Monthly Archives: December 2011

East of the West- Miroslav Penkov

I don’t know about you, but when I come across a new author I like, I do a little google stalk. Just a little one, no harm, no foul. And sometimes, I get this weird bittersweet moment when I realise that the amazing author I’ve just read is not much older than me. Not that you need to be old to be a great writer, but it’s that kind of jealousy that comes from someone being so amazing so young. A bit like when I see these tween celebrities looking chic and sophisticated. How do people do that? And why do I have to judge myself against the successes of others?

We can discuss my possible need for therapy in another post and for now I’ll stick to telling you about the amazing writer who inspired this latest fit of oh-but -you’re-so-young (the worst case since I read Zadie Smith’s White Teeth at university). Miroslav Penkov (born in 1982… 3 years! 3 years!) is Assistant Professor of Creative writing at the University of North Texas. Getting tenure at such an early age, you can imagine the quality of his work.

I was lucky enough to receive his first book, East of the West: A Country in Stories, a collection of short stories which read like a semi-autobiographical examination of his feelings towards his native Bulgaria. Part punchy, part elagaic, his stories are full of heart and colour. I always think that short stories must be harder to write than novels, because they need to do everything the latter does in a fraction of the word count, but Penkov is a master of the form. The wizardry for me lies in me believing that the author is every character narrating the story. He is a 16 year old girl with a penchant for theft; an elderly man struggling with the discovery that his wife had a lover before they met; his is the grandson and the grandfather locked in a war of wills who express their love for one another through a series of arguments and insults as below:

‘When Grandpa learned I was leaving for America to study, he wrote me a good-bye note. “You rotten capitalist pig,” the note read, “have a safe flight. Love, Grandpa.” It was written on a creased red ballot from the 1991 elections, which was a cornerstone in Grandpa’s communist ballot collection, and it bore the signatures of everybody in the village of Leningrad. I was touched to receive such an honor, so I sat down, took out a one dollar bill, and wrote Grandpa the following reply: “You communist dupe, thanks for the letter. I’m leaving tomorrow, and when I get there I’ll try to marry an American woman ASAP. I’ll be sure to have lots of American children. Love, your grandson.”’

Buying Lenin, East of The West, Miroslav Penkov

I think it takes a certain wisdom to be able to understand others that well, to be able to empathise with people who in terms of age, sex or nationality are very different to you, so in my mind Penkov is very wise. The collection of stories is, of course, focussed on the history of Bulgaria, of the East West divide, communism and capitalism, old and young but for me it can be pared down further to say that he captures the human spirit, in many of its beautiful and ugly guises.

A winning blend of folktale and modern patter, this collection is a must read if you’re interested in diversifying beyond the traditional realm of English language fiction. I sincerely hope that it encourages other publishers to develop their short story publishing, as I really feel that it’s an undervalued form and East of The West shows just how well it can be done.

Buy Online, Support Your Local Bookshop

For anyone who wants to support their local bookshop but reads eBooks, or enjoys the convenience of buying online, there is a new scheme called Hive which allows you to order the books online and collect them from your local indie bookshop. The local bookshop is then paid a commission fee. Apparently, they are also paid the fee if you buy eBooks or have the books delivered to your door.

Obviously this is a commission, so it’s still good to visit the bookshop and buy direct when you can but this could alleviate some of the guilt we feel when we’re too rushed to get in for a visit! The only problem for me is that my favourite local bookshop isn’t on there yet, though another is and there’s a lot of representation for the Oxford shops.

Birthday Books

Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me! I’ve had a great day and received loads of lovely presents including these books which I am so, so, so excited to read. I’m going to start with The Dovekeepers and Charles Dickens: A Life is pencilled in as my Christmas read.

Yay! Whooo hooo!

Nightwoods- Charles Frazier

A perfect winter read

I have a not so secret fantasy of going to live on a secluded small holding and living off the fat of the land (to borrow Lennie and George’s expression). I know that the reality of this would be alot less idyllic than the fantasy, but sometimes the urge to get away from the background noise of cars, mobile phones and televisions is overwhelming. But you suspect that it could get a little lonely. Maybe even a little creepy.

In Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods, the main character Luce is perfectly content to live like this. Having become the caretaker of an empty lodge after a distressing incident in her past, the still young woman is content to live in solidtude, spending her days quietly contemplating the landscape of the Appalachian mountains and the power of nature. Her peaceful existence is collapses when she inherits her sister’s troubled children, who have been mute since they witnessed her mother’s murder.

As Luce struggles to heal the ferocious and disturbed twins, she is forced to confront her past and learn to trust. Danger, love and apprehension are thrown together when the man who killed Luce’s sister begins to hunt Luce and the children.

This is a stunning novel from Charles Frazier, which sees him move away from his preferred historical period of the American Civil War to write about a town in 60s America. Despite this time shift, the description of scenery remains stunning, and there is a beautiful sense of Luce being a timeless tradition in the hills, which is a stark contrast to the grimy world of greed, deception and drug addiction of the post war America we see embodied by characters like Bud. There are lots of stories about psychologically damaged children in the world (you can’t move in some shops for the memoirs) but I’ve rarely felt such a bittersweet sense of hope than for the blossoming relationship between Luce and the twins.

As a reader, when reading a follow up to Thirteen Moons and the monumentally successful debut novel Cold Mountain, you’re on the lookout for any little slip in storytelling, but in all honesty I preferred Nightwoods to Frazier’s earlier offerings. Having moved away from vast casts of characters, Frazier has refined his style and for me, increased the emotional impact of his writing.

This book would make a fantastic Christmas present, and I will be buying it for my boyfriend’s mother, as she is a lady of great taste!

Author Rants at Agent

I’m still not sure if this is serious or a joke. I mean, it can’t be serious. Can it?

If you missed the open letter Sebastian Marshall sent to the Simon and Schuster CEO back in November, read it here. It’s pretty confrontational and downright crackers. Someone proclaiming themselves a business man and then demonstrating that he fundamentally doesn’t understand business at all. He abuses a publishing company who employ experts (or “artists” if you like) to help edit, copy-edit and market books, investing the large sums that authors simply couldn’t in developing a finished product that people will be willing to spend money on (that doesn’t come out all Jacqueline Howlett). He suggests that to drum up publicity the book should be free or have a money back guarantee… what business in their right mind would put themselves at risk of losing those sums of money in the current climate?

As if that wasn’t bad enough he then went to release the following video, demonstrating that he doesn’t understand that publishers deal in both print and ebooks, and that to produce a quality product, both require investment.

He thinks that he’s been blacklisted by the industry? I don’t know whether such a blacklist exists, but I can see why people would be unwilling to work with him. I can only imagine that he plans to release whatever it is as a self published eBook and this is some stupid publicity stunt.

Oh and put some clothes on.

Alice in Wonderland Inspired Gifts

Alice in Wonderland is universally popular because of the whimsy and nonsense that fill every page. It means different things to different people, but no one can deny that it is one of those stories which has sunk into the British public’s collective consciousness to the point where the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party was included as a scene in this year’s Marks and Spencer Christmas advert alongside scenes from Christmas classic film of choice The Wizard of Oz and panto favourite Aladdin. If you have an Alice in Wonderland fan in your life, they would love any of the following gifts.


I’d be happy to add this pretty Penguin Hardcover Classic version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass to my collection. It is a work of art on the outside and is complete with the original Tenniel images.





For crafty Alice fans, Everything Alice is a must have. One of 2011’s most popular craft books there is something for everyone in this gorgeous book. Given that the Alice in Wonderland bedspread from Urban Outfitters has sold out, this will give you some good ideas for Alice in Wonderland style decor for the home.




Grown up Alice fans will love this too cute little Drink Me bottle from The British Library which is filled with Austrian Grüner Veltliner sparkling wine. I’m sure the wine is delicious but I want this bottle soooo much. I love trinkets…






And speaking of trinkets this Drink Me pocket watch is also amazing. It doesn’t scream Alice in Wonderland, so readers and non-obsessives alike will love it but it would make a nice vintage-style touch to any outfit.




iconI really love the Alice in Wonderland afternoon tea set pieces from Mrs Moore’s Vintage store which I think were on sale at Liberty a few years ago, but this tea pot has to be my favourite piece.




iconI’ve seen a lot of amazing Alice in Wonderland themed jewellery (I have a pretty funky Disney Couture bracelet that I bought myself in my youth…) but I have never seen a piece of Alice in Wonderland jewellery as unique as this incredibly intricate locket… a once in a lifetime present for an Alice in wonderland fan.




If you want to decorate your tree with a touch of Alice in Wonderland, then the British Library has an amazing set of tree decorations inspired by the stories. You can go Alice, Hatter, Cheshire Cat, Flamingo, but my favourite is this cute Smoking Caterpillar tree ornament.