The Book of London

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I am always on the run. I have lived in four different places in the last four years. am tired. I moved from Livorno and my University in Florence to Oslo for a semester, then back to Tuscany again. I went to Bronxville, a small town 30 minutes away from New York City, and then back to Italy. And then I moved to London, where I stayed for one year and a half.

Now I am back to Livorno. My last days in London were hectic, as I had to pack, say goodbye to my old job, complete a one-week work experience at HHB Literary Agency and, of course, see my friends for the last time. I have been thinking about London in the last few days, right after the emotion of being home fade away. I am spending my time with my loved ones in the places that I know and love, but London keeps coming back. I have the impression that it will always be.

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The first emotion I feel when I think about London, even before nostalgia or sadness, is gratitude. I don’t think I would ever be able to express my gratitude for all the people I met in this amazing year and a half. I would like to hug all the amazing people I met, my flatmates, my friends, my professors. My classmates and friends in London always did their best to help me with my writing and my English. They read my shit and gave me feedback. They listened to my clumsy English and corrected me if I needed it. Now I am braver and I know for sure that my grasp on the language is improved, thanks to them.

Almost all of my luggage is unpacked and settled again in my room in Livorno. But there is a bag, full of notes, memories, pictures and stuff that I am afraid to open. I am afraid it may mix up with the life I have here and I am sure I’ll start crying when I open the notes I received, the presents and gifts and the love all the people I met showed to me. And then, of course, I am scared of going back to London with my mind, and fall in a blurry place. But I just can’t leave everything there, in the dusty bag. I need to take everything out and, possibly, write my book of London. Stick all the notes and pictures and memories and the songs I listened to and the stories I wrote and the films I saw and the small things of life that I am so afraid to forget when I’ll leave Livorno again. Because I will.

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I left London three weeks ago and I am still living in some strange place where I can smell toasts from Pret in the morning. Where sudden gusts of wind mess my hair up in the tube station and everything goes too fast. A weird, blurry place where people are always busy and girls go to work stumbling on high heels.
Here in Livorno, instead, the wind on my face smells like the sea, even when I am not on the shore. The buzz of the too many mopads pierces my ears constantly and the food oozes with oil and garlic and flavour. I have eaten the best Cacciucco of my life. I have spent 20 euros to eat eight different dishes at dinner – something that is simply impossible in London.
I have written a new story about London, because I miss this huge part of me so much that sometimes Livorno seems like a temporary place. Maybe tomorrow I am going to prepare my suitcase and head off to Stratford again. I will take a long walk in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park and go shopping at Westfield, buy some shit at Poundland and decide what to eat for dinner while shopping at Sainsbury’s – always the same tasteless shit, I am afraid.
I will hear guys calling their pals “mates” instead of “bimbi” and I will smile when I’ll enter a pub, with the smell of ale and old carpet that is so vivid and alive to me now that it seems like I have never really left.
And when I am in this blurry place in my mind, missing London and thinking about this cheesy shit, I will think about Livorno, about the smell of jasmine in my garden, the threatening gazes of seagulls scanning the moats for some pigeons to slaughter. My hometown, with the accent that I know so well and makes me laugh everytime.
I have been living in too many places in the last 4 years and I miss them all. The world where everyone is scattered, trying to find their own path even if far away from loves ones, is a tough one.
I left a piece of my heart in London and I can’t wait to visit again.
It is not home now, but will always be anyway.

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The Rich & Judy Book Club: Summer 2017 Reads

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A Report on Novels and Marketing Strategies

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As a result of a week of work experience at HHB Agency, a literary agency based in Fitzrovia, this report focuses on the eight books listed as the current reads of Rich & Judy Book Club. The work experience took place in the week between the 1st and 5th of May, and even though the eight books were published in 2016, they are all part of the Summer 2017 selection. Rich and Judy Book Club is a well-known institution in Britain’s literary world. As an Italian student, I was initially unaware of the importance of their choices for the literary and publishing sector, therefore the report opens with an excerpt about Richard and Judy. It includes the history of the program, its impact on British culture, its evolution and collaboration with WHSmith and some examples of its influence on the literary industry.

In the second part of the report, the eight books of the list will be introduced and followed by a detailed analysis of every single novel, including the synopsis and some insights about genre, category and author. The books are Conclave by Robert Harris, The Trespasser by Tana French, The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena, I See You by Clare Mackintosh, The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry, Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult, This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’ Farrell and Miss You by Kate Eberlen. The insights on these eight books are also based on the analysis of some articles or interviews on prestigious magazines or journals such as The New Yorker, The Guardian, The Independent. I have also watched some interviews to the authors and hopefully this research will be helpful in understanding the power of these novels and the reasons why they were chosen in the first place.

This part of the report also provides a description of the physical copy of every novel as a result of an evening spent at WHBSmith in Westfield Shopping Centre, Stratford, and one at Stansted Airport, where I carefully touched every paperback, observing the packaging and graphic strategies used to make these books as much appealing as possible for the common readers.

The final section of the report regards the marketing strategies, the observation and research conducted around London to have a comprehension of how Rich and Judy’s choices impact the literary industry. Here, I try to draw some conclusions and how both the work experience and this research helped me being more aware of the literary and publishing sectors.

The Rich and Judy Book Club

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As an Italian girl, I did not know who Rich and Judy exactly were. At least, when Heather Holden-Brown mentioned them to me, I felt like I had heard their name, but I was totally unaware of their role in the British (and International) literary world.

Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan are a married couple and they are both columnists and television presenters. They hosted This Morning from 1988 to 2001. The program would include celebrity interviews, cookery workshops and housekeeping tips, and they became so famous that the audience started to call the show Rich and Judy. This gave the name to their next show, which they hosted on Channel 4 from 2001 to 2008. In these years, they interviewed important British and International celebrities such as Bill and Hilary Clinton, J.K. Rowling, Tony Blair, Al Gore and many others.

Richard & Judy also launched two “clubs” and structured them similarly to the ones started by the American TV presenter Oprah Winfrey. Rich & Judy Wine Club and Rich & Judy Book Club were regular segments added to the show. The Book Club, born in 2004, had a huge impact on the reading habits of British people. The books that Rich and Judy selected, reviewed and discussed on the show, very often involving authors and guests, would generate an incredible chain of marketing campaigns and of course book sales. According to Richard and Judy website, the featured titles would increase sales by as much as 3,000 per cent over night, and they generated over £60 million in book sales. 

This led to a phenomenon that changed the literary world and still does, even if Rich & Judy Book Club is not broadcasted on television anymore. They have a fructuous collaboration with WHSmith, for which they select eight books every season. Unsurprisingly, The Guardian identified the couple as the most important people in publishing, and Graeme Neill of The Bookseller, who examined their impact on book sales, stated that a recommendation from Rich and Judy can really change the life of an author. This happened, among the many, to Julian Barnes, who was expected to sell 20,000 but shifted to 300,000 after Arthur and George was recommended on the club in 2006. The recommendation also helps the book being promoted in places where it would not normally arrive – such as important supermarkets as Tesco. And even if the literary world has expressed mixed opinions on the phenomenon, with authors pointing at the exclusively commercial aim of Rich and Judy’s choices, it is undeniable that their lists brought books to many different people, involving new readers that would not normally spend an afternoon choosing a book carefully from a bookshop.

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 Summer 2017 Book Club: The Books

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In the introduction to the Rich & Judy section on WHSmith website, a lot is promised about the new Summer 2017 Reads: the reviews of the books, interviews with the authors, preview chapters and bonus content from and about the writers. Interestingly enough, Rich and Judy seem keen on maintaining a good relationship with the audience, allowing them to vote their favourite book from the eight choices and to join the conversation on the books.

The first page includes a picture of the couple and the badge that is actually stuck on the chosen paperbacks displayed in the shops, which improve the sales in the shops. Then, the eight novels are listed, followed by the interviews and bonus content promised in the introduction.

This summer choice includes eight novels. The genres intertwine, but the list can be roughly described as made of two historical novels, four thrillers and two novels of women fiction. Of these eight, only three were written by very famous authors, and two where debuts. One author is American, five are British (one Northern Irish), one is Canadian, one is Irish.

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The Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

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The book opens with the protagonist’s dilemma on the strange behaviour of her neighbours. They have just invited her and her husband for dinner, but asked them not to bring their baby daughter as they cannot stand her crying. Even if the reason seems mundane, the protagonist finds it weird. The situation is already gripping: will the protagonist’s worst fears realise? The baby girl actually disappears, and the rest of the book is a crazy race in the discovery of who took her and why. After the great success of best-sellers like Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train, Lapena’s book is a thriller based on the reassuring four walls of ordinary people’s life. Lapena’s publisher defines the book as a perfect product in the lucrative domestic suspense market, based on “the emerging trend of women writers who have all turned to crime after originally writing either under other names and/or genres”. Alison Flood from The Guardian praises the present tense that conveys the anxiety and urgency of the first chapter, when the baby is gone and the police is called. This is Shari Lapena’s first success. She had a lot of refusals, but even when she made it to be published, her work did not gain the same success as The Couple Next Door. The Canadian website The Globe and Mail reported that Lapena’s current agent read her manuscript twelve hours after she sent it to her and called her back immediately. As agent Heller states that she refuses 499 out of every 500 submissions, this book took off as an exceptional thriller from the very beginning. The Toronto-based agent for several best-selling thriller novels said that she could not put the book down, and as she distributed to publishers, everyone was soon after the book. Described by many critics as relentless, the book was chosen by Rich and Judy and this meant an incredible increase in its popularity in Britain. The novel is also immensely famous in the United States and in Canada.

Shari Lapena is a former lawyer and English teacher. She revealed to The Globe and Mail that she did think about the premise without reflecting on the plot from the back end, but starting it all with a gripping starting situation, wondering how complicated that situation can be made and what are the different incidents that can be taken into consideration.

The book cover, as many current psychological thrillers, has just a hint of an illustration, with the title taking up most of the space. The cover of the English edition is glossy and the inside font is quite big. The blue of the cover hints at pain, coldness and mystery. The pages are not very thick. It does look like the majority of commercial thrillers on the market, and this may be a marketing strategy to make it look familiar for the usual commercial thrillers’ readers.

 

Title: The Couple Next Door

Author: Shari Lapena

Publishing House: Bantam Press

Publication Date: 16 July 2016

Page Count: 352

Genre: Psychological Thriller

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This Must Be The Place by Maggie O’Farrell

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Daniel Sullivan is from New York and works as a teacher of linguistic at University of Belfast. He had two failed marriages behind him before meeting Claudette, a famous actress who’s run away from the limelight to live in rural Ireland. In her interview with Rich and Judy, O’Farrell revealed that her inspiration for the book was drawn by seeing a famous Hollywood star pursued by paparazzi in Soho, London. Eventually, O’Farrell ended up in a ladies’ loo with the star, who confessed all her misery and desperation to the writer. 

The marriage between Daniel and Claudette gets complicated during his trip to America for his father’s birthday, when Daniel finds out something about a past girlfriend which will lead to a series of events that will put his marriage in jeopardy. It is a novel about love, secrets, geographical displacement and marriage, and the story leaps across multiple points of view, time frames, places. Hannah Beckermann from The Guardian defined This Must Be The Place as the best novel O’Farrell has even written, praising her skilfulness in shifting the points of view and comparing the book with the ones by Kate Atkins in terms of playfulness with structure, “while retaining the hallmark emotional insight for which O’Farrell has become renowned”.

The cover itself, which seems like a map where someone has scribbled the title of the book, suggests that the story will cross continents and deal with very diverse and distant characters. In an interview with Headline Books, Maggie O’Farrell said that the novel faces the question of what does it mean to belong to a place or a person in a world where it is so easy to move from a place to another and from a relationship to another, where different cultures intertwine everyday in the multiculturalism of our big cities.

Maggie O’Farrell is very famous in the UK and this is her seventh book. Her novels have all been incredibly successful and she has won many prestigious awards for her work. This Must Be The Place is a Sunday Times Best-Seller and was shortlisted for several prizes, such as the Costa Novel Award and the Irish Book Awards.

The book is quite big, with thick pages and a small font. The cover page is soft and the design is very detailed, with names on the maps suggesting the themes of traveling, identity, difficult choices and distance, very current themes in the multicultural world where we live.

 

Title: This Must Be The Place

Author: Maggie O’Farrell

Publisher: Tinder Press

Publication Date: 16 May 2017

Page Count: 496

Genre: Literary Fiction / Women’s Fiction / Romance

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Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult

A new-born baby dies after a routine hospital procedure performed by an Afro-American nurse, who had been requested not to take care of the baby by his white supremacist parents. The novel is developed through the points of view of the father of the baby, the nurse and the nurse’s lawyer, who, interestingly enough, suggests her that raising the issue of race in her defence is not a winning strategy.

The novel’s themes of prejudice, justice and racism in the US are current for the times. As Judy states, they are more poignant than ever, in a time where Donald Trump racist policies are much discussed. The hook, the moral dilemma that Ruth has to face when the baby goes into cardiac distress and she hesitates before performing the procedure, catches the reader attention immediately. In an interview for Penguin Random House, the author described the long research she did before embarking in the difficult process of writing about race, especially in the case of writing in the Afro-American nurse’s point of view. The author attended social justice workshops and interviewed many women of colour, in order for her to have a clearer and more authentic idea of her character’s voice. Despite this, Lucy Scholes from The Independent stated that the novel did not make it “to capture the complexities of the political and social landscape it claims to portray”, suggesting that, perhaps, the author should have stuck to the white, middle-class lawyer’s consciousness alone, as it was, “unsurprisingly”, the most authentic and vivid. Nevertheless, the novel was #1 New York Times Bestseller and will be soon made into a major motion picture.

Jodi Picoult is a high-profile writer. She has written 23 novels that were translated in 34 languages and sold in 35 countries. Five of her books were made into movies, and they were all great successes. She is one of the three famous writers in the list of Rich & Judy. A close observation of the paperback at WHSmith (both in Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford and in Stansted Airport) provided me with details about the cover and the physical aspect of the book. The cover has a big, embossed title. There is no illustration, just some flamboyant colours in the background. Even if these features and the fancy font used for the title may suggest that the book is a romance novel or a romantic comedy, the contrast between the colours and the black, big title may represent the striking contraposition between white and Afro-American cultures. The pages of the book are thick, and the font of the whole book is very small. It seems a very high-quality product.

Title: Great Small Things

Author: Jodi Picoult

Publishing House: Hodder & Stoughton

Publication Date: 22 November 2016

Page Count: 512

Genre: Literary Fiction / Women Fiction

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I See You by Clare Mackintosh

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Part of the Top 10 of the Sunday Times, I See You is the second novel by author Clare Mackintosh. The book starts with the protagonist Zoe Walker seeing her pictures in the classified section of a newspaper in London. Even if puzzled, she thinks it is just a coincidence, a girl that looks like her, but from the next day on, she sees the same ad, with the same name and the pictures of different girls. And then another girl pictured in the same ad is robbed on the tube, and another is found murdered in a park. The paranoia fuelled by the ads and the pictures leads the protagonist to ask herself questions about someone actually watching her and other girls who commute and take the same route in London every day.

After The Girl On The Train, the condition of commuters and the anxiety of being watched or spied on, especially with the culture of social media and dating apps, has been largely explored in fiction and psychological thrillers. As The Couple Next Door, this psychological thriller does not start with some investigation, some murder or fraud, but it has its roots in the – apparently – reassuring every day life of ordinary people. Commuting is a chore that many people need to face everyday, and, in the claustrophobia of the tube in the rush our, the sensation of being watched by someone who is taking notes or pictures of us does not even cross our minds. But what if…? The trend of the psychological creepy thriller set in ordinary life scenarios that become suddenly creepy seems thriving. The book takes a more “classic turn” when the protagonist talks to the police and an investigation on the case is started and led by a female detective. Clare Mackintosh knows what she is talking about, as a retired police officer herself. Her first novel, I Let You Go, has seen off J.K. Rowling’s alter ego Robert Galbraith to win the Theakston Old Peculier as the best crime novel of the year. I See You is her second novel and has been largely praised by the critics. Janette Wolf from The Independent commented the impact of the book saying that the commuting to work will never be the same again after reading this book.

Clare Mackintosh is a British author from Bristol. She is very active on social media and likes to have a direct relationship with her readers. Her debut novel was chosen by Rich and Judy as well, and sold more than one million copies. I See You has been sold in 26 countries so far.

 

Title: I See You

Author: Clare Mackintosh

Publishing House: Berkeley Books

Publication Date: 28 July 2016

Page Number: 384

Genre: Psychological Thriller

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Conclave by Robert Harris

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The pope dies. In the hectic three days before the new most important spiritual figure in the world is elected, 118 cardinals prepare to vote. Their ambition is strong, and there are rivals and allies in this race to power. Rich and Judy’s review suggests a twist at the end, and this is not surprising, having seen Robert Harris’s previous successful novels. Conclave is a Sunday Times Best-Seller and it is a political thriller with suspense, historical and crime elements. Ian Sansom from The Guardian defined the book as “unputdownable”. Harris is a very famous British writer, and he started out as a political journalist. He wrote books about British politics and set novels in ancient Rome, always stressing on a very much important theme: the corruption of power.

Having known many powerful people, Harris knows how to make them look like ordinary flawed people acting on a much broader stage than many others, and still having to face the same delusions and minor dilemmas as everyone else. Every sequence of the book is accompanied by twists and complications. In an interview with Penguin Random House, Harris said that the whole ritual of electing a new pope, with the few men choosing the right candidate for the job, seemed the perfect story for him, the perfect narrative that would make a great novel. Even if God should guide the cardinals in voting the best candidate, there is a lot of politics involved in choosing the new pope, and Harris was fascinated by the dynamics of these last days before the decision. The ritual of locking themselves up, the limited time and limited number of characters were an opportunity, rather than a limitation, for the author.

Robert Harris was a political journalist before turning to fiction, and he had ten best-selling novels. He won the prestigious Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction and his book The Ghost was made into a movie directed by Roman Polanski. His novels are translated in 37 languages and he is part of the Royal Society of Literature. He is probably the most famous British author in the Rich and Judy 2017 Summer reads.

The cover of the book is very similar to the one of classic historical and political thrillers. It is glossy, with the illustration that suggests what is going to happen: a helicopter, product of human beings’ intelligence and ambition, flies around St. Peter, the symbol of spirituality and religion on earth. Therefore, the design is very catchy, and together with the title it immediately takes the reader inside the setting and story. The use of red and orange colours may hint of the passion of ambition and the complicated relationships between the cardinals. The title is very big, just like the font inside, and the pages are thin.

 

Title: Conclave

Author: Robert Harris

Publishing House: Hutchinson Press

Publication Date: 22 September 2016

Page Number: 287

Genre: Political Thriller

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The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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Set in London and in Essex in 1893, the book is about the life of a widow who settles down in Essex after the death of her husband. She is a naturalist and does not believe in superstition and religion, so, when some rumours about a mythical serpent terrorizing the Blackwater estuary are spread, she is excited by the possibility that it may be a new species to discover. In her exploration, she is introduced to a vicar, and even if they do not agree on anything, their curiosity will bring them together in a relationship that will take unexpected turns and twists in the unfolding of the story.

This novel, the “most historical” one in the list, is a gothic Victorian tale that follows Sarah Perry’s success of her first book After Me Comes the Flood. The Essex Serpent is crammed with incidents and plot twists, and John Harrison from The Guardian said it is very difficult to stop reading and wondering what is going to happen next. He describes the serpent as “a trick of the light, a tale told to frighten children, a story sold to tourists; it’s an upwelling of individual or collective guilt, a blatant sexual symbol hauling itself like Bram Stoker’s White Worm out of the Blackwater estuary in convulsions of Victorian anxiety”.

The narrative shifts restlessly between the city and the marshes and touches the themes of relationships between governance and poverty. It faces the slum life, the privilege and the atmosphere of the late Victorian period, “with its fears for the present and curious faith in the future”.

Sarah Perry is a British author. She grew up in a Catholic family and had no access to contemporary art and literature until quite late in her life. She got a PhD in Creative Writing from Royal Holloway University, where she wrote a thesis about gothic literature. The Essex Serpent is her second book and won the prestigious prize as the Waterstones’ Book of the Year in 2016. It was shortlisted for other many prestigious prizes. The element of romance, historical fiction and Victorian atmosphere all intertwine into an amazing narrative that brought the author to beat Beatrix Potter and J.K. Rowling in several awards.

The beautiful cover was designed by Peter Dyer and the design was inspired by William Morris’s work, and Lucy Scholes from The Independent described it as “a tantalizing taste of the equally sumptuous prose that lies within”. During my research ad WHSmith, I could noticed that the scales of the snake on the cover are iridescent and shimmering, making it even more eye-catching. The whole design of the cover suggests the setting and the historical, fantastic and naturalistic topics. The pages are very thick and the font inside is small.

 

Title: The Essex Serpent

Author: Sarah Perry

Publishing House: Serpent’s Tail

Publication Date: 27 May 2016

Page Number: 441

Genre: Historical Fiction

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 Miss You by Kate Eberlen

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Tess and Gus are meant to be. They may not know it – they meet fleetingly when they are both on holiday in Florence in 1997, at the age of eighteen, then they go back to England and back to reality, and both of them go on with their life. They face their difficulties and losses and their paths cross more than once for the next sixteen years. The reader goes on relentlessly, wondering if they will even meet again and realise that they are perfect for each other.

The book is about the impossibility of love, about distance, about the different chances in life than shape our future – as Rich wonders in his review of the book: are we really the masters of our path? In the increasingly connected world of the millennial generation, is it possible to miss the person that is right the one for you? What if a person that collided with you for just a few seconds was the one you should be with?

Miss You has already been translated in 26 languages and it is the first Eberlen publishes under that name, together with the first that actually brought her to success. Critics have compared this to the famous One Day by David Nicholls, which was a phenomenon in British publishing world, and many said that Miss You offers even more. Stephanie Cross from The Guardian defined it as a “wonderfully light romance”. Interviewed by The Bookseller, Kate Eberlen said that she has always been fascinated by “that idea of how many lives cross ours every day. I often think about it, particularly on holiday. When you are [on holiday] somewhere like Florence you’ll be doing the same route—almost—as other people. So you’ll have these lives that are just next to yours for a little bit and sometimes you’ll even pass them again, and at the end of the day you’re almost on smiling terms. Then you might—or you used to, before selfie sticks—say, ‘Do you mind taking a photo of me?’ So you’ll be in somebody’s life for just a moment.”

The structure of the novel was much praised. Eberlen did not plan the whole thing, but decided to write as much as she could about one character, then she would break and think what could be happening to the other, without planning the touches of one’s life in the one of the other’s. This brought to a great development of the plot. Being compared to One Day, Miss You physical aspect has for sure some elements of the romantic comedies or romantic dramas books: the big title, with the M and the Y of Miss You shaped as a heart and suggesting the themes of the book.

 

Title: Miss You

Author: Kate Eberlen

Publishing House: Mantle

Publication Date: 11 August 2016

Page Number: 464

Genre: Romance

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The Trespasser by Tana French 

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Antoinette Conway is a tough detective. She is part of the Murder Squad, who is very well-known by Tana French’s fans. She has written several thrillers about the Murder Squad, but now Anoinette knows that her role in the group is not the same anymore. She has partnered up with Stephen Moran, but the squad is planning to get rid of her.

The case she and Stephen deal with looks like a slam-dunk lovers’ tiff, but when Antoinette takes a look at the victim’s face, she realises she knows her. She has seen her somewhere, and what immediately crosses her mind is more shocking than what she expected. Since then, the two start investigating dark truths and paths that will lead to incredibly exciting plot twists. Alison Flood from The Guardian described the book as a “gnarly, absorbing read” and defined Tana French “one of the best thriller writers we have”.

Tana French is a very famous Irish novelist and theatrical actress, and her work won several prestigious prizes. The Independent defined her the First Lady of Irish Crime, “who very quietly has become a huge international name among crime fiction readers.” Her books are all part of the series of Dublin Murder Squad, and The Trespasser is the sixth.

Laura Miller from The New Yorker said that “most crime fiction is diverting; French’s is consuming”, stressing the social critique that Tana French manages to do in this book. Interestingly enough, each of the six Dublin Murder Squad novels is narrated from the point of view of a different detective, and this enables the readers to understand the perspective of the whole squad, with its issues and dramas.

The Trespasser sees the only female detective in the squad as the protagonist, and therefore also deals with the themes of misogyny and sexism, as she is the target of cruel jibes and jokes. She is of course not the first female detective in history, but the theme of sexism in professions that are normally associated to men is a much more discussed and current subject nowadays.

The cover is dark, with a big, bright title. The name of the author is also big – even if this is not common for thrillers – because the writer is a famous one, author of the five novels of the same series. A shunned person alone in the dark can be seen on the cover, suggesting the themes of loneliness and uneasiness, the same that the detective feels in the squad when the campaign to get rid of her squad.

 

Title: The Trespasser

Author: Tana French

Publishing House: Viking Penguin

Publication Date: 22 September 2016

Page Number: 449

Genre: Thriller

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Wandering around London after consulting the Rich and Judy list, it was very easy to see posters of the books everywhere in the city. The tube was scattered with posters of these books, which is quite interesting and very different from what happens normally in Italian cities, even in Rome and Milan.

I have also visited the WHSmith in Stratford and Stansted Airport, and there was a specific section for the books chosen by Rich and Judy. They were close to the ones that were in the list in the past seasons, but of course the central part was taken up by the current reads. They all have the badge of the Rich and Judy Book Club.

It is not easy to understand why these books were chosen. I am not an expert in publishing trends nor in Rich and Judy’s tastes – in fact, the work experience at HHB Agency gave me the opportunity to get to know this important part of British literary world for the first time. The eight books do not seem examples of sophisticated literary fiction, but are indeed commercial products that face important and current themes. Jodi Picoult built up an interesting plot around the issues of race in the US, and the election of Donald Trump made this subject more current than ever; The Couple Next Door and I See You take two ordinary setting of normal people’s life and turn them into a hell of suspense and mystery, touching the problems of technology and privacy. The issues of technology and connection are also faced in Miss You, under, of course, a romantic light. The Trespasser is a more classical thriller, but it does come after a successful series set, and Conclave and The Essex Serpent touch some themes that are still very current nowadays – the ambition of men, religion, superstition, power and privilege. Some of the authors are well-established and often very famous authors, but writers like Sarah Perry and Kate Eberlen are moving their first steps into the publishing world, which is a good message of hope for the aspiring writers.

Finding Your Writing Spot

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These days have been hectic. I have some incredible news to tell, but I need the last official paperwork to be completed, so I do not want to say it yet. Just because I feel like I may spoil everything. Anyway, I decided I needed to explore the city more, especially Stratford, the place where I lived. Living in London wasn’t always easy, but Stratford made my stay better, and still does. It is not the most elegant and fancy part of London, but it is home now. Therefore, I want to write about my favourite writing spots in Stratford.

I am deeply convinced that a writer should find a good writing spot. I have tried to write at home, but it does not work out that well, unless it is very late at night and everyone is sleeping. Which is funny, because I live in a house where people work and are always extremely quiet, but there something about writing in the night that makes me focus. It makes my mind sharp. Many writers say that walking helps them seeing everything from a different perspective. I do not like doing physical activity unless it involves two naked bodies, but I guess walking, running and doing sport in general is helpful for the writer who likes to eat and needs to prevent stretch marks or, in general, getting fat. Like I do.

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Anyway, these are the two places that I discovered – and loved – the most as my writing spot. The first is the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. When you leave the big-shopping-centre Stratford behind, you will discover an amazing park that is full of beautiful memories. Stratford was brought to new life when it came to organising and structuring the Olympic games, and this park is probably the best achievement in this changes. It surrounds the beautiful Olympic Stadium, where the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games took place. You remember it, right? Beautiful. It was directed by Danny Boyle and there were some incredible guests. The stadium welcomes the West Ham now, and every Saturday Stratford station is quite crowded of all the supporters of the team.

Some weeks ago, I put my manuscript into a jute bag and decided to have a walk. My phone was dead – as it always is – and I just enjoyed the sun. It was a warm Sunday afternoon. I saw children playing in the funfair, tourists hiring bycicle and wandering around the parks. I looked at the canal. I found a spot, right in front of the stadium, on some wooden step. I took out my sunglasses and the manuscript, and I started reading until it got a bit too chilly and it was time to go home. That night, I felt better. I had walked and read. I had done everything I needed and I wanted to. A walk won’t probably prevent me from getting fat anyway, but I felt happy anyway.

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Stratford has another lovely place. I mean, it has many lovely places, but this is one of my favourite. It is the Theatre Royal Statford East square. The Theatre, this eccentric, beautiful red building, faces the square. Right in the middle, there is the statue of Joan Littlewood, who was a theatre director. Right next to the theatre, there is a cinema – Stratford East Picturehouse. And right opposite, in the middle of all this culture, a lovely cafe and restaurant called Gerry’s Kitchen. Here, you can have some amazing Italian pizza or incredible cakes. It is not expensive at all, and it is all furnished with very interesting, shabby pieces, and there are books scattered all around. Late in the evening, people come and have pizza, and, if you can resist to the temptation, it is simply perfectly good to write, read and edit with the smell of wood oven cooked pizza. I love writing while having a good mint tea – here it is actually really, really good – and some pastries.

Writing in a place that is not my room is inspiring. First, because it helps me realising that I actually took a decision to go out and work, so, if I waste my time by scrolling my Facebook timeline or chatting with my friends, I will feel much worse than if I did it at home. Finding a writing spot outside – either indoor or outdoor – makes you feel useful. And it makes you enjoy the city or town where you live, which is always good for your inspiration.

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Accepting Your Tastes in Writing

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Last week, London changed my life. I know, it has already changed it when I was accepted to the MA and many other times, so I guess I should say that London changed my life again.

It changed everything because, finally, I felt like I could accept who I am… in literature. This may sound silly, but I really think every writer needs that kind of moment, sooner or later. The thing is that, when you say that you are a writer (I never say that, I tend to say that I like writing), there are so many expectations raining down on you. Writers are well-known for taking themselves so seriously, almost as seriously as artists. My education in Italy brought me to think that a “serious” writer needs to really bloody enjoy all the classics, the post-modernist literature, all the poems by Allen Ginsberg. That is what is normally expected from a good writer. A writer needs to write deep, important novels and poems that will change humanity.

Well, last week I saw two movies at the cinema. I went to Westfield and saw La La Land with my boyfriend. And I also saw T2 Trainspotting at Picturehouse (to be honest, I saw it twice. Not in a row, though). I have spent my whole life trying to re-define my tastes, to adapt them to what a “serious writer” needed to appreciate. And I never thought that what I do write is not just shite. It is always what I say: I write shit, I just write frivolous stuff. But then, and I know many people will not believe that I’ve come to realise this after an MA in Creative Writing, I finally saw that writers don’t have the pressure of not being serious enough nowadays. I am a beginner. I do not feel the pressure of writing the great, 21th century novel in London.

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And I loved La La Land. I want to write love stories that make the audience get stuck to the page until they fucking find out if the couple is going to end up together or not. I do not want to write novels that will change the world. My objective is to write stories that compell the reader, that make them want to go on until the book is over. Same happened for T2 Trainspotting. What is that makes us care about the story of such a loser as Mark Renton, a part from him being interpreted by Ewan McGregor in the movie? Well, it was Irvine Welsh and Danny Boyle who made him a character you want to care for. You want to see where he’ll end up, just like you want to do with Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie, even if Begbie is a fucking piece of shit.

So why did these two movies made me realise what I want to write in my life? Well, because yes, of course I do enjoy the classics and I really like post-modern literature. I love reading books that are deep and serious and obscure (well, not too obscure). Among the last authors I read there were Erri De Luca, Allen Ginsberg, Thomas Pynchon, Flannery O’Connor, Thorton Wilder. Pretty serious stuff. But what I also really love is a fucking good story. The right amount of emotions, and alcohol, and sex, and guys and girls that have reached a dead-end point in their life but they are really too romantic to stop dreaming and trying. They want something badly – whether that is a smile on the face of their lover or a hit of heroin or money or glory or a great career. This is what I love. A compelling, involving, tremendously cynical and tender story that will make the reader hate and love the characters at the same time. I love a good amount of conflict. I love emotions and gazes clashing.

I need to accept myself as a writer. I need to accept that there are some things that I will never enjoy – sorry, Iain Sinclair – and some others that are fucking good – like chick lit, my soft spot. Tonight I bought Skag Boys, the prequel of Trainspotting and Porno. I had never read it because I lost a bit of my fascination for Trainspotting after it became huge and fashionable. I bought it online and said, fuck it. I love it. I love Irvine Welsh. I don’t care if my fellow writers say it’s cheap. In my head, it will never be.

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Doing an MA in Creative Writing

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The MA is over. We have completed all the classes and I submitted the final dissertation. I will get my degree on the 25th of March, and University of Westminster will be far away from me. I feel like it is very far already. Still, I try to consider myself a student. I try to see me as one of those person that never stop studying, reading, analisying, examining, and, of course, writing. It really seems like I opened this blog just yesterday. I was writing down everything that happened during Creative Practice classes, summarising the books and writing about our visits around London. It seemed like yesterday I was wearing my fur and my backpack and walking down Liverpool Street, ready to discover the city.

The debate about studying Creative Writing at academic level is very much alive, and many writers are either very positive about it or just think it is a waste of time. I think that, after having studied in an environment that is so strongly academic as University of Florence and at University of Westminster, where I have mainly done creative work, I have something to say about it – and that is, that studying creative writing at uni will not make you become a published author. I did not believe this was going to happen in the first place. When I decided to study creative writing, I wanted to do so because I felt this was the subject I knew I wanted to deepen in academia and that maybe one day I would be able to teach.

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So, no, a creative writing academic background is not essential, if your ultimate dream is to be a published writer. That being said, I strongly encourage every passionate writer to go on and do an MA. This kind of academic experience will make your life as a writer challenging. It will help you understand that you don’t have to be afraid of other people’s judgement and opinions on your work, and while some feedbacks are valuable and will really help you improve your writing, some others are not that important, because there will always be people who simply don’t like your work. Being humble but also confident is extremely important. An MA will give you friends and people who will read your work, edit and give you feedback for free, just because they like what you write. They will look at you as a friend who has the same objective that they have, but they will not see your relationship as a competitive one, because basically everyone writes very differently.

During an MA in Creative Writing, you’ll seeyour weaknesses and your strengths, you will meet amazing writers and professors that will guide you in this difficult path. Some may be strict, because they want you to get used to the harsh life of the writer. In reality, writers get refusals and negative answers all the time. The most important thing is to keep on writing and keep on improving your work, reading and never giving up. Becoming a published writer needs talent and committment, which is something an MA cannot really give you. It can help shape them, giving them a direction, but you have the main responsibility. And this is where, at the end of the academic path, I want to start my life as a struggling author. As they taught me at the beginning of the MA, there are so many opportunities in London.

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Writing in Another Language

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I have always mentioned the fact that I am not a native English speaker in my blog, but I have never actually posted about writing in English. Well, writing in English is hard. When I describe my writing process, I always say that I grasp, I hold to any word that can come to my mind and express what I mean. So I struggle, I drag myself until the end of the page, when I can finally say, done. I have written what I wanted. Now I need to start again.

It is like limping instead of walking. But it is fine, because it is a good exercise. Author Jhumpa Lahiri, who last year wrote her first book in English, said that a writer that writes in another language should try to abandon those forms that they already know and try to know other ones, either by writing or by reading. In In Other Words, she mentions having a notebook where she writes down all the new words that she wants to learn and then use in her own writing. I have been studying English since I was in elementary school, and writing in this language is still very hard, so I can’t imagine being like Lahiri. She started learning Italian when she was 25. I mean, that must be very difficult.

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But she made it. She is an incredible Italian writer, and her vocabulary is immensely rich, especially for a non-native. Of course, she is not the only one who undertook this challenge. There is a long tradition of writers that decided to write in a second language, and among the most famous there are of course Joseph Conrad and Vladimir Nabokov. In spite of being foreign, their books are considered classics of literature in English. It would be interesting to wonder why exactly this happened, why a writer should start writing in another language. As Jhumpa says, why should I leave my “authority”, my ability of writing in my own language and venture in another, completely different path? The answers could be many. For example, some writers just want to write in English because their messages can arrive to a wide audience. Maybe it is because of the publishing industry, which may be in difficulty in some countries while in the US or in UK there may be more possibilities. Or it is just because of a genuine passion for English. I would say that, for me, all these three are important.

In the poetry classes, we talked about writing with obstructions. This means to challenge ourselves and to try to deal with limits, rules, guidelines. Not obstacles, but ways of writing by having to follow certain paths that may lead you to unexpected shores. Well, writing in English is the greatest obstruction I’ve come to deal with. This does not necessarily mean that is a bad thing. It is a bad thing when it comes to see your own piece marked by an editor or a teacher. All those red marks because of my shitty grammar. It’s fine. I will get better. The right attitude towards obstructions is to like the challenge and to see mistakes as opportunities to learn. This is the most important part of writing in another language: being humble. And of course, strong and passionate enough to go on.

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Creative Practice: the Project

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Creative Practice classes are through, and I also finished to write my project. It was a long path – attending the workshops, doing research, writing down everything and, finally, try to squeeze everything in 2000 words (I have written approximately 2200). I have listed everything I wanted to include in my piece at least ten times. It was hard. I interviewed John Chambers, one of the guides of The Jack the Ripper Tour. And I have read a lot about this case, so everytime I started typing, a huge flow of words, sentences and periods would come out – and of course, I needed to slow down. Select what was relevant, interesting, possibly funny.

I also have done some research at the Bishopgate Archives, and before starting to write down my project, I decided to have a long, last walk in Whitechapel by night. I did it with a friend, because I was a little scared to do it alone. He is a friend visiting me from Italy, and he had never been there – so you can imagine how I felt when he told me “Let’s hurry up, I don’t like it here.” … I bet you don’t.

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As you know, I have written about Jack the Ripper. I know it is a very stereotypical subject, and so many interesting books and essays have been written about it – but I hope I gave my own view on this mystery: it can teaches a thing or two about stories that remain untouched by  time. Isn’t writing unforgettable stories the aim of every writer? A few details, the rough sketch of a great character, a strong name and a gloomy, dark setting. The story of Jack the Ripper has fascinated generations of tourists and Londoners. I am one of them.

I know that writing about the infamous murderer of Whitechapel may seem cheap, so I considered a challenge to try to write something “different”. Maybe I managed to do it, or maybe not. The point is that studying this case helped me figure out many flaws of my own writing. Some features that I could improve. And this is what a creative practice course is all about, right?

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