do that, by the way – it will ruin future playlisting activities once you’ve broken up.)

Hamlet landed bang smack in the middle of a very big Formative Years crossroads:

– Hamlet wore a lot of black. I wore a lot of black. It’s like Shakespeare GOT ME. (Or at least, outed me as a narcissist.)

– I was just thinking that I wrote splendid goth prose when along came “’Tis now the very witching time of night.” William, you terribly violent man!

– I had A-level English lessons with my best friend, so whenever we read Horatio and Hamlet, we got the friendship. You know? You know. So it was very special.

– My A-level English teacher was excellent. She sounded a bit like Joanna Scanlan, which was nice, because it meant she was calming to be around.

– All three of us had huge crushes on David Tennant. (One time, best friend and I changed the teacher’s PC background to a naked Tennant photo, right before she was going to do a presentation via projector. The reaction was awesome. Our classmates were either amused or mentally scarred; the three of us went very giggly. Anyway anyway anyway.) This was 2008, when That Production of Hamlet was about to go on. Best friend and I saw it (it ruled), and my love of the play, and Hamlet himself, increased.

You see what a potent cocktail I was drinking of that year? It was great.

(It’s also why I am totally behind “celebrity Shakespeare” – if it gets younger people to enjoy it, good.)

"I'll do anything just KEEP THE TEENAGE GIRLS AWAY FROM ME."

“I’ll do anything just KEEP THE TEENAGE GIRLS AWAY FROM ME.”

Any nudity aside (hahaHA! I only included it in my title to make you read!), Hamlet as a character is pretty much a moping girl’s dream. He’s a sensitive, intelligent young man. And even if he is completely irritating – no teenage girl realises that they or their peers are getting on everyone’s nerves, so that’s all right.

I went on to maintain my interest in the play – it got me a First for the first essay I ever wrote at university. I credit my inner 18-year-old.

2. Severus Snape, the Harry Potter series

I almost started reading the books at the wrong point (the horror!). The only reason I picked up Prisoner of Azkaban was because the thing on the cover was part horse, and I was one of those eleven-year-olds.

Luckily I was stopped and sent away with the correct book. Then Snape happened. It is made quite clear in the first book that he is a sexually unviable, savagely clever man. Turns out, this is exactly what I wanted. I didn’t get any hormone-related insanity until I was about 19, when I spent a whole summer arguing with my mum, and then it was done. Point is, I didn’t care about my burgeoning sexuality. I didn’t even have one. I was a young sapiosexual.

My bonding continued when more and more of his backstory matched mine (more narcissism!) – bullied at school, written off as being antisocial, poor people management skills. I haven’t yet joined an evil cult and started to kill people. But if I do I’ll probably switch back to the Good Side, because that’s what Snape did, and I’m like Snape, right?

In a reverse of what happened with Hamlet, my crush intensified once I saw Alan Rickman in costume. I did develop a parallel obsession with Alan Rickman. I mean, obviously.

He's so angry. It's hot.

He’s so angry. It’s hot.

1. Captain Hook, Peter Pan

I’ve always liked villains. Nothing happened to make me like them; I always have preferred them to heroes. It’s not even like an “Errr look at me I must be so detached and depraved” thing: I just really like villains. Anti-heroes, too, come to think of it.

What’s J. M. Barrie’s pirate captain, then? Obviously, he’s both at the same time, it all depends on whose side you’re on as you read. This makes him completely fascinating.

I asked on my Twitter yesterday if anyone had a crush on a Disney character as a child. I got back sensible answers like Aladdin and Eric. Three-year-old me instead chose to love the animated Hook. I can’t work out why. I think it was probably the hair. Maybe the clothes, too. Oh, and now I think of it, the voice.

So a few years later, I read Peter Pan. I hated it. I wrote in my reading diary that there was “too much description” and that I “don’t want to hear about each individual Lost Boy”. What I was really getting at was that there was far too little Hook for my liking.

When I re-read, I realised what a wealth of information there was about him. Did you know, for example, that he finds wild flowers beautiful? Or that he’s tormented by his strict Eton upbringing? Do you remember the bit where his eyes get red dots in them just before he kills? If you haven’t read the book, do it now. Barrie’s lonely grownup is a beautifully formed character – rife with sadness and anger. There’s something inhuman there too. He’s fascinating. (To see him done right on film, watch Jason Isaacs’s portrayal in the 2003 version.)

That sound you can hear is a million young women salivating.

That sound you can hear is a million young women salivating.

Barrie drops a tantalising hint that Hook is of noble blood. He consciously dresses like Charles II. Charlie’s descendent Prince William has disappointed on the abundant hair front. Not Hook. Do you know any villains who could carry off long ringlets? You do now. Hook also wears lace ruffs. LACE RUFFS. How does a bad guy do this without being terribly camp? (Hint: not by being played by Dustin Hoffman, although that is a very entertaining film.)

There’s also the fact that my primary school best friend nicknamed me Hook because of my long curly hair.

What you can conclude from this article is that I’m a massive narcissist who likes to see elements of myself in the books I read, and that I really like bad guys. I hope you feel enlightened.

The Marlowe Papers, Ros Barber

It’s been going around for a fair while. What if Shakespeare wasn’t – well, Shakespeare? If you didn’t know about the Shakespeare authorship debate before The Hollow Crown era of BBC this summer, you probably didn’t escape the media ripples from Derek Jacobi’s clumsy namedrop of the Oxfordian theory; maybe you were one of the people who was entertained and/or mortified by Anonymous (which I am told is a good laugh).

In The Marlowe Papers, early modern scholar Ros Barber explores my favourite Shakespeare-wasn’t-Shakespeare theory. What if Christopher Marlowe – author of The Jew of Malta and the bloke played by Rupert Everett in Shakespeare in Love – didn’t die in a Deptford tavern brawl? What if he just hid away and carried on writing?

Published by Sceptre; hardback £12.80

The Marlowe Papers is “a novel written in verse”. Don’t let that put you off. In fact, this should encourage you to read it. Echoing the rhythm and metre of early modern stage plays, the epic poem is beautifully constructed. Barber is a gifted poet: each line can be savoured. Her word choice might get lost in prose; in poetry, her skill gets propelled to the forefront.

What about the story? Barber concocts an alternate future for Marlowe by sending him abroad and embroiling him in all manner of adventure. Sometimes, it’s laugh out loud funny. Sometimes it’s very moving. Clever nods and references give the story a realistic grounding. The people Marlowe meets, loves and hates get to take the form of characters we know as Barrabas, Jaques, Prince Hal and more. Furthermore, Barber convincingly writes the process by which Marlowe is a slave to his creative brain: several times he answers question with a silver tongue, and is met with snide rebuttal. But he just can’t help it, and you really believe that.

Thematically, the poem repeats animal imagery – fish being caught to mirror court intrigue, for example – without being trite. My favourite theme is language and arousal: there is a beautiful passage in which Marlowe and the “dark lady” of the sonnets reach orgasm by speaking Marlowe’s forbidden name. I won’t give it all away – you must immerse yourself in Barber’s spell to get the proper effect. Other lines, like “London seduced me. Beckoned me her way / and spread herself beneath me, for a play” effectively capture the heady pull of city life and its possibilities.

Barber’s poetic skill extends to the way she guides her narrative with a steady hand. She manages to build and maintain tension where necessary, to dissipate it naturally and without interrupting the excellent overall flow. If it helps, The Marlowe Papers is just over 400 pages long; I read it in the best part of two days.

The book is two things at once. It is a scholarly work, informed by meticulous research and an obvious love of the subject at hand. There is a generous glossary and index should you find yourself wanting to investigate the characters further – but the work is never obscured by academia, and Barber herself writes that the notes are not necessary to understanding the meaning. It is also a stirring, emotional epic. It is lovingly written; in turn, I ended up loving Marlowe himself, as well as some of his supporting cast (the well-presented Henry Wriothesley in particular).

The Marlowe Papers, with its beautifully presented cover and typesetting, would make an ideal gift for anyone interested in Shakespeare’s canon. But it is also a great example of poetry written well – give it to any poetry fans in your life, too. Finally, it is a unique piece of literature – you must read it to experience it fully, and the effort is worth it.

I’ve handed out a flurry of five-star reviews recently, but please believe me when I say that The Marlowe Papers merits the accolade.



Maggot Moon, Sally Gardner

There have only ever been two books that I’ve read in an  afternoon. The first was Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee. The second happened yesterday – the whirl of language-bending, hope-inspiring, gut-crunching pages that make up Maggot Moon by Sally Gardner.

Published by Hot Key Books, hardback, £10.99

Standish Treadwell is a hero of fantastic name and unlucky fortune. He lives with his Gramps in Zone Seven in an unnamed dystopian regime (although it is frequently called the Motherland by its inhabitants) where the streets are policed and people go missing every now and then. Standish, at the age of fifteen, is a dyslexic and possibly autistic boy who can’t spell but is adept at deciphering foreign languages by the sound of them. His school is full of bullies both teenage and, terrifyingly, adult; his home is sometimes cold and devoid of food.

Along comes Hector and his parents, who turn out to be dangerously linked to the moon landing the country is building up to. Add to that the secret in Gramps’s shed and the ever-tightening ring of surveillance and you get a magnificent piece of work. It starts off as what you think is a familiar schoolboy coming-of-age novel. It quickly turns into a pitch-perfect mix of genres that leaves your mind turning over the events.

Gardner adroitly mixes and plays with her turns of phrase, demonstrating enviable skill. She does this both in her own right as an author (“this hat was knife sharp with a brim that could slice a lie in half” is one example of her wonderful craftmanship) and as a method of communicating Standish’s dyslexia (at one point he talks about meat being “screwered”).

Standish and Gramps, and indeed the rest of the characters, are presented so realistically that you form genuine feelings towards each one. I believe the reason the book works so well is because it puts real characters in trying situations and allows them to behave exactly as they would. You feel that much more sickened by what occurs because of that.

Reading through, I couldn’t help but be reminded of other books and genres. This is by no means a bad thing. Gardner’s story has immediately found a home on the literary scale. At the same time, it hones in on the tropes you know and gives them a bitter twist. The best way to describe Maggot Moon is like The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas meets Goodnight Mr. Tom meets A Clockwork Orange. 

For adult and teenage readers, Maggot Moon is a rare gem: a brilliant read that feels realistic in its character portrayal and dialogue, while communicating without ceremony the raw cruelty of dictatorships. I hope this book moves into modern classic status. It deserves it, and it deserves to be read.


Hel Gurney

Writer, performer, poet, activist, on-and-off academic.

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