Shop Front

You know when something so amazing happens that you look back and wonder 'Did that really happen?' Whether it's a fantastic night out, a holiday of a lifetime, or a perfect first date - some things become pinch yourself moments. When I look back on my boyfriend's book launch two weeks ago, I definitely feel like pinching myself - no, seriously though, did that really happen?!

I met Sam when we were both studying English, Journalism and Creative Writing at the University of Strathclyde. While I was more focused on the journalism side of the course, Sam was 100% interested in creative writing: submitting short stories and poetry to creative writing magazines and performing at spoken word events, I thought of him as a writer long before he was signed by a publishing house.

After we graduated, Sam started to write his first novel: the story of a recent English graduate, Ben, who can't find work so moves back in with his parents and gets a job in Asda (can you imagine where he got his inspiration?) Ben finds himself dragged into a violent feud between the group of guys he makes friends with at work and another group from the same town. 

"'I was hinkin', right?' he says, 'Ken last night, when we git started on by they lads?'
     'Yeah?' I say.
     'They were only after us. Like, they only kent oor faces: me, Pete and Jake. No' yours.'
     'Yeah...' I repeat, wary.
     'Well, I hink it's pretty sound that instead ae runnin' aff, pretendin' no' tae ken us, you stuck wi' us; git yersel' caught up in this mess.'
     I don't say anything. My stomach clenches. I could have run away: gotten out before I'd even gotten involved."

I still remember the phone call at the end of last summer when Sam rang me at work to say Shop Front had been signed to the publishing house he had sent it to(!!!) I came back to my desk grinning like a Cheshire cat: 'He's been signed! His book is going to be available in book shops! Real book shops! He's been signed!' Fast-forward to the end of March (after a lot of editing, proof copies and meetings with his publisher) and the Shop Front launch night had arrived.

We all piled into Waterstones, Sauchiehall Street, in Glasgow, armed with free wine, delicious cupcakes made by my friend, Gillian, and shiny new copies of Shop Front, to celebrate. Sam read a couple of extracts of the book, followed by a question and answer session with his friend, and fellow Fledging Press author, Dickson, and questions from the audience. The night went really well, despite the bats which had been swooping around my stomach for weeks in advance (I was so nervous and it wasn't even my book launch!)

Now that the book launch is over, Sam is going to be busy doing readings and promoting the book at events. I'm going to be busy being proud and still a little in disbelief (and searching for Shop Front on the Amazon and Waterstones websites every now and again to prove to myself that it really did happen).

I don't think I'll review Shop Front on here (I'm not sure I can argue that I'm unbiased!) but if you're looking for a new book, I really recommend it. It's not only about violence and masculinity - it's about friendship, ambition, lust, youth and figuring out what the hell you're supposed to do with the rest of your life. 

What I read in March

Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean

"They dreamed they were playing tag with the mermaids, while the reflections of rainbows twisted around and between them like water snakes. Then, from somewhere deeper down and darker, came a hugely slithering shape that brushed the soles of their feet with its knobbly, scaly hide... 
     When they woke, the Old Boys' clothes were sopping wet, and there on its back, in the middle of the Gentlemen's Library was a prodigious crocodile, lashing its tail and snapping its jaws in an effort to turn over and make supper of them.
     The Gentlemen's Club emptied in the record time of forty-three seconds, and next day Members everywhere received a letter from the management."

Wendy, John and the Lost Boys have all grown up and left the days of pirates, mermaids and fairy dust far behind. That is until Neverland starts to creep back into their dreams, poking its fingers into the smog of London, and leaving cutlasses, pistols and whopping great crocodiles in their beds. Concerned that something is wrong, Wendy leads the "Old Boys" on an adventure back to Neverland, to find Peter Pan, and to mend the fabric between Neverland and London.

I'm going to cut to the chase, I loved this book. I think McCaughrean has done a fantastic job to capture the magic, intrigue and eccentricity of J.M. Barrie's work. If you've read Peter and Wendy, you'll know that the story is so much darker than the Disney version: Peter is arrogant and stubborn to the point of obnoxiousness, Hook would sooner rip out another pirate's throat than shake his hand, and Tinker Bell is sexy, flirtatious, and monstrously jealous. Peter Pan in Scarlet captures the darkness of Neverland and has fun imagining how it might have looked twenty years later.

I think my favourite aspect to McCaughrean's writing is how literal it is: the adults become children again by dressing up as their own children, because "everyone knows that when you put on dressing-up clothes, you become someone else"; a strand of London fog, wound around Peter's heart, is more dangerous than any pirate or witch in Neverland; and children grow older in the moment they consider 'What do you want to be when you grow up?'

As Peter and Wendy is such a classic story, close to many peoples' hearts, I know that some people will have problems with McCaughrean's re-imagining of Neverland: she creates a world similar to, but distinctly different from, J.M. Barrie's Neverland. The children are grown up, the mermaids are dead, and it's Nana's great-great-great-grandpuppy who flies to the second star to the right, then straight on till morning. But, if you can stomach a Neverland different to the original, I think Peter Pan in Scarlet tells a wonderful story which captures the magic and excitement of being young (again).

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

"I turn to look at Clare and just for a moment I forget that she is young, and that this is long ago; I see Clare, my wife, superimposed on the face of this young girl, and I don't know what to say to this Clare who is old and young and different from other girls, who knows that different might be hard. But Clare doesn't seem to expect an answer. She leans against my arm, and I put my arm around her shoulders.
     'Clare!' Across the quiet of the Meadow Clare's dad is bellowing her name. Clare jumps up and grabs her shoes and socks.
     'It's time for church,' she says, suddenly nervous.
     'Okay,' I said. 'Um, bye.' I wave at her, and she smiles and mumbles goodbye and is running up the path, and is gone. I lie in the sun for a while, wondering about God, reading Dorothy Sayers. After an hour or so has passed I too am gone and there is only a blanket and a book, coffee cups and clothing, to show that we were there at all."

Henry has a genetic disorder which causes him to time travel unpredictably, leaving his wife, Clare, alone to deal with his frequent absences. When Henry and Clare first meet, Henry is thirty-six and Clare is six - when they first meet 'naturally' (i.e. when Henry is not time travelling) Henry is twenty-eight and has never met twenty-year-old Clare before, even though she has known him for most of her life. 

I think the time travel in this book is handled beautifully: there are no time machines or getting down with the ancient Egyptians - instead, Niffenegger creates a medical condition which makes involuntary time travel seem so real (so real, in fact, that when I Googled Henry's condition, one of the suggested searches is "Is chrono-displacement disorder real?") I loved that I had to work to keep up with this book ('Hang on... Is he time travelling? How old is she? How old is he? Hang on... What?!') I'd never considered myself interested in time travel before, but The Time Traveler's Wife hooked my interest from the very beginning - forcing me to imagine how I would feel if I was forced to re-live (often traumatic) moments over and over again, powerless to change what has already happened, or how I would react if twenty-four-year-old me was dragged back into the past to come face-to-face with thirteen-year-old-me (would I tell her not to mess around with her fringe, or warn her off boys?)

The best part of the book (in my opinion) is how Niffenegger manages to apply something as fantastic as time travel to the familiar domesticity of being a couple. Henry and Clare both tell the story in their first person points of view (using the present tense, even though the scenes may be happening in the present, the past or the future), which gives the reader insight in what each of them finds difficult within the relationship. If you've ever been in a long distance relationship, you'll know the pain of kissing someone goodbye for days, weeks, months, but at least you know when they're going, and when they'll come back; Clare never knows how long her time with Henry will last, and, when he leaves, if he'll return in two minutes or two years. 

I thought that this was a wonderful, unusual read, which manages to combine the complexities and questions of time travel and the unique heart-wrenching pain that can only come from love and loss.

Wonder by R.J. Palacio

"If I found a magic lamp and I could have one wish, I would wish that I had a normal face that no one ever noticed at all. I would wish that I could walk down the street without people seeing me and then doing that look-away thing. Here's what I think: the only reason I'm not ordinary is that no one else sees me that way."

August is an regular ten-year-old boy. He likes Star Wars, his dog, Daisy, and playing the Xbox. The only problem is August was born was severe facial deformities which mean that some people just can't seem to see August for who he really is.

Wonder begins with August starting school for the first time, and Palacio immediately reminds the reader of the particular self-consciousness which comes from walking school corridors. If you can remember how anxious your weight, your skin, your brand of trainers, made you in school, imagine going to school looking so different that "other kids run away screaming in the playground." 

I love that Palacio has created such an ordinary ten-year-old in August: he can be childish and stroppy when he doesn't get his own way, which I'm sure anyone who has ever been ten-years-old can relate to. It would have been so easy to write August to be such a perfect, sweet and innocent character that the reader couldn't help but be sympathetic to him - but, instead, Palacio has created a character who the reader loves not because they feel sorry for him, but because he is actually pretty great. 

Some of the chapters are told from the point-of-view of a friend or family member, which gives the reader glimpses into how the way August looks impacts on the people around him. Besides August's chapters, my favourites are told from the point-of-view of Jack, who August makes friends with at school, as they reminded me just how hard it is not to buckle to peer pressure (especially in school), but how, no matter how difficult, we can all choose to be kind.

While this book will remind you how cruel children (and adults) can be, it is ultimately an uplifting story. August is a funny, smart and brave character who you will root for from the very first page - which makes the finale even more wonderful.

A Lovely Way to Burn by Louise Welsh

"'Real life isn't like the movies. Most murderers aren't serial killers; they kill once, usually by accident, sometimes by design, generally because they were drunk, or stupid.' He glanced again at the bed where Joanie lay, her breathing shallow. 'What's one death compared to thousands? A tragedy for their loved ones, sure, but it's like I told you, we're in a war. Different rules apply. We may not be able to halt the sweats from spreading, but we can do our best to keep order.'"

When was the last time you stayed up into the early hours because you literally couldn't put a book down? If I had been a child when I read this book, I would have been under my bed sheets with a torch, reading until way past my bedtime. 

A pandemic nicknamed "the sweats" has broken out and the hospitals in London are quickly filling with the dead and the dying. Amongst the mayhem, Stevie discovers her boyfriend, Simon, dead in his bed - but she's convinced the sweats  are not to blame. But how do you get people to care about one potential murder in a city full of the dead?

I didn't want to stop reading this book from the first chapter - completely enthralled, I was happy to forgo sleep to follow Stevie's journey into the diseased heart of London to discover the truth about Simon's death. Welsh rips the veneer of civilisation off the face of London and reminds us how delicate the systems and processes we put our trust in are - if an unexplained disease like the sweats became real, how long would it take before our cities would descend into chaos? 

It's a bit of a cliché when it comes to books, but A Lovely Way to Burn is really the most compelling book I've read so far this year. It's also the first in a trilogy - I'll definitely be clearing space in my calendar when the next two come out. 

The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales by Kirsty Logan

"Ten years ago, first heart. Jacob was as solid and golden as a tilled field, and our love was going to last forever, which at our age meant six months. Every time Jacob touched me, I felt my heart thud wetly against my lungs. When I watched him sleep, I felt it clawing up my oesophagus. Sometimes it was hard to speak from the wet weight of it sitting at the base of my tongue. I would just smile and wait for him to start talking again.
     The more I loved him, the heavier my heart felt, until I was walking around with my back bent and my knees cracking from the weight of it. When Jacob left, I felt my heart shatter like a shotgun pellet, shards lodging in my guts. I had to drink every night to wash the shards out. I had to."

The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales is a collection of twenty beautiful little short stories. From coin-operated boys in an alternative 19th-century Paris, to two teenagers on the Isle of Skye, one with antlers and the other with a tiger-tail, who hate each other, despite what the rest of the kids at school might think.

Logan mixes the fantastical with the everyday - people rent hearts to stop their own from getting broken; a young boy tries to escape the island his sister died on, but she won't let him leave; a woman creates a lover out of paper to stifle the loneliness of her husband working offshore. 

Some stories are only a page or two long, others are a little longer, which means that you can easily dip in and out whether you have half an hour or a few minutes.

I've never read adult fairytales before and The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales didn't disappoint -  an unusual and magical collection that will stay with you long after you've finished reading.

Afternoon tea at Blythswood Square

Back in December an itison email popped into my inbox advertising a half price offer on The Duchess of Bedford Afternoon Tea at Blythswood Square. Blythswood Square is a 5 star spa hotel in the centre of Glasgow - somewhere I'd read about and considered going more than once, but I'd not committed to booking a room/spa treatment/afternoon tea yet. When I saw that I could treat myself and save £22, I didn't need told twice - I immediately logged in to my itison account and purchased the voucher. Before immediately realising that it could only be used Monday to Friday. D'oh! When it comes to deals on cake, my ability to read the small print clearly goes right out of the window. I work full time, so any opportunities to use the voucher were pretty much zero. That is until something really wonderful happened (more on that soon!) and I needed to book two days of annual leave at the end of March - hello cake!   

Unfortunately on the day we visited the weather was overcast and drizzly, so I wasn't able to get any nice photos of the building from outside, but inside the lobby is absolutely beautiful - black and white marble, with ornate gold details, but still simple and sophisticated
. The Duchess of Bedford Afternoon Tea is served upstairs in The Salon, so we made our way up the winding staircase, past the gorgeous crystal chandelier, into a bright, spacious room with little touches of grey and purple. We were sat at a very comfy (let's just say, I could easily have had a lie down and a nap after I'd eaten) sofa seat by a window and the waitress bustled off to bring our tea. Even though the room was full of couples, groups of friends and families, the atmosphere was lovely and relaxed (which made it even more difficult not to nod off on the squishy tartan sofa.)

The Duchess of Bedford Afternoon Tea is (according to their website, although ours was slightly different) made up of: 

Baked vanilla cheesecake
Mini chocolate and caramel éclairs
Raspberry and pink peppercorn macaroons
Lemon drizzle cake
Freshly baked plain and sultana scones with preserves
Emmental cheese with pesto and tomato on foccacia
Egg and cress on brown bread
Roast beef and horseradish on white
Honey roast ham and grain mustard on ciabatta
Smoked salmon and cream cheese on mini oatcake

As you can see, you definitely won't be going hungry after! We asked for vegetarian substitutes to the meat sandwiches and the staff were happy to make up cheese and tomato sandwiches, cottage cheese and spicy tomato chutney on mini oatcakes and curried vegetables on rice cakes. I've never had anything other than regular sandwiches served with afternoon tea before, so I was happy to see (and scoff) delicious little alternatives. As well as the sandwiches, the scones were ah-maz-ing (if you've been reading my blog for a while, you will already know I'm something of a scone fanatic), and, of course, the cake. Let's face it, a sandwich is a sandwich - everyone wants to know about the cake. Tiny little bite sized servings of lemon drizzle cake, carrot cake, raspberry macaroons, caramel éclair and lemon meringue pie meant that my sweet tooth was well and truly satisfied. In fact, I only managed the lemon meringue pie and a nibble of a raspberry macaroon before I had to have the rest boxed up for later (that night, in my pyjamas, in bed, bliss.)
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