Off Topic #1

Earlier this year a number of events lead me to think about my career, and what I have achieved, and what I would like to achieve in the future.  I am proud of what I have achieved in my current career, but looking ahead 20 years, I can’t picture myself still doing it.

I had a think about what I could do if I couldn’t continue in my current job, which lead to a moment of panic and a wail of “I don’t know how to do anything else!”  A cup of tea later, I thought through all the things I like doing in my personal time, and realised that working in publishing might be a good choice.  I did a little research, found some job profiles and adverts for various publishing positions, and decided that being an Editor seemed like a very attractive proposition.

I was looking for entry-level jobs at publishing houses, when I stumbled upon a tweet announcing the launch of Penguin Random House’s Scheme16.  This is an amazing opportunity scheme that Penguin Random House ran for the first time last year, when they were looking for Marketing candidates.  This year they were looking for Editors.  The Scheme works like this:  There are three rounds, and at the end of the final round, they select four candidates which are then offered a year of fully paid training with two of their divisions.  I have repeatedly referred to it as a “golden-ticket opportunity”, and think that is a fitting description.  There is no entry requirement to apply for the selection process – they are looking for people with certain aptitudes, and don’t discriminate on background, previous work experience, or qualifications – in fact at no point was I asked to provide a CV, a list of qualifications, or was asked about any of my work experience.

1,300 people applied for round one, and I was lucky enough to be one of 20 applicants to make it through to the final round.

It was an amazing experience, and I learnt a lot about both publishing and myself.  In fact, in the days after the final round, and then in the weeks after being told that I wasn’t one of the lucky four to be given a place on The Scheme, my ideas and aspirations have really solidified.  Given my time again, I absolutely would apply all over again, even knowing I wouldn’t be given a place at the end of the process.

The HR team at Penguin Random House were enormously supportive and friendly.  Meeting them in the final round was a pleasure.

Since then my life seems to have exploded.  Much time has been spent researching, bugging friends of friends who work in publishing for coffee or lunch so that I can pick their brains, and crafting a plan to get me into a position to work in publishing.

The written feedback I was provided with after the final round of The Scheme, and the activities which were used for assessment in that final round have informed much of my planning.  I saw them as a list of requirements and attributes that help one become an ideal editorial assistant candidate.

I have joined the Society for Editors and Proofreaders.  I met with the London regional group organiser who patiently answered hundreds of questions and was very encouraging.

This led me to begin the Publishing Training Centre’s Basic Proofreading Course. Once I have completed it, I plan to use the acquired skills to begin a part-time freelance proofreading business, and to work towards upgrading my SfEP membership.

I have also begun an Open University part time BA(Hons) English Literature and Language degree.  Although this will take some time to complete, I feel that the skills and knowledge gained will be valuable in the long-run.

I will, of course, be continuing this blog with more book reviews.  I hope to develop the blog, finding ways to make it a valuable resource in the wider book-review community.

I have also taken the huge decision to wind-down my current career so that I can focus fully on studying, acquiring publishing-specific skills, and applying for publishing positions.  I will be seeking a part-time job in a bookshop (naturally!) to provide me with an income until that magic publishing position is in my hands.

My other half reminds me often that the joy of an accomplishment is not just in the end achievement, but in the journey that carries you there.  So, I will be posting here regularly, recording the journey for myself, and for anyone else it proves to be instructive to.  I encourage you to share your insights and your journeys with me, and your gems of information and wisdom.  My comment boxes are always open.  I hope to speak with you soon.

Jenn

Audiobook Review: The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley

61-noujtgwl-_sl300_The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
Publication date:
 07 July 2015
Genre:  General Fiction (Adult)
Length:  10 hours 11 minutes (Unabridged)
Narrated by:  Thomas Judd
Published by:  Audible Studios for Bloomsbury
Available at:  Audible.co.uk

My Rating: 5 out of 5

Description:

It’s 1883. Thaniel Steepleton returns home to his tiny London apartment to find a gold pocket watch on his pillow. Six months later the mysterious timepiece saves his life, drawing him away from a blast that destroys Scotland Yard. At last he goes in search of its maker, Keita Mori, a kind, lonely immigrant from Japan. Although Mori seems harmless, a chain of unexplainable events soon suggests he must be hiding something. When Grace Carrow, an Oxford physicist, unwittingly interferes, Thaniel is torn between opposing loyalties.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is a sweeping, atmospheric narrative that takes the listener on an unexpected journey through Victorian London, Japan as its civil war crumbles longstanding traditions, and beyond. Blending historical events with dazzling flights of fancy, it opens doors to a strange and magical past.

My Thoughts:

I purchased an Audible.co.uk download of this audiobook through my Audible.co.uk monthly subscription.

This book has sat in my wish list since its release last year.  When my subscription to Audible.co.uk renewed this month, I decided it was time to satisfy my curiosity about this book.

I wasn’t disappointed.  Immediately the intrigue begins with Thaniel discovering that someone has broken into his flat to give him a gold pocket watch, which will not open.  A bomb goes off near Scotland Yard, and watch saves him from the explosion.  From here a series of unlikely but logical events lead him to the watchmaker with a pet octopus, a headstrong female scientist, and the maker of the bomb.

Thomas Judd narrates perfectly, adding enough character to dialogue and narration to give the words life, without becoming a distraction from the story.

This book is a page-turner.  I listened in commuter-chunks to and from work.  I almost missed my stop on the train several times – I was that engrossed.

Listening in these chunks in no way interrupted the tension and compelling nature of the story.  In fact, I found myself thinking that this book would make a wonderful serialised radio play, or tv drama.  Each scene, each chapter is a perfectly constructed episode that satisfies your last curiosity, and then presents you with a little cliff-hanger that leaves you hungry for more.

I loved this audiobook, and imagine that in paper-book format it is just as wonderful.  I recommend it heartily, but with the health-warning that reading/listening to it on public transport will result in missing your stop!

Book Review: The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf

cover78814-mediumThe Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf
Publication date:
 22 October 2015
Genre:  Science
Length:  496 pages
Published by:  John Murray Press
Available at:  Amazon.co.ukGoodreads

My Rating: 4 out of 5

Description:

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) is the great lost scientist – more things are named after him than anyone else. There are towns, rivers, mountain ranges, the ocean current that runs along the South American coast, there’s a penguin, a giant squid – even the Mare Humboldtianum on the moon.

His colourful adventures read like something out of a Boy’s Own story: Humboldt explored deep into the rainforest, climbed the world’s highest volcanoes and inspired princes and presidents, scientists and poets alike. Napoleon was jealous of him; Simon Bolívar’s revolution was fuelled by his ideas; Darwin set sail on the Beagle because of Humboldt; and Jules Verne’s Captain Nemo owned all his many books. He simply was, as one contemporary put it, ‘the greatest man since the Deluge’.

Taking us on a fantastic voyage in his footsteps – racing across anthrax-infected Russia or mapping tropical rivers alive with crocodiles – Andrea Wulf shows why his life and ideas remain so important today. Humboldt predicted human-induced climate change as early as 1800, and The Invention of Nature traces his ideas as they go on to revolutionize and shape science, conservation, nature writing, politics, art and the theory of evolution. He wanted to know and understand everything and his way of thinking was so far ahead of his time that it’s only coming into its own now. Alexander von Humboldt really did invent the way we see nature.

My Thoughts:

I received an ebook ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to NetGalley and John Murray Press for providing me with this copy.

It seems so unlikely that someone who was so influential in so many areas of science, art, and philosophy could be largely forgotten, but that seems to be the case with Humbolt.

Get ready to feel completely inadequate with your life achievements to date as you read through this chronology of his astonishing life and career.

Individual events are barely lingered on for any time at all before the book races on to the next event.  This is a matter of necessity for the sheer amount of material to be covered.

Humbolt travelled to an incredible number of places, and took meticulous interest in every detail of every place he visited.  He advised US presidents, inspired revolutionaries, artists, poets, authors, and recognised and documented the effect of human actions on nature before anyone else.

The first two-thirds of the book cover Humbolt’s remarkable life, and the final third covers some of the most notable of those who went on to make world-changing achievements after Humbolt’s death, inspired by and following on from Humbolt’s work.

The book is written in an easy, conversational style that feels like having a glass of wine with a friend, and being told a huge, incredible, and compelling anecdote.  I was hanging on its every word from the opening scene until the closing conclusions.

Book Review: The Reflections of Queen Snow White by David Meredith

51qjp7z3kdl-_sy346_The Reflections of Queen Snow White by David Meredith
Publication date:
 02 October 2013
Genre:  Fairytale
Length:  155 pages
Published by:  David Meredith
Available at:  Amazon.co.ukGoodreads

My Rating: 2 out of 5

Description:

What happens when “happily ever after” has come and gone?

On the eve of her only daughter, Princess Raven’s wedding, an aging Snow White finds it impossible to share in the joyous spirit of the occasion. The ceremony itself promises to be the most glamorous social event of the decade. Snow White’s castle has been meticulously scrubbed, polished and opulently decorated for the celebration. It is already nearly bursting with jubilant guests and merry well-wishers. Prince Edel, Raven’s fiancé, is a fine man from a neighboring kingdom and Snow White’s own domain is prosperous and at peace. Things could not be better, in fact, except for one thing:

The king is dead.

The queen has been in a moribund state of hopeless depression for over a year with no end in sight. It is only when, in a fit of bitter despair, she seeks solitude in the vastness of her own sprawling castle and climbs a long disused and forgotten tower stair that she comes face to face with herself in the very same magic mirror used by her stepmother of old.

It promises her respite in its shimmering depths, but can Snow White trust a device that was so precious to a woman who sought to cause her such irreparable harm? Can she confront the demons of her own difficult past to discover a better future for herself and her family? And finally, can she release her soul-crushing grief and suffocating loneliness to once again discover what “happily ever after” really means?

Only time will tell as she wrestles with her past and is forced to confront The Reflections of Queen Snow White.

My Thoughts:

I received a gifted kindle copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to David Meredith for providing me with this copy.

When I was approached to review this book, I was intrigued by the premise.  What does happen to fairytale heroines and heroes after their ‘happily ever after’?

The story follows on from the Grimm Brothers version of Snow White.  This is not a cuddly child-friendly Disney story.  There is something pleasing about the fact that this fairytale is gritty, dark, and uncomfortable.

To be honest, it took a good way into the book before I found something I liked.

The opening scene is long, descriptive, and lacking in action.  I was hoping that it would have some meaning to be revealed later in the book, but found none other than a brief reference back to it right at the end of the book.

There is much retelling of the events of the original fairytale as Queen Snow White relives her childhood, escape from her stepmother, and rescue by Prince Charming.  Where the story becomes interesting is after Prince Charming and Snow White are married, when, with Prince Charming away, Snow White is forced to assert her royal authority in the face of a noble who seeks to undermine her.

Much of the narration is, for my tastes, overburdened with adjectives.  While some adjectives are delicious choices that one would not expect to find outside of poetry or a thesaurus, there are many adjectives which are repeated to the point of over use.  I found much of the dialogue stiff, and didn’t enjoy the accents given to some of the characters.  My continuing thought was that this book would benefit from an editor’s eye.

I enjoyed the device of using the magic mirror as a way to show Snow White what she has accomplished.  It was a clever means to give her a different perspective on her life.  The mirror itself has some profoundly wise things to say, and delivers the story’s message clearly.

In all, although I found the style of the narrative difficult to read, it is a book with an intriguing premise, and some interesting moments.

Book Review: Himself by Jess Kidd

cover85399-mediumHimself by Jess Kidd
Publication date:
 27 October 2016
Genre:  Mystery & Thrillers, Sci Fi & Fantasy
Length:  368 pages
Published by:  Canongate Books
Available at:  Amazon.co.ukGoodreads

My Rating: 3 out of 5


Description:

When Mahony returns to Mulderrig, a speck of a place on Ireland’s west coast, he brings only a photograph of his long-lost mother and a determination to do battle with the village’s lies.

His arrival causes cheeks to flush and arms to fold in disapproval. No one in the village – living or dead – will tell what happened to the teenage mother who abandoned him as a baby, despite Mahony’s certainty that more than one of them has answers.

Between Mulderrig’s sly priest, its pitiless nurse and the caustic elderly actress throwing herself into her final village play, this beautiful and darkly comic debut novel creates an unforgettable world of mystery, bloody violence and buried secrets.

My Thoughts:

I received an ebook ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to NetGalley and Canongate Books for providing me with this copy.

There is something Stephen King-esque about this novel.  The combination of a small “local village for local people”, a suspected murder, untruths, half-truths, deception, and a smattering of the supernatural could easily come from King’s fictional town of Castle Maine.  Instead the book sends us to a village in rural Ireland, but with all the same ingredients.  It works well.

Mahony arrives in Mulderrig from Dublin, cocky, charmingly scruffy, with the requisite murky past, and a score to settle.  He was given to an orphanage as a baby, and knows nothing more of his heritage than the photo he has of his mother.  He wants answers, and is unlikely to get them easily.

The story jumps between two timelines:  Mahony’s present (the 1970’s), and his mother Orla’s (the late-1940’s).  The timeline is indicated at the top of every chapter, which is useful for clarity, but becomes repetitive where there are multiple chapters in a row from the same timeline.  The use of two timelines doesn’t feel entirely necessary as Orla’s timeline is much less used and less developed, but does add a few suspenseful scenes and leaves a sprinkling of cliff-hangers through the book which certainly add to its page-turning qualities.

As Mahony seeks to find out who his parents were, and what happened to his Mother, he inevitably makes friends and enemies.  A fringe few share his suspicions that his mother met an unsavoury fate.  The majority are happy to follow the village-line that the she just left town one day, and it was Orla herself who gave Mahony to the orphanage.  Those who consider themselves the guardians of the town’s morality naturally take offence to his questions, and seek first to derail his enquiries, and then to derail Mahony himself.

Mahony’s roguish ways lead to threats made against him, and some to fall in love with him.  Their desires become helpful and obstructive by equal measure.

The pinnacle moment comes when the unseen forces of the village seem to step in.  The aftermath reveals everyone for who they truly are, and answers are finally unearthed.

This small-town supernatural mystery-thriller is a fun read.  Whilst the writing is a little clunky in places, it is nicely plotted and executed.  It is easy to keep turning the pages, and rewards with a near-apocalyptic climax and a neat, satisfying ending.

This is a great first novel from Jess Kidd.  I look forward to reading more of her titles in the future.

Book Review: Not So Much, Said the Cat by Michael Swanwick

cover86080-mediumNot So Much, Said the Cat by Michael Swanwick
Publication date:
  09 August 2016
Genre:  Sci Fi & Fantasy
Length:  288 pages
Published by:  Tachyon Publications
Available at:  Amazon.co.ukGoodreads

My Rating: 3 out of 5

Description:

In this much-anticipated new collection, Michael Swanwick (The Dog Said Bow-Wow) takes a feline turn—prowling the pages with grace, precision, and utter impertinence. The master of short science fiction takes us on whirlwind journeys across planets, time, and space, where magic and science co-exist in endless possibilities. Swanwick’s spectacular offerings are intimate in their telling, galactic in their scope, and delightfully-sesquipedalian in their verbiage.

In Not So Much, Said the Cat you’ll find time travelers from the Mesozoic partying ’til the end of time, and a calculus problem that rocks the ages. A supernatural horse-guardian journeys with a confused but semi-repentant troll. A savvy teenage girl wagers against the Devil, and is promptly set upon by the most unsuitable of suitors.

And of course, you’ll meet Beelzebub the cat, whose subtle influence may not be entirely benign….

My Thoughts:

I received an ebook ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to NetGalley and Tachyon Publications for providing me with this copy.

This is a curious collection of short stories.  They manage to be just long enough to satisfy, but not so long as to become laborious.

On first look, this might look like a slightly surreal collection of stories with nothing more to link them than their Sci-fi and Fantasy settings.  On closer inspection there are deep questions being discussed.

Through stories that question perception of reality, freewill, honesty, truth and morality, the unifying theme becomes “choices”.

It’s hard to say much more without discussing each story, and introducing spoilers.

This was a good book for reading on commutes, and in meal-breaks at work.

Book Review: The Secret Poisoner by Linda Stratmann

cover85065-mediumThe Secret Poisoner: A Century of Murder by Linda Stratmann
Publication date:
  22 March 2016
Genre:  Non Fiction, Science, History
Length:  320 pages
Published by:  Yale University Press, London
Available at:  Amazon.co.ukGoodreads

My Rating: 4 out of 5

Description:

Murder by poison alarmed, enthralled, and in many ways encapsulated the Victorian age. Linda Stratmann’s dark and splendid social history reveals the nineteenth century as a gruesome battleground where poisoners went head-to-head with authorities who strove to detect poisons, control their availability, and bring the guilty to justice. She corrects many misconceptions about particular poisons and documents how the evolution of issues such as marital rights and the legal protection of children impacted poisonings. Combining archival research with a novelist’s eye, Stratmann charts the era’s inexorable rise of poison cases both shocking and sad.

My Thoughts:

I received an ebook ARC copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  Thank you to NetGalley and Yale University Press for providing me with this copy.

Linda Stratmann is best known as a Crime Fiction writer, and confesses a fascination with the Victorian era, and Victorian Crime.  It feels as though this book is a culmination of the research which goes into her Victorian Crime novels.

The narrative voice maintains a Dickensian vibe in between quotes from newspapers, essays, letters, court records, trial records, and other published sources from the era.  It feels comfortable and fitting.

There is a lot of passion in this book.  Stratmann’s Author’s Note explains that although she avoids gory gruesome details in her Frances Doughty novels, in this book she will not spare the reader’s stomach.  She also explains that she doesn’t intend the book to be a compendium of poison murders.  Rather than present a list of unconnected, renowned cases, it is a story of “a duel of wits and resources”.  Stratmann tells the stories of the poison cases, the characters involved, the fate of the victim, and who got punished and how they were convicted.  They are all worthy of Miss Marple, Poirot, and Jessica Fletcher.  The motives for murder are mostly passion, greed or revenge, but a couple are shockingly cold, seemingly just for the sake of the act of murder itself.

Each case described justifies its place in the book, showing how it affected policy and law-making; how both poisons were sold, and how poisoning prosecutions were conducted.  Newspaper coverage at the time becomes part of these stories, influencing public opinion.

Notable figures in the emerging science of toxicology working to develop poison detection techniques add to the drama.  Vengeful acts weren’t only reserved for the perpetrators of poisonings.  In this competitive circle of innovation is a dramatic story of pride, jealousy, shattered reputations, misappropriated glory, and accusations of sabotage.

The Secret Poisoner paints a picture of Victorian society, before welfare reforms, and at the birth of modern science.  Ugly characteristics of human beings sit alongside the more noble attributes.  Even if non-fiction isn’t your genre of choice, this is still a page-turner full of dubious characters and unexpected twists.