Orangeboy by Patrice Lawrence

 

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Orangeboy has been on my radar since it was longlisted for this year’s Jhalak Prize, and the book has gone on to be Costa shortlisted and recently won the Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for Older Children. When I arrived at my writing retreat this week it was staring at me from the bookshelf and reading seems like a valid method of procrastination (in lieu of TV, housework, etc., all unavailable at the moment).

The book opens at a fairground in Hackney. Sixteen year old sci-fi geek Marlon is there with Sonya, an older girl who he knows is out of his league. He can’t believe his luck, and goes along with it when she offers him his first pill, but the date ends with Sonya dead and Marlon in police custody after being caught with Sonya’s pills in his pocket. What was Sonya up to, and what killed her?

As it turns out, Marlon’s older brother, Andre, was well known to the police. Up to this point, he’s done a good job of keeping his promise to his mum that he won’t follow that path. The problem is that someone else has plans for Marlon, only he doesn’t know who, though he suspects that its to do with Andre. Marlon’s dad died when he was younger, and so it’s just him and his mum. Andre is still around but barely – he lives in a home following a car crash which left his best friend dead and Andre with a serious brain injury. He’s the only person who might know what’s going on, only he doesn’t even recognise Marlon half of the time, let alone remember who might hold a grudge against him.

I loved the character development throughout the novel. Marlon starts off as a geeky sci-fi fan, doing well at school, missing his dad and the brother he used to have, and hanging out with best mate Tish who lives across the street. Part of Lawrence’s skill is showing how pressure and expectation can build up and force people into making reckless decisions. Issues concerning drugs, gangs, weapons etc. are given black and white coverage in the news – you get involved and you’re bad. But Lawrence has a full palette of grey, and there is no stereotypical lazy characterisations here. Everyone has a reason for being the way they are.

Forget that this is YA – this is a great book that deserves its accolades.

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

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I’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading Toni Morrison’s first novel, originally published back in 1970. Morrison’s reputation goes without saying, and I had to remind myself that this was her debut, a book that is so accomplished, so expertly structured in a non-traditional way that works to enhance the book rather than being just a gimmick. The theme of the book is the question of beauty; specifically Morrison asks why white beauty is the benchmark that we all (still) hold ourselves up to; why would a young black girl beg for God to give her blue eyes and think that without them that she will never be good enough.

Set in Ohio in the early 1940s, The Bluest Eye is the story of Pecola, a young girl growing up in a poor black family. Part written in first person from the perspective of Claudia, a schoolmate of Pecola’s, mainly written in a third person that shines a spotlight on the various characters that make up the local black community where the girls live, the structure is unusual but effective. Morrison looks at race particularly in this book, and is asking the question of her own community: why is lighter skin seen as superior? She uses examples of characters of a lighter complexion to show this point, most notably a schoolmate of Claudia and Pecola’s named Maureen Peal, a ‘high-yellow dream child with long brown hair  braided into two lynch ropes that hung down her back’. Where no one at school wants to sit next to dark skinned Pecola, everyone wants to be Maureen’s friend.

She enchanted the entire school. When teachers called on her, they smiled encouragingly. Black boys didn’t trip her in the halls; white boys didn’t stone her, white girls didn’t suck their teeth when she was assigned to be their work partners; black girls stepped aside when she wanted to use the sink in the girls’ toilet, and their eyes genuflected under sliding lids. She never had to search for anybody to eat with in the cafeteria – they flocked to the table of her choice, where she opened fastidious lunches, shaming our jelly-stained bread with egg-salad sandwiches cut into four dainty squares, pink-frosted cupcakes, stocks of celery and carrots, proud, dark apples. She even bought and liked white milk.

This isn’t an easy book in terms of subject matter. From the beginning we are told that Pecola will fall pregnant by her own father and so you spend the book waiting for that to happen. But Morrison is brave: there are no entirely good or entirely bad characters in this book, only flawed people. And so she shows us the upbringing of Pecola’s father, Cholly, how his mother and father desert him in turn, how he is shamed and abused, treated like an animal by a pair of white men in his teenage years. Even the scene of Pecola’s rape is seen from his point of view, not to justify it but to avoid dehumanising him. He, as with all of the characters, are real human beings, products of their place in society and all clinging on to their rung of the ladder, or falling off in the tragic case of Cholly and Pecola.

The Changing of the Leaves – Part Four

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The husbands arrived back late on a Wednesday, their arrival heralded by Celine’s happy laughter as she ran downstairs to greet Daniel. Maria had not thought to bother going downstairs but did not want David to look upon her with that look of his. Her husband’s valet was far too overfamiliar with him, and thought himself worse off to have saddled himself with such a useless wife. Not so very useless, she thought. At least she could provide Sam with an heir.

‘Daniel, you will never in a thousand years guess what I have done,’ Celine told him proudly.

‘Something incredible I am sure.’ He let her lead him into the drawing room where the maid was frantically laying a fire.

‘I have found us a cook! For our new house.’ She was dressed in her nightgown and robe, and when she perched on the sofa she looked like a child, her hair in a long plait that almost reached her waist.

‘And what new house would that be?’ Daniel joked. ‘I have been gone not two weeks and you have been busy without me.’

‘Well, obviously there is no new house as of yet, but our cook can wait for us, and we won’t have to wait too long will we, my love?’

‘Who is this cook?’ Sam asked. ‘In my experience any staff worth having are like gold dust – they do not wait around for houses to be rented.’

‘Ah, well that is the beauty of it,’ Celine informed him. ‘She is from the Magdalen! They have said that she can stay so long as she is gone by year end.’

‘The Magdalen?’ Maria could feel Sam’s eyes on her as he spoke. ‘Maria?’

‘Well, why on earth not? It is a good cause and those poor women are in need our forgiveness, not our judgement,’ she retorted.

‘What is this place?’ Daniel asked Celine, who sat back suddenly.

‘Well it is a place for women who have fallen on hard times,’ she told him.

‘It’s a charity for whores,’ Sam corrected her. ‘Your wife has secured the services of a former streetwalker as your new cook.’

‘How dare you!’ Celine was suddenly furious. ‘You have not even met her. Ruth Simpson is a kind and meek woman and she has excellent cookery skills. We tried her meat pie, Maria and I, and it was as good as anything that I have tried from your own kitchen.’

‘Do I understand this correctly? Sam, your wife took mine to a whorehouse?’ Daniel stood and Maria took a step back when she saw the look on his face.

‘It is not such thing!’ Celine stood herself. ‘Don’t you dare blame Maria. She has been my only friend since you left me here on my own.’ She stormed off, Daniel in close pursuit of her.

Maria breathed a sigh of relief. She had thought Celine to be just the usual easily swayed upper class girl that she had grown up with, but she had proved herself on several occasions now.

‘What is wrong with you?’ Maria turned to look at Sam in surprise. There was a vehemence in his voice that had never been there before.

‘She was lonely. She felt shunned and I thought that she would be cheered to see that there were women worse off than her. And look – she was happy until you went and made her feel that she had done something wrong!’ Maria turned to leave but he grabbed at her arm.

‘Don’t you dare blame me for this, though you do everything else.’ She tried to wrench away from him but he was too strong, pulling her so close that she could smell brandy and tobacco on his breath. ‘I helped you when no one else would and all you have done is punish me. You are an unhappy woman. You have always been so, and I would not be surprised if this was not some malicious attempt to bring Celine down with you, to drive a wedge between her and Daniel.’

‘Your good intentions are like the leaves on the trees, Sam. They look so fresh in the spring, unfurling and new, but it is only so long before they shrivel and die, getting trampled underfoot.’ He let go of her suddenly and she staggered backwards, catching herself on the arm of the sofa.

Maria pulled herself upright as Sam left without giving her another glance, his valet David at his heels like a faithful old dog. She would have best described the look on David’s face as triumphant.

 

 

Keeping Up Appearances – Part Four

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Maria was taking tea with Celine in the morning room when Sam arrived home.

‘We decided to call upon one another since we are both now social pariahs and no one else would care to visit,’ Maria told him.

‘Well, I’m sure that Celine’s company is preferable to those prissy ladies we used to encounter at those dull dinner parties,’ Sam replied, sitting and accepting a cup from his wife.

Celine smiled at Sam and put her cup and saucer back on the tray. ‘I will leave you two alone. You must have a lot to discuss. Sam, do you mind if I use your piano?’

‘Celine, you must treat it as your own. The reception rooms of this house are for you to use freely, how many more times can I tell you.’

As soon as she’d gone, Maria turned to him, her face serious. ‘Sam, are you angry with me?’

‘No! Why on earth should I be angry?’ he lied.

‘You’ve barely said a word to me since the doctor came. Are you not happy about the baby? I thought that you would want an heir.’

‘Maria.’ He took her hand and kissed it. ‘You know that I am not good when it comes to emotional matters. I will admit that I have not behaved appropriately. I am still getting used to considering myself married, after all!’

‘Well, it has been almost a year now,’ Maria reminded him. ‘At least the rumours that we were forced into a sudden wedding have abated now that no child has been produced as of yet.’

‘Your sister must be disappointed,’ Sam remarked. ‘I’m sure she was the one who started that particular piece of gossip. But I am sorry. I entered into this arrangement on the understanding that we would always maintain our friendship and that I would do my best to give you a proper marriage.’

Maria looked away, fidgeting with her skirt. ‘I know that you don’t love me. I don’t expect you to suddenly fall head over heels like we are in a fairy tale, but it is harder than I thought. You rescued me from marriage to a man that I hate. For that I am, and will always be, grateful.’

‘And you saved me from becoming a pompous and lonely old man.’ Sam took her face in his hands, gently forcing her to look into his eyes. ‘I am not in love with you, Maria, as you are not with me, but I do care for you. I can promise you that I will do my best to make you happy, and I hope this child will do that for you.’

She smiled finally. ‘You are a good man, Sam. No matter what everyone else says.’

‘What does everyone else say about me?’ He threw his hands up in mock distress. ‘I thought they all loved me.’

Maria giggled as he put on his act for her, David’s disapproving shadow just visible from the corner of his eye as he silently removed the tea set. He was not sure for how much longer he could keep up this charade of a life, different players performing various roles that even he could not always keep up with. Maria, David, even Daniel once the Hamburg child materialised, all complicit in different compartments of Sam’s life, none of them knowing the whole truth of how Samuel McCarthy had ended up in London. The perfect figure of a well-travelled gentleman, in reality a scared child running from his past, keeping up appearances in any way he could.

 

 

West End Treasure Hunt

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A Conversation with Oscar Wilde, Adelaide St nr Charing Cross

I’m always on the lookout for cheap stuff to do in London (especially since returning home from travelling with a pretty decimated savings account!). Meetup.com is a great source for all kinds of groups and societies, and I had done a walking tour with Hazel of Walks, Talks and Treasure Hunts before. The West End is an area that I always think I know quite well – not so much I found out on this treasure hunt!!

For £5 each this was a bargain. I went with my friend Jane but there were plenty of people on their own. We all matched up into groups of 4 anyway (there were 30-odd of us in total). Hazel is always super-organised and professional. If you’ve ever done a tour before with her she’ll recognise you. We were handed maps (vaguely plotted to show the spots where we should look for answers to the clues) and a question sheet. There were three photo questions which we had to take along the way and send back to Hazel for marking.

We met at Charing Cross station at 2pm and had until 4pm to make our way back to the Silver Cross pub on Whitehall for the awards. Having the time frame definitely helped/panicked us as there were a couple of times when we could easily have wasted twenty minutes trying to solve one clue.

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Recreating the Matilda poster in Leicester Square

Running around the area it became apparent that I am incredibly unobservant most of the time! Answers to clues could be found on the buildings, looking at plaques on the walls and on statues. I had no idea just how much history could be learned in such a short space of time just by reading plaques on walls. I had never noticed the Globe Head Ballerina on the side of the Royal Opera House, or the Roman frieze on the Odeon cinema on Shaftesbury Avenue (dating back to its time as the Saville Theatre and representing drama through the ages). It did help that all four of us in our group had a decent knowledge of the area so at least we didn’t have any navigation issues – all our unanswered questions were a matter of simple lack of deduction.

 

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The Young Dancer by Enzo Plazzotta, Covent Garden

 

Two hours was the perfect amount of time, though we had to rush at the end and missed a couple of questions out in order to get back on time. Our feet knew about it by the end but not so much that we weren’t able to power walk back to the pub for a well deserved drink. We didn’t place but came fourth which I was quite happy with.

If this sounds like your kind of thing then there are further treasure hunts scheduled on 24th July (City of London) and 14th August (Greenwich) plus loads of interesting walks (and of course talks!). Check out Walks, Talks and Treasure Hunts on meetup.com.

The Geffrye Museum

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View across the front gardens

The Geffrye Museum, 136 Kingsland Rd, London, E2 8EA. Free entry.                  http://www.geffrye-museum.org.uk

The Geffrye is a unique museum in that it is set in the former almshouses of the Ironmongers’ company, built in 1714 with a bequest from Sir Robert Geffrye. These Grade I listed buildings have been home to a museum since 1914, and today the Geffrye is known as the Museum of the Home.

The almshouses were originally home to around 50 pensioners, for around 200 years. One of these almshouses has been restored and can now be visited, but only on a few days per year (see website for dates). The main draw for me was the period rooms, of which there are 11. These take visitors through London history, looking at the central rooms of the house, from a 1630s halls into the drawing rooms of the 19th century and up to the living room of a late 20th century loft apartment. Currently they are holding an exhibition: Swept Under the Carpet: Servants in London Households 1600-2000 (until 4 September)  and so there is a focus on the changing nature of the servant’s work and their relationship with their employer. There are also several events for adults and children related to the exhibition so please look online for dates.

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View from the reading room on to the gardens

As well as the impressive front garden which is open all year and provides access to the museum, there are period and herb gardens which are open between April and October. The period gardens have been based very carefully on evidence gleaned from drawings, maps and garden plans, and also from literature in order to be as accurate as possible. Whilst the 17th century garden is quite functional, providing plants that were useful for household or medicinal use, the 19th century Victorian garden is more decorative and also boasts a greenhouse.

After a good exploration of the grounds, the café at the Geffrye is a perfect place to stop. This is in the newer section of the museum and is very welcoming, overlooking the gardens. As well as coffee and cake, there is a full menu offering breakfast and lunch, a kids menu plus wine, beer and soft drinks. There was zero cafeteria feel  which is an annoyance of cafés in the bigger museums and I would visit again just to use this.

And then – next to the café is the shop! I spend far too much money in museum shops as it is and this one is particularly dangerous. I escaped with only 2 books but could easily have bought more. They had beautiful cups, teapots (I don’t drink tea but was tempted!), hefty but beautifully wrapped bars of carbolic and laundry soap.  I will be back.

The Geffrye is a registered charity so, although entry is free, donations are very much welcomed. There is a Just Giving page set up with the aim of raising £25000 (more info about the project is on there). You can also become a Friend for only £20 per year which is very reasonable compared to the bigger museums and galleries.

 

 

 

Books – This Is How You Lose Her – Junot Diaz

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This is one of those books that had to be read. Although this collection of short stories was published in 2012, the diversity debate on Twitter, which I follow quite closely, has meant that this book has been recommended by several people who know what they’re on about. Then when I walked into my local library last week it was sitting there – centre stage on the Recommended book case. I checked it out.

Until recently I haven’t been a huge reader of short stories. Some people like them as you can dip in and out of a book, but I’ve always been a committer to a long story and have been loyal to the novel. As I’ve tried to improve my own writing I’ve discovered the short story anew. It’s a real skill to be able to tell a story in a small number of words and have the reader come away satisfied. This collection takes the theme of love and the pain that goes along with it. For those who like to spend time with a character, this particular collection may be especially of interest: Yunior is the centre of these stories, a young Dominican living in New Jersey. Several stories link tightly to one another, setting up a character in one, then visiting them again later on in the book.

Diaz is a Pulitzer prize winner, so no matter whether this is usually your type of writing or not, it’s a safe pair of hands even when the words themselves are unfamiliar (there is much use of slang and Spanish but only brief moments and you can get the gist). It’s a very male voice – Yunior is a hugely chauvinistic character and, in the earlier stories especially, seems to have little respect for women. The first story, The Sun, the Moon, the Stars begins with Yunior’s girlfriend finds out that he’s been cheating on her. It’s a bit of a recurrence throughout the book, the infidelities of Yunior and other men. The good news is that cheats never prosper and so, as much as reading the misogynistic thoughts of Yunior et al can be infuriating, you just have to hold on and the retribution will come sooner or later.

There are many heart-breaking moments as well. The stories which feature Yunior’s family life are incredibly moving – Nilda is the introduction to brother Rafa, and from that moment you can watch the influence he has on Yunior and how these experiences turned Yunior into the man we have already seen. The stories aren’t told chronologically, they flit back and forwards, but it doesn’t matter. It adds in some ways as superficial judgements that I made based on the earlier stories then change later on as I learn about the boys’ childhood, their arrival in the US from Santo Domingo and about their family life.

There are many books written on the subject of love but, if you want to try something touching and funny, different, colourful and thought-provoking, you should read this.