Sunday, 29 December 2013

Book #40

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Despite the tumour-shrinking medical miracle that has bought her a few years, Hazel has never been anything but terminal, her final chapter inscribed upon diagnosis. But when a gorgeous plot twist named Augustus Waters suddenly appears at Cancer Kid Support Group, Hazel's story is about to be completely rewritten.

I finished this novel hours ago and I've been trying to gather my thoughts together since. I'm still unsure how the book sits with me. I wanted to love it, and I felt I should love it. The subject matter is so grim and tender that of course I burst into tears at many of the poignant points made. I'm unsure whether that is due to Green's writing skills, or my fragile emotional state, however I know many others who cried through the whole book.

Hazel and Augustus meet at a cancer support group, and fall in love. They're very obviously not like normal teenagers, and their story is not a normal teenage love story. It's very beautiful and romantic, and their realism is absolutely breathtaking. They know they won't be here for long, and they live their lives accordingly. 

The story stems from Green's experiences working as a student chaplain in a children's hospital. He describes this as "devastating", however I'm sure you'll agree it must've been so much worse than that. Green gives us Hazel and Augustus not as cancer victims who are heroic, fighting the losing battle, but as real teenagers dealing with a real illness. He shows us how a sixteen year old deals with the fact that she will die young, and her thoughts on her funeral, the pain, and what will happen to everyone she leaves behind. He gives us no heroics and no strong soldiers, only the fact that cancer is ugly and debilitating and that although it consumes a life, it will not define it. His messages are strong and perceptive, and I was very impressed by the way the story felt.

My issue with this novel is that you're dragged into Augustus and Hazel's lives as a voyeur. You weep for them and mourn their conditions, but you're nothing but a passenger. You're not a family member; you love the characters, but not enough. You're a witness to the most awful of situations, and you attempt to understand what the characters are going through, but my problem is that you absolutely cannot do this unless you've been through it yourself. Green puts across the pain and suffering of the victims and their families as best he can, but I doubt anyone can truly appreciate how anyone would feel in such a tragic situation. I felt didn't have the right to laugh at the cancer jokes, nor completely grasp the metaphorical and existential musings, for I'm one of many who (optimistically) believe they will live a long healthy life. I felt like a fraud.

For the reasons above, I feel I could also have a cheek to describe the novel as gorgeous and fierce, and have completely struggled to write this review. I would, however, recommend the novel to anyone strong enough to read it.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Book #39

The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

In a fit of drunken anger, Michael Henchard sells his wife and baby daughter for five guineas at a country fair. Over the course of the following years, he manages to establish himself as a respected and prosperous pillar of the community of Casterbridge, but behind his success there always lurk the shameful secret of his past and a personality prone to self-destructive pride and temper.

I often struggle to name my favourite author. I've read so many books by so many different people that I can't quite put my finger on my absolute favourite. Differing genres and messages make it all the more difficult. However, of all the classic novelists, Hardy is my absolutely favourite, and The Mayor of Casterbridge the most wonderful classic novel of all. With Jude coming in a close second. 

The novel is so perfectly constructed I could spend all night praising it. It has everything required for a circus of drama - love triangles, people coming back from the dead, bad timing, lies, eavesdropping, deceit, public shaming - but is far more than all that. This is the story of Michael Henchard's long self-punishment for the shameful sale of his wife and daughter twenty years prior. Hardy really makes you live through this with Henchard; you taste his discomfort, feel his sorrow, and although he disgusts you, you live in hope for him as he tries to redeem himself. Unfortunately, Hardy novels aren't well-known for their fair and forgiving treatment of main characters, but hope is a nice thing to have.

Henchard's subsequent downfall is absolutely mesmerising. We see how the past coming back to haunt a person can really destroy them, how regrets and shame can really shape a person, and also how missed opportunities, no matter how minor, can really make a difference. The worst part, for me, was Henchard knowing he couldn't change the past, but being totally oblivious of how to move on as a better person. That's a terrifying state of mind to be in; Hardy's depiction of Henchard's mind slowly ebbing away is priceless and horrifying. He's his own worst critic, and aren't we all? Hardy's grasp of human nature is amazing, and can even be related to in our time.

I enjoyed Hardy's exploration of how events affect people differently, along with his social commentary on the people involved. As always, Hardy's women are concerned with their social reputations, and the men are constantly battling for the alpha-male title. Most of all, seeing how the characters interacted, never knowing how they were going to react to a situation, was brilliant. Sparks flew. Wonderful.

I'd encourage anyone to consider reading this novel, and please let go of your preconceptions of classic literature. This has more drama than a modern soap opera, and more peeling back of the human psyche than Facebook.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Book #38

A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Sara Crewe, an exceptionally intelligent and imaginative student at Miss Minchin's Select Seminary for Young Ladies, is devastated when her adored, indulgent father dies. Now penniless and banished to a room in the attic, Sara is demeaned, abused, and forced to work as a servant. 

Here's another novel I've latched on to again for nostalgic purposes. I remember Sara's story hitting me hard when I was younger, and it was no different this time. I'd come away from the book vowing to become a better person; a more loving and generous person like Sara, with the qualities of a princess. Obviously it never happened, but the sentiment was there.

The story is so amazingly charming, and comes with heavy moral messages and reproach. I love this happening in children's books, but not in an obvious way. In this case, the messages are weaved into the storyline entirely, as though they aren't even there. This has been done so cleverly that it's clear to see how young girls have been influenced by this book.

Sara is such a gorgeous little character that she makes you want to become a better person immediately. She helps others, and suffers her turmoils inwardly so as not to make anyone else aware of her unhappiness. To get through these, she uses her imagination to convince herself she is somewhere else, and someone else, entirely, such as a prisoner in the Bastille. This takes her mind off her plight, and also helps those around her. She also adopts the idea of becoming a princess some day, and the looks on her keepers' faces when this happens. Sara realises she can still behave like a princess, despite her circumstances, so maintains her good manners and kindness, which ultimately lead to her well-deserved happy ending.

What I liked best about the novel was the idea that a princess isn't someone incredibly special with royal blood. It's far deeper than that. A princess can be clad entirely in rags, and still have those princess qualities. It's about helping others, and having an impact on their lives; it's about being loving, caring, having a good sense of dignity, considering others, and continuing on despite the obstacles, without allowing others to destroy your happiness. Now, I don't know many people like that. Those people are very rare, and probably should be given a royal title. This realisation was my favourite part of the story.

An absolutely enchanting novel for all ages; I would absolutely recommend either reading this as an adult, or introducing it to a younger person in your life. 

Friday, 1 November 2013

Book #37

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Enter a vanished and unjust world: Jackson, Mississippi, 1962. Where black maids raise white children, but aren't trusted not to steal the silver. There's Aibileen, raising her seventeenth white child and nursing the hurt caused by her own son's tragic death; Minny, whose cooking is nearly as sassy as her tongue; and white Miss Skeeter, home from college, who wants to know why her beloved maid has disappeared. Skeeter, Aibileen and Minny. No one would believe they'd be friends; fewer still would tolerate it. But as each woman finds the courage to cross boundaries, they come to depend and rely upon one another. Each is in a search of a truth. And together they have an extraordinary story to tell...
What a phenomenal read. It's so deeply illustrative that I challenge anyone to read it and come back as the same person. Stockett presents us with the very intricate spectrum of the black/white relationship; it ranges from hatred and abuse, to love and reliance, and Stockett shows us the differing opinions of both black and white on the racial conflicts in 1960s Mississippi.

The plot is strong, and the characters are even stronger. I loved many, hated many, but was given all of their glorious back-stories, and could clearly understand my feelings for them. This book isn't just about how the help were treated in the sixties. It's about standing up when you're told to sit down, recognising people are just people, that we're not so different from each other, being courageous when you know you're doing the right thing, and most of all appreciating the quality of a person from the inside.

Stockett uses a multiple-voice narrative to portray the thoughts and feelings of three women; two black maids, and one white woman writing a novel based on the working experiences of the others. Each woman's voice is lucid, and feels incredibly real, whilst still remaining distinct from the other two. The women are funny and realistic; I both laughed and cried with them, and found it increasingly difficult to remember they were fictional. You can really feel their voices; feel the fear, the love, the faith, and the sadness.

I loved hearing about life in the sixties. Some of the things the vapid white women worried about were unreal, and the way they treated each other was unholy. The social etiquettes, the false charm, the disinterest in their children, and the bitchy bridge club absolutely fascinated me. 

It's amazing to see how racism can be ingrained simply by the things people are told, how they are raised, and by the power of rumour, or the media. For example, families in the sixties installed separate toilets for their staff, as a scientific report was published advising diseases could be caught, and their children contaminated!

This is an important story, and such a good one that I'd urge anyone to read it. Stockett shows us how far we've come in racial equality, but reminds us how far we still have to go. I think the book confronts the reader somewhat, and this could be the most important factor. I could gush about this book for far longer, but I'll leave you with this:

“Wasn't that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I'd thought.” 

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Book #36

Room by Emma Donoghue

Jack is five. He lives with his Ma. They live in a single, locked room. They don’t have the key. Jack and Ma are prisoners. 
I was very much looking forward to reading this novel. Although the storyline is straight out of a modern-day newspaper, the narrative is very original, personal, and thought-provoking as the story is told by five year old Jack. He lives in the room with his mother, and the story of how he came to be there is harrowing. 

The way Jack narrates the novel is endearing. Many objects in the room are anthropomorphised, like Duvet and Wardrobe, and Jack shows us how adaptable a child's mind can be. Along with his mother, Jack has various rituals which must be done every day, and his mother has put lots of measures in place to protect him from the truth of what's really happening, and to raise him in a relatively normal way. This is reflected in Jack's narrative, and it sometimes feels as though they are living quite a comfortable life considering. I was never impacted with the severity of this situation due to the author's choice of narrator.

I did feel, however, that there was something lacking in the delivery of the story. It was a disturbing one, one which should have hit a nerve with me. I'm a very (some may say overly) emotional person, and I'm not a stranger to bursting into tears whilst reading. I didn't bat an eyelid with this one. I didn't care for any of the characters, not even Jack, and was irritated by each of them at least once (but usually more than once) throughout the novel. 

There's a lot more I'd like to say on this novel, however I'm struggling to think of anything without spoiling it. It's worth a read for the unique and unreliable narrator, however this format also has its flaws. I believe it's definitely one to throw out there; it's a "love it or hate it" novel. Please let me know if you've read it, and how you felt.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Book #35

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not. The black sign, painted in white letters that hangs upon the gates, reads: Opens at Nightfall, Closes at Dawn. As the sun disappears beyond the horizon, all over the tents small lights begin to flicker, as though the entirety of the circus is covered in particularly bright fireflies. When the tents are all aglow, sparkling against the night sky, the sign appears. Le Cirque des Rêves. The Circus of Dreams. Now the circus is open. Now you may enter.
The circus arrives without warning. What a sentence that is, and the first one of the novel. That sentence draws you into the book immediately, captivates your attention, and injects you with the knowledge that there will be many other sentences like this. This sentence tells you everything and nothing, piques your interest, and frightens you, setting the scene perfectly.

Morgenstern's writing is pure, beautiful, lyrical, and jumps off the page. Each sentence catches a small gasp in your throat, the imagery is completely enchanting, and her characters are shown to us slowly, but with rich, dark pasts and lots of secrets. I loved every single one of them in their own ways, and was devastated to leave them behind by closing the back cover.

As you read, you learn the circus is only a venue for a duel between two magicians. Without giving too much away, this is the most wonderful duel imaginable. It's no Harry and Voldemort; it's abstract and gorgeous. The descriptive power of Morgenstern, and the way she made the two rivals fall for one other whilst expressing this passion during the duel, was outstanding.

The story isn't anything like the synopsis suggests. It's not fast paced, nor filled with action packed magical fighting. This is something else. There's beauty and betrayal, loyalty, guilt, sadness, even cruelty, all amongst the magic. The story is by no means linear. Morgenstern jumps from time and place effortlessly, and rather than confusing matters, gives us clarity and understanding by showing us both past and future events. These changes keep the plot flowing well, adding twists and answering questions before throwing us across the Atlantic to hear some other person's side of the story.

Sections of the novel are written in second person narrative, which transports you into the circus and makes you become a part of it. These parts are set in an unknown time period, until Morgenstern slips a small hint to timeframe at the finale. This was so subtle, it amazed me, and was nothing short of dazzling. Morgenstern's choice to include these sections was wonderful, and they were a very important part of the novel for me.

As always, I could rave about this story for far longer than I should. I can't review this properly because I am completely and utterly biased and in love with it. I am sure there are flaws somewhere, but I simply did not notice them, or was subconsciously willing to overlook them.

I would urge anyone to read this book. I finished it more than a week ago, and I'm still getting goosebumps remembering some of the passages. If you trust my judgement, and I'm grateful that most of you do - this is essential reading.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Book #34

The Faraway Tree Stories by Enid Blyton

When Jo, Bessie and Fanny move to a new home, an Enchanted Wood is on their doorstep. And when they discover the Faraway Tree, it proves to be the beginning of many magical adventures! Join them and their friends Moonface, Saucepan Man and Silky the fairy as they discover which new land is at the top of the Faraway Tree. Will it be the Land of Spells, the Land of Treats, or the Land of Do-As-You-Please? Come on an amazing adventure – there’ll be adventures waiting whatever happens.

These stories are so special to me, having read them a million times each when I was younger. I'd had a craving for a blast of nostalgia, but my copy was no where to be found. Looking to buy a new copy I found, in a serious case of political correctness gone mad, the childrens' names had been changed to Joe, Beth and Frannie, and Dame Slap was now Dame Snap. Ridiculous. Luckily, I found the above edition in a charity shop with the stories having escaped diplomatic amendments. These books are nothing but artefacts of their time; a little girl going by the name of Fanny isn't going to warp any modern-day kid's tiny little mind.

I was captivated by this book when I was younger, and I was just as captivated almost twenty (twenty?! Ouch!!) years later. Blyton's imagination is awe-inspiring, and the morals she weaves into the tales are something to learn from and respect. The sheer adventure, mystery, and magic running through these pages is absolutely delicious, and everything about the stories is perfect for both children and adults to enjoy. They're not something I'd recommend for adults to read alone (unless, like myself, you're reminiscing), however reading these with kids would really be something special.

A must-read for kids - just make sure you find an older version. I'm sure Dame Slap is much more formidable than the Dame Snap she's become.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Book #33

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton

On a remote jungle island, genetic engineers have created a dinosaur game park. 
An astonishing technique for recovering and cloning dinosaur DNA has been discovered. Now one of mankind's most thrilling fantasies has come true and the first dinosaurs that the Earth has seen in the time of man emerge. 
But, as always, there is a dark side to the fantasy and after a catastrophe destroys the park's defence systems, the scientists and tourists are left fighting for survival.

Jurassic Park is one of my favourite films, but I've never taken the time to pick up this novel. I often quote the film as something that can't be topped, a work of sheer mastery that could never be rivalled. I am also well known for my "book is always better" mantra when faced with a book-to-film adaptation. Today, I hold my hands up and admit myself to be wrong, because this is one of the very rare books where the film is better.

Don't get me wrong, there were great parts of this novel which I loved, and which should absolutely have been part of the film. There were excellent academic explanations of how the park was possible, explanations which evolved my understanding of dinosaurs, and science in general. Most of these, however, were completely unnecessary and verbose, completely taking away from the suspense and thrill created in the previous pages.

Every character in the novel is there to serve an almost stereotypical purpose. We have the 'omg dinosaurs' palaeontologists, the crazy and stubborn old man, the great white hunter, the kids in danger, the cynical brainbox, and the traitor. None of these characters are developed into heroes, and none of them are given an adequate back-story to allow us to get on their side. What Crichton does do, however, is place them strategically around the plot to either cause some tension, move the plot along, or make a point. They are horribly flat and boring, however, and I didn't feel much for any of them.

I really enjoyed Crichton's message here, though. John Hammond creates this park simply to make money. He doesn't want to invest in helping people through medicine, such as a cure for cancer, as this would have to be government-controlled and sold cheap. He wants to make as much money as possible by doing something no one as ever done before. Money, glory, and the most dangerous creatures you can imagine. Crichton shows us the problems involved in trying to control nature, trying to reach beyond your grasp, and underestimating the power of the unknown.

This is worth a read for dinosaur/science fans, but it's definitely not a must-read. 

Friday, 20 September 2013

Book #32

My Friend Leonard by James Frey

While in rehab, James Frey finds a father figure in a shady mafia boss called Leonard. When Leonard returns to his dubious, prosperous life in the criminal underworld of Las Vegas, he promises James his support on the outside. Tragedy strikes the day James is released and his world seems set to implode. Unsure where to turn, he calls Leonard. Paradoxically, it is in Leonard's lawless underworld that James discovers the courage and humanity needed to rebuild his life.

I really wanted to hate this book. I was fully prepared to hate this book. After reading the entirety of A Million Little Pieces, taking it in as a memoir, and loving every minute of it, only to find out the majority of the story was sheer fiction, I had trust issues with James Frey. This time, though, I was prepared. I knew it was highly unlikely that this book would be all truth. I had absolutely no thoughts in my head that this is was in any way an account of Frey's life. I took the story in as fiction, and it was absolutely wonderful. It made me smile like a loon, it made me cry my eyes out (which isn't as easy as you might think), and I really enjoyed the story.

Frey's writing is unorthodox, and frantic. The sentences move in a stream of conciousness, as though they were the thoughts in his head, and this really hammers home the paranoia and the issues involved in being a recovering addict. It's all very raw, emotional, and captivating. The tragedy James goes through, and the despair that comes with it, is shown in great depth in just the words he uses. The way James narrates changes gradually over the course of the book, along with his feelings, and the changes in his life. The writing style grows and evolves with the narrator, and that's something that I find really remarkable.

What I loved most is that the story tells of the power of love and relations in the healing process. James had his friend Leonard to help him through the difficult times. Yes, I imagine having a very wealthy crime boss helping you out in times of need would be very beneficial, however Leonard was a wonderful character. He was full of love and wisdom, and I can't imagine anyone reading the book disliking him. The book seems to be more of a tribute to Leonard than anything else.

I'd encourage you all to read A Million Little Pieces before getting into this one. It will explain a lot about the place James is in at the beginning of the novel, and the relationships within the book. This isn't as painful as Pieces; it's filled with more hope, which is never a bad thing. I'd say pick it up for the writing style alone; it really is wonderful.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Book #31

Filth by Irvine Welsh

With the festive season almost upon him, Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson is winding down at work and gearing up socially - kicking off Christmas with a week of sex and drugs in Amsterdam. There are irritating flies in the ointment, though, including a missing wife, a nagging cocaine habit, a dramatic deterioration in his genital health, a string of increasingly demanding extra-marital affairs. The last thing he needs is a messy murder to solve. Still it will mean plenty of overtime, a chance to stitch up some colleagues and finally clinch the promotion he craves. But as Bruce spirals through the lower reaches of degradation and evil, he encounters opposition - in the form of truth and ethical conscience - from the most unexpected quarter of all: his anus.

I truly believe this is the ugliest and most twisted novel Welsh has ever written. I've read it many times, and I have been more disgusted with each read. It's a confusing train wreck of a novel, one which makes you feel sleazy for even opening, but one which is worth it for the more contemptible of us.

Robertson is an anti-hero. Welsh presents him in a horrible way, a complex way, and a way in which begs the question whether Robertson is the monster or the victim. The novel begins with our narrator being given to us on a plate as a typical sexist, racist, homophobic, sectarian, close-minded white male. But slowly, we come to recognise Robertson's flaws as products of experience, lifestyle, and abuse, and this presents some old existential questions. At times I, wrongly, admired Robertson for his unapologetic evil, and ways of getting round people. He's a genius. At times he made me sick.

Welsh uses one of the most bizarre narrative devices I have ever seen. Robertson develops a tapeworm, which crawls its way on to the pages in a typical worm shape. The voice of the tapeworm begins simply by begging Robertson to eat, but the longer the worm talks, and presumably the older and wiser it gets, the more the worm interprets its host. We're given Robertson's background and family life, and things begin to fall into place. This type of narrative has been slated by many, but I feel it works. Robertson comes across as a hard, solid man; stronger than you, wiser than you, better than you. But the worm speaks from inside of him, and this proximity to our narrator, this 'I am inside you' feeling, means that we trust this parasite's words of wisdom. It's a really strange feeling, and odd to read, but it's clever, and wonderful. The tapeworm shows us that Robertson is very unreliable narrator, and gives us his most repressed memories to feed on as though we were the worm.

I decided to read the novel again as the film adaptation will be in cinemas at the end of the month. It looks absolutely brilliant, and I have really enjoyed the trailers. The promotion I've seen so far, however, seems to be glamourising the filth aspect of the novel, more than anything else. Welsh doesn't do this with his writing; the sex, drugs, racism, language, violence, and everything that contributes to the depravity of Bruce Robertson, all contribute to his descent into madness, and his slow disintegration. There was nothing sexy about it; it was all sad and pathetic. I'll be interested to see how this is interpreted by Jon S. Baird, however hearing James McAvoy say, "turn ma gas oaf" will make up for any cinematic distortions.

This book is a hard pill to swallow. I'm not easily offended, and have a pretty strong stomach, so all I really wanted was a shower after reading a chapter, however I can completely understand how this could seriously offend typically rustic readers. That said, typically rustic readers shouldn't be picking up a Welsh novel in the first place. Anyone I know to be reading this blog should be picking this up. Sláinte.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Book #30

The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

When a troubled model falls to her death from a snow-covered Mayfair balcony, it is assumed that she has committed suicide. However, her brother has his doubts, and calls in private investigator Cormoran Strike to look into the case.
Strike is a war veteran - wounded both physically and psychologically - and his life is in disarray. The case gives him a financial lifeline, but it comes at a personal cost: the more he delves into the young model's complex world, the darker things get - and the closer he gets to terrible danger.
So this is the  novel by the famous Robert Galbraith; the man who's actually a woman. I'd love to say I'd have picked this book up if it hadn't been revealed the author was in fact none other than demigod JK Rowling, but it just wouldn't have been the case. I do enjoy the odd crime novel, but I tend to find them predictable and unchallenging. Now, I am biased, but I couldn't predict a thing here. This novel is absolutely no Potter, but you all seem to have forgotten how well Rowling can weave a mystery.

For me, a mystery is all about how easy it is to work out. Crime authors pepper their pages with little clues for their readers, leading them to build their own conclusions surrounding the whole whodunit. Nine times out of ten, they give themselves away while there's still a chunk of the story to go, and each turn of the page is then confirmation that the reader has guessed correctly. And don't get me wrong, this happened here. I interpreted each of Rowling's clues to find my killer, and patiently turned the rest of the pages, each time having my suspicions confirmed. The thing is, I was completely wrong. I had been led down the garden path with a load of red herrings, smoke, mirrors, and excellent writing. If jaws actually hit floors, I'd have no teeth left. The shock was incredible. "She's done it again!" I screamed to no one in particular.

I liked Rowling's explorations of social class; similar to those in The Casual Vacancy, but this time a lot more focused on wealth and seriously high society. She explores those blurry worlds of celebrities, and the media, and lets us into their seedy little worlds. Not only this, she exposes the reality of these worlds, and adds layers of substance and vulnerability to the people who live in them.

This book is wonderful. I was at work twitching to get home and read more; I was out with friends, wishing I wasn't; I was starved for it. It's intriguing, exciting, and very real. It's just a shame Rowling's secret was given away by a friend. I hope it doesn't put her off continuing the series, and part of me is glad the secret is out; I'd never have picked this up otherwise.

(Although I am biased and can't say a bad word against again, my unpopular opinion is that I preferred The Casual Vacancy. Am I the only one?)

Monday, 19 August 2013

Book #29

11.22.63 by Stephen King

Jake Epping 35 teaches high school English in Lisbon Falls, Maine. On his deathbed, pal Al divulges a secret portal to 1958 in his diner back pantry, and enlists Jake to prevent the 11/22/1963 Dallas assassination of American President John F. Kennedy. Will Jake lurk in impoverished immigrant slums beside troubled loner Lee Harvey Oswald, or share small-town friendliness with beautiful high school librarian Sadie Dunhill, the love of his life?

I wasn't sure what to expect in this story. Having little to no knowledge of the JFK assassination, I was dubious over what this novel could do for me. I hadn't thought, however, about the supernatural, historical, and philosophical questions the fabric of plot would bring to the surface. 

King is known for his horror writing, but this isn't a horror novel. It's a psychological, philosophical suspense novel, with a sprinkling of romance. King really isn't known for his romantic writing, but he does well here. The love he portrays is honest and whole, and had me in tears in places. The writing in the novel overall is natural, the characters are memorable, and each one, however minor, is incredibly relevant to the plot. 

With minor knowledge of the assassination, it's easy to imagine Oswald as a mastermind villain, whose only aim in life was to kill the president. King portrays him, however, as a little man with a lot of issues, who stumbles into this history-changing event by accident. We see his brutality, but also his tenderness and naivete; this was a shock, but I think it added a much needed layer to the story.

The past is almost personified here, with its own doings, and its attempts to throw obstacles in Jake's way whenever he attempts to change it. The bigger the change, the bigger the obstacle. The past is obdurate, after all. It doesn't want to be changed. 

The research King has carried out for this novel is clear and astounding; I really felt as though I was being transported back into the sixties, and I loved every minute of it. I liked how quaint it was; how everyone smoked without worrying about cancer, and ate without worrying about cholesterol. There's a real feel of innocence; boys and girls learning how to lindyhop, small town communities pulling together, and The Catcher in the Rye still a banned book.

The biggest horror King writes into the novel is the notion that the smallest of actions can have a massive effect on our lives. He mentions the butterfly effect a few times, too. We see Jake crucify himself each time one of his actions has a disastrous effect, and we mourn with him. We're reminded of the things that could have been prevented had Kennedy lived, but the world King shows us towards the end of the novel is absolutely abominable. This poses interesting questions on fate, and for me, karma.

11.22.63 is a wonderful novel, and I'm really impressed by King stepping outside of his usual genre. I'd recommend this to my historian and philosopher friends, but mostly to those of you who just love a great story.

"If there is love, smallpox scars are as pretty as dimples."

Saturday, 27 July 2013

Book #28

Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

The true story of a boy whose mother (a poet with delusions of Anne Sexton) gave him away to be raised by her unorthodox psychiatrist who bore a striking resemblance to Santa Claus. 
I have been called gullible before. In fact, I've been called gullible on many an occasion, and I really am. I believe what people tell me, but I'm not stupid. These 'memoirs' are a complete work of fiction. They are full of sheer nonsense, things that just wouldn't happen, things that are total figments of the author's imagination. I looked into this further, and found that the family Burroughs lived with, who the memoirs are based on, sued him for damages. He was forced to rebrand the novel as a book, rather than a collection of memoirs, and then stated the book was only 'loosely' based on his life. How embarrassing.

Reading this book is like talking to one of those people who lie to get one up on you. If you're telling a story, they tell theirs with added extras to make it all sound so much more exciting than yours. Burroughs is this person. The family have a paedophile living in their garden, who falls in love with Burroughs when he's thirteen. They spark up a relationship, and the family are absolutely fine with this. The children play with an electro-shock machine the doctor casually keeps under the stairs. The youngest child shits under the dining room table, and no one cares, nor cleans it up. Burroughs and one of the children bring the ceiling in the kitchen down one day, creating a huge hole in the roof, and no one really notices. The best one of all was this medical professional helping Augusten fake his own suicide attempt so he could be committed to a mental institution. The reason behind this was that Augusten didn't like school, and this would mean he didn't have to go. It's a load of fabricated tripe.

Nothing linked together. Each part of the story was just another piece of shit thrown in to jazz it all up. The ending was abrupt and dull.

I don't understand the praise that has been heaped on to this book. It's a badly written account of an emo kid's exaggerated teen years. Please avoid this.

Monday, 22 July 2013

Book #27

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness

“War,” says the Mayor. “At last.”Three armies march on New Prentisstown, each one intent on destroying the others. Todd and Viola are caught in the middle, with no chance of escape. As the battles commence, how can they hope to stop the fighting? How can there ever be peace when they’re so hopelessly outnumbered? And if war makes monsters of men, what terrible choices await? But then a third voice breaks into the battle, one bent on revenge.
I haven't felt so shocked by a book in a long time. It's one of those books where you feel so lost once it's finished; you've lot a few friends, and yourself, along the way. This trilogy is emotionally exhausting, but so worthwhile. The main message here is how love will always triumph over war, and it's an important one, but Ness explores so much more of human nature. It's an incredibly rewarding read.

Ness is a strong writer. The plot here flows more calmly than it did with its two predecessors. Ness balances character development and action-packed plot movements well. Nothing seems to have been written in just to hold the reader's attention - we are captivated enough. Nothing is predictable - every single plot twist was such a shock to me that I felt almost wounded by them.

A new voice is introduced in this installment; a foreign, alien voice. Ness does a brilliant job of making him sound spiritually different, but believable. His voice brought a fresh viewpoint to the trilogy, and seeing the war through the eyes of those most oppressed really was valuable. This voice has such a hatred for the human race, that he cannot see past this, and cannot see the goodness that comes from many of the humans. I loved that his alien race don't communicate in voices, but in thoughts, each one culminating into one voice - the voice of the entire species, all connected as one.

Ness shows us that no one can be trusted during wartime. Everyone has an ugly face and the worst intentions. Alliances have to be forged in the deepest of uncertainties, and difficult, life or death decisions have to be made by our two protagonists. There is an obvious absence of pure righteousness here. Every character does something horrible. War makes monsters of us all.

I finished this trilogy with tears in my eyes. It was such a wonderful journey, and I cannot recommend it enough. The only thing I would suggest is reading all three back to back, with no new books in between. They have to be consumed as a whole, inhaled as one. Absolutely wonderful.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Book #26

The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

Fleeing before a relentless army, Todd has carried a desperately wounded Viola right into the hands of their worst enemy, Mayor Prentiss. Immediately separated from Viola and imprisoned, Todd is forced to learn the ways of the Mayor's new order. But what secrets are hiding just outside of town? And where is Viola? Is she even still alive? And who are the mysterious Answer? And then, one day, the bombs begin to explode.
This is absolutely wonderful sequel. It's rare you find a novel better than its predecessor, but this is one of those unique moments. The story follows on from the sinking feeling I had when The Knife of Never Letting Go didn't quite end as happily as I had hoped. Todd and Viola are instantly separated and we follow the story of them both being adopted by different camps - Todd by Mayor Prentiss, and Viola by a rebel female group called The Answer.

Ness writes from the point of view of both Todd and Viola this time, alternating chapters. This gave us perfect insight into each camp's comings and goings, and let us see where assumptions or misunderstandings of the other's movements were happening in both camps. Viola is a brilliant character, so mature and level-headed, and it was incredible to hear her side of the story and comparing her to Todd. She never loses her way, and her constant mission is to return to Todd and save him, always with good intentions in her mind. In comparison, Todd seems to become swept up in his work in New Prentisstown, with his friendship with Davy, and the influence of the Mayor. At times I felt he was going to lose his soul completely; this was heartbreaking, and the realisation that good people can be turned bad in real-life is a harrowing one.

One of the most interesting areas of the novel is how Ness shows both Viola and Todd to be unknowing pawns in a greater picture. Both camps see them as expendable, and use them to their own advantage. So, although we think we know who the good guys are, it's never entirely clear who can be trusted. 

My favourite character here was Davy Prentiss. He is so flawed, but I loved him entirely. He was portrayed in the first book as evil to the core, chasing Viola and Todd and trying to attack them constantly. Here, he is forced to work with Todd, and we are able to see him in a much brighter light. He's a bit of an arse, but he's human. He's lonely. He only does the horrible things he does because his father has ordered him to, and all he wants is his father's love - something he never manages to achieve. His Noise burns with colour every time his father praises him, and this made me both rage and choke at the same time. Davy's a flawed character, but at times it was as though he was a better person than Todd. He's the imperfect Manchee of book two.

Mayor Prentiss is one of the most terrifying villains I have ever read of. His ability to brainwash and control people, his cold heart, his ability to view his own son as a disposable solider, and the fact that he has so many men employed just so he doesn't have to get his hands dirty, are all factors scarily similar to some real-life leaders we've had both in history and in modern times.

But Mayor Prentiss isn't the only evil in this book. Ness shows us that evil can show up in lots of different forms, whether in wartime or not; most interestingly in those we trust. This raises some interesting questions, particularly for a young adult novel. Does fighting against one evil mean you're not evil yourself? What makes people expendable? Why should they be? How can you fight against being controlled by information? Or manipulation of information? Why should we show kindness to the oppressed if they don't show gratitude? Should they show gratitude? What's the difference between fighting for freedom of oppression, and terrorism? If there's a difference, where is the line? I could go on and on about this, but I think these are important questions to come from the novel, and it's impressive that Ness can write these into such a story. He explores war and how it affects different people. It's good to get a young target audience thinking about such things, and if they can relate these questions to anything in the media, then all the better.

The story is so emotional and affected me in so many different ways. I felt as though I was taking blows myself, I felt hurt, confused, and upset. I choked up at some of the deaths, and I mourned some of the things Todd and Viola had to experience. I am so excited to move onto Monsters of Men today, and I'm already planning buying the trilogy for someone's birthday present. This is wonderful - read it.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Book #25

Morning Glories: Truants by Nick Spencer

Still reeling from the climactic events of "P.E.," the Glories find themselves lost in time and space, confronted by a new group of students who might be even more dangerous than the faculty themselves - the truants!
Volume four is the plateau for me. After three very exciting installments to this story, the fourth is nothing more than a mindfuck. Don't get me wrong, maybe those of you with higher brainpower than me would understand it more, maybe the break between reading the volumes didn't help, but this one was so incredibly confusing and nonsensical. Still, no questions are answered, more are asked, and we are thrown into a whirlwind of time travel, brain-feeling ghosts, now you see me madness. I'm frustrated.

The range of characters keeps getting bigger and bigger, making it more difficult to lose track. I was enjoying getting to know our core characters in more depth, but after the introduction of the truants, our originals have blurred into the background somewhat. There are some new characters who look similar enough to be twins (such as Akiko and Irina), but are in no way related to each other, meaning to have to keep your wits about you as scenes cut into each other quickly.

Maybe my expectations were just set too high. I didn't feel there was as much excitement as volumes two and three, only sheer confusion. I will absolutely read volume five as I need some sort of closure on this, but at the moment I feel as though my brain has been put in the microwave.


Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Book #24

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

Imagine you're the only boy in a town of men. And you can hear everything they think. And they can hear everything you think. Imagine you don't fit in with their plans. Todd Hewitt is just one month away from the birthday that will make him a man. But his town has been keeping secrets from him. Secrets that are going to force him to run.

I'm a firm believer in young adult novels. I am of the opinion that some of the best stories ever written had a teenage audience in mind. I'm not sure whether this tells of my immaturity, or tiny little mind, or whether it means I just like to be carried away by a story. Regardless, The Knife of Never Letting Go is one of these. 

The story is so rich, so deep, and so dark. The town Todd lives in is inhabited only by males, and is consumed by a germ they call Noise. This makes everyone's thoughts loud enough for everyone else to hear, every thought, memory, and secret is screamed from their person as though they are walking radio broadcasts. The town is never quiet; Noise rules everything.  

An interesting point we learn of later in the novel (spoiler alert) is that the Noise germ doesn't have any effect on women. I have my own take on why this is, but rather than sounding like a blazing feminist, I'll leave you to ponder that one on your own.

Todd is a wonderful protagonist. He is so young and resourceful, full of resolve and determination, yet he is so incredibly flawed. He makes mistakes regularly, beats himself up about them, and ultimately learns from them as a result. We clearly see him becoming stronger in mind as the story progresses, and his growth really appealed to me. The story is written in first-person, from Todd's point of view, in such a way that we can see his lack of education. This, along with his colloquialisms, emphasise his vulnerability, and make him a very endearing and trustworthy character.

Noise also affects animals in Todd's world, and their every thought is heard alongside human thoughts. Stories with talking animals are usually very cringey and Farthing Wood-esque, but Ness absolutely perfected the personalities of the animals to make them believable. It really wasn't difficult to imagine animals thinking in the ways Ness characterised them to think. Todd's dog, Manchee, has to be one of my favourite dogs in literature. He has a very limited vocabulary, but his feelings come across clearly. He is absolutely incredible. I'd love a dog of my own who would run alongside me and shout, "Poo, Jenna!"

Ness writes of colonisation and group mentality, and shows us these as very scary concepts indeed. I think these are good themes to bring up in a young adult novel; although younger readers may not immediately relate these to current events in our world, it's good to show the possible consequences of this type of person, or government.

This is a wonderfully dark and compelling novel. The cliffhanger has to be one of the most agitating since Half-Blood Prince. I can't wait to get torn into the next installment of the trilogy. I'd definitely recommend this to all of you.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Book #23

Morning Glories: P.E. by Nick Spencer

 The first days were just the beginning--when the faculty cancels classes and sends the students on an outing in the nearby woods, all hell breaks loose--sending the Glories on a mysterious journey through time and space.
And I'm irrefutably hooked.

The layers here are insane. Once you think you've guessed the answer to something, a layer is stripped back to reveal something even more macabre. Your brain can't compute everything - you don't know your arse from your elbow. The headfuck is amazing.

Everyone seems to have something to hide, and the academy is intent on bringing it all to the surface. I'm not really sure which characters to trust.

I loved the dialogue. Spencer captures the teenage attitude perfectly, and his pop culture references are spot on.

It seems as though Spencer has spent the last three volumes using mystery and intrigue to dig himself into a hole. I am so interested in finding out how he's going to dig himself out of this, and tie up the loose ends. I won't be reading volume four any time soon, which may be a blessing in disguise as volume five hasn't even been released yet.

Lastly, I'd like to give a small thanks to Jake, who left a comment on my review of volume one, explaining the concept of graphic novels, arcs, trade paperbacks, and all of the general jargon involved in this type of literature. Thank you - it has helped a lot.

Book #22

Morning Glories: All Will Be Free by Nick Spencer

One of the most prestigious prep schools in the country...But behind it's hallowed doors something sinister and deadly lurks. When six brilliant but troubled new students arrive, they find themselves trapped and desperately seeking answers...and escape from a place where nothing is what it seems to be.

Now we're talking.

This volume goes into our six protagonists in more detail. Their collective histories are disturbing, and it's clear to see they all have one thing in common: keeping secrets. I had mentioned in my review of volume one that the six main characters seemed to be each of them a stereotype, but this volume does wonders to flesh out their characters and dispel any clichéd character leanings. That being said, the fleshing out of the characters is far from complete, and Spencer leaves us in anticipation; we still have no idea what's going on here.

As I've said in the past, I'm not an expert on illustrations, but in this novel I felt that some of the characters looked incredibly alike. I kept mistaking some of the minor characters for each other, and although the plot is the type where I wouldn't be surprised if they were the same person, I feel as though it may be just homogenised drawings. 

I read this in one sitting. More and more is so gradually revealed, that I just couldn't rip my eyes away. I said in my review of volume one that I didn't feel satisfied at the end of the book. Although I felt the same this time, the difference is that I trust Spencer to deliver in his next volumes.

Saturday, 25 May 2013

Book #21

The Story of Tracy Beaker by Jacqueline Wilson

Tracy is ten years old. She lives in a children's home, but would like a real home one day, with a real family.

I loved this book when I was younger. Having no experience whatsoever of foster care, orphanhood, or anything other than the two-parent family, I was fascinated by Tracy's story. Fifteen years on, I still have a lot of respect for Jacqueline Wilson, and found myself swept along with Tracy's fast-paced, but problematic life.

The story is written in first-person, as though Tracy is writing her own autobiography. She is a brilliant character, so funny and imaginative. Best of all, Tracy is a feisty little madam. As a kid, I just thought she was brilliant, and able to look after herself. Now, I can see Tracy has developed a thick skin during her time in care, and her bossiness, forwardness, and hot-bloodedness are all survival tactics for the difficult environment in which she exists.

Tracy is such a believable child narrator. She isn't overly naive, yet she is in no way mature. I possibly found her funnier now than I did when I was younger; things like calling her social worker 'Elaine the Pain' just totally appealed to my stupid sense of humour.

I found I was picking up on more details when reading this as an adult. Tracy describes her mum as a beautiful, rich, classy woman, who will come and pick her up in her Cadillac as soon as she's finished shooting a film in Hollywood, or returns from sunny Spain. She's too busy to call, and too far away to visit. Reading now, it's clear that these are all just white lies of Tracy's created to help her cope with her mum's absence, but children won't necessarily pick up on this; I don't think I did when I was ten. It made the novel that wee bit more sad for me, and more realistic.

Nick Sharratt's illustrations are dotted throughout the novel, and they do nothing but add to the story. I particularly like the illustrations of Tracy's letters to Cam, and the way Sharratt draws us in using his drawings. It was so exciting. I remember loving his skills when I was younger, and I still do; he makes Wilson's novels even more fun, and he makes a Wilson novel easily recognisable from any other.

Overall, I think this is an important novel for children to read. It's short and snappy for adults, but really is worthwhile to spend an afternoon with. You'll laugh, you'll be touched, and you'll finish off with a warm feeling.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Book #20

Morning Glories: For a Better Future by Nick Spencer

Morning Glory Academy is one of the most prestigious prep schools in the country... but something sinister and deadly lurks behind its walls. When six gifted, but troubled, students arrive, they find themselves trapped and fighting for their lives as the secrets of the academy reveal themselves!
I've only just started reading graphic novels this year, and still can't call myself an expert on them in any way at all. I'm starting to find now, however, that I'm growing to love them. I love the fast pace, I love the gory pages, and I see them as quick adrenaline rushes of books. This is probably down to the fact that I have been recommended all the right books, but remains true nonetheless.

The story begins with the kids being brought to the school. This was done really well, with small flashes of their home life and backgrounds. They all fit into general stereotypes: the clever leader, the shy one, the mysterious one, the arsehole, the bitchy slut, the psycho. It reeked of The Breakfast Club, but they know that; someone even mentions Judd Nelson at one point. The students are collated in a prestigious boarding school, where strange things begin to happen. By strange I mean attempted murder from the teachers, ghosts, a cult in the basement, and a doppelganger who just blew my mind completely. Strange is perhaps an understatement.

I realise the book is first in a series of six, but I didn't finish it feeling completely satisfied. Nothing was explained, and this means you have to read the next one, then probably the next one, all the way to the sixth one. Surely something could have been tied up at the end? Something small? I feel a lot was thrown at me, and although I managed to deal with it, and follow the story, nothing was resolved.

This opening novel in the series seems to built on unanswered questions. There are layers upon layers of mystery just waiting to be unravelled in the following installments. My only issue is that with all the mystery points having been plotted, and all insinuations all made, I'm not sure the next chapters will be able to link all of these together. I suppose there's only one way to find out, and I will.

Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Book #19

The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf

When two seven-year-old girls go missing, all are under suspicion. Calli Clark is a dreamer. A sweet, gentle girl, Callie suffers from selective mutism, brought on by a tragedy she experienced as a toddler. Her mother Antonia tries her best to help, but is confined by marriage to a violent husband. Petra Gregory is Calli's best friend, her soul mate and her voice. But neither Petra nor Calli have been heard from since their disappearance was discovered. Now Calli and Petra's families are bound by the question of what has happened to their children. As support turns to suspicion, it seems the answers lie trapped in the silence of unspoken secrets.
I liked this book. I normally go for something a bit more thought-provoking, but sometimes I like to settle down with an all-consuming easy read like this one.

For a first novel, I thought the suspense was well crafted, and the characters all had some lovely backgrounds for us to sink our teeth into. The pace was perfect; there was always something happening, and pieces of the puzzle were thrown at us rapidly. There wasn't much of a twist, however, and it was pretty predictable throughout.

Gudenkauf uses a multiple voice narrative to give us the plot from different points of view. I usually love this type of prose, and it worked well here. I particularly liked that everyone's voice apart from Calli's was written in first person narrative, subtly emphasising Calli's selective mutism. The different voices, although telling different parts of the story, didn't differ much in the way they were written. I love books (such as Trainspotting) where you can tell which character is speaking to you, simply by the way the prose is written, but here the voices were practically the same. I would have expected a seven year old girl and a well-educated fifty-seven year old father, for example, to have different narrative styles.

Having said that, the plot was gripping, the characters believable, and I found myself tearing through this in only a couple of days. Definitely a quick read, not for the literary hardcore and more something for those who like a book to sweep them along in a completely engaging story.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Book #18

To Hell and Back: An Autobiography by Meat Loaf
Meat Loaf's bizarre and spectacular life story is scarcely credible. After surviving an abusive childhood, during which he was almost murdered by his alcoholic father, he starred in one of the biggest stage and film musicals ever, then went on to record the third best-selling album of all time.
I'm not usually one for non-fiction, and particularly not celebrity autobiographies.  I find them to be generally full of name-dropping, exaggerated anecdotes, and a confused timeline. I picked up this one because I've always been a fan of Meat Loaf, but unfortunately found it to be no exception to the rule.

The book is easy to read, and the writing is nothing miraculous. The chapters are nice and bite-sized, and can stand alone as small tales on their own. The trouble was, I was never sure where we were in time; most of them were entirely devoted (understandably) to the ins and outs of Meat Loaf's experiences in the music business, but this isn't something I have an interest in. The names dropped here were insane, and most of the stories added nothing apart from the fact Meat had met these people.

I suppose I was looking for sex, drugs, stage-diving, fights and nonsense like that, but it seems Mr Loaf has left a lot of these scenarios out of the book for dignity purposes. There was a feeling of something missing, a secret being kept, and it was rubbish.

This would probably be more amusing for a die-hard Meat Loaf fan, or someone interested in the music business. Apart from the episode with his dad trying to kill him with a knife (which, unsurprising, is what made me buy the book), there isn't anything too meaty (I am hilarious) for anyone else to sink their teeth into.

Note to self: no more autobiographies for a while.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Book #17

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
In 1942, with Nazis occupying Holland, a thirteen-year-old Jewish girl and her family fled their home in Amsterdam and went into hiding. For the next two years, until their whereabouts were betrayed to the Gestapo, they and another family lived cloistered in the "Secret Annexe" of an old office building. Cut off from the outside world, they faced hunger, boredom, the constant cruelties of living in confined quarters, and the ever-present threat of discovery and death.
I feel strange reviewing this. Although Anne makes it clear that she'd like her diary published, and does her best to make it a work of fiction by changing names, this is still a diary. This is Anne's personal account of her struggles, and the struggles of the seven other people living in the Secret Annexe. This is a collection of memories. Every page is full of her personal opinions on the others, her views on their behaviours and quirks, and every page is filled with an air of secrecy. These words are poured from the heart of a fourteen year old girl in hiding from the Nazis. For these reasons, this is not a book review.

Anne's entries are surprising in various ways. To begin with, the general reader will think the diary to be a depressing read, and of course it is. But what surprised me was Anne's humourous anecdotes, her records of jokes told in the annexe, amusing things that happened, and beautiful relationships forming. The essence of family, and humanity, really shine through the pages, and although Anne often complains about her housemates, you really can read between the lines and see them pulling each other through this horrible time. I was particularly touched when Anne documented birthdays; the presents, the meals, the conversations. The presents get more frugal as time goes on, but the boarders always do their best for each other, despite the arguments they frequently have.

What struck me most as Anne's diary progressed was her maturity, intelligence, and sheer wisdom; indescribable for a fourteen year old. Her views and opinions on the world were so clever and respectable, and I couldn't help but feel we have lost someone very very special; a great mind.

This diary holds a lot of truth, and it belongs perfectly in that group of books everyone should have read at least once. It's important people continue to read this diary. We are so lucky that this special girl decided to take pen to paper and tell us about her time in hiding; no one else could have captivated us in this way. Without Anne, we wouldn't know how it felt to hide behind a bookcase, to live on mean food rations, and to dream of being out in the open air again. 

Anne passed away in Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945, but she hasn't died yet.

"To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time." - Elie Wiesel

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Book #16

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

'Shoot all the bluejays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird.'
A lawyer's advice to his children as he defends the real mockingbird of Harper Lee's classic novel - a black man charged with the rape of a white girl. Through the young eyes of Scout and Jem Finch, Harper Lee explores with exuberant humour the irrationality of adult attitudes to race and class in the Deep South of the thirties. The conscience of a town steeped in prejudice, violence and hypocrisy is pricked by the stamina of one man's struggle for justice. But the weight of history will only tolerate so much.
This book was wonderful when I first read it ten years ago, but it's even more wonderful now. It's amazing what growing up does to your views and opinions; my first read at fifteen left me mainly just scandalised at the injustice of it all, but this time I feel and understand so much more. It's gorgeous, because one part of this is Lee's portrayal of Jem and Scout maturing and having a more adult view of their world. This has also happened to me with a ten year gap between readings of the book; it's incredible. 

To Kill a Mockingbird is perfect. It isn't overly preachy with its message, but gets it across nonetheless. The court scene is particularly great at giving an impression of social inequity, and a feeling of impending sorrow and doom. The study of prejudice is flawless; we are shown lots of definitions of what it is to be black, white, male, female, rich, poor, educated and uneducated, but none of these are correct. It is what it is, and it is what you make it.

Lee writes Atticus Finch as the ultimate father. He teaches his children to look beyond skin colour, age, and wealth. He completely believed that the most important thing was to ensure his children respected him, and the only way they could do so was by always seeing him doing the right thing.  The worst thing for the children would have been to hurt their father, so his teaching methods worked perfectly.

I love Scout. I love how inquisitive she is, I love that although she's been brought up incredibly well, and that she still has a beautiful childish innocence, but most of all I love that she isn't a standard little girl. She isn't written in frilly dresses, she fights boy, she wears overalls, she doesn't want to be a girl; she wants to be a person first. 

Harper Lee puts fire into our hearts with this story. She isn't telling us to riot against injustice, she is  showing us Atticus Finch's vow to always do right, and subtly suggesting that this might be a good way to live our lives. She gives us the mentality to never give up, and to fight the unwinnable fight: “Simply because we were licked a hundred years before we started is no reason for us not to try to win."

This book fits perfectly on the 'everyone must read' list. It's one of those books I hate to review, because it's so wonderful and I can never do it justice (no pun intended). Although I realise many have read this in school, read it again whether you loved it or hated it. It's so worthwhile, you won't regret it. 

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Book #15

Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth by Chris Priestley

A boy is put on a train by his stepmother to make his first journey on his own. But soon that journey turns out to be more of a challenge than anyone could have imagined as the train stalls at the mouth of a tunnel and a mysterious woman in white helps the boy while away the hours by telling him stories - stories with a difference.
This is the third installment of Priestley's chilling trilogy, and it has to be the most terrifying yet. It's even more captivating, and even more closely weaved than its predecessors.

Priestley doesn't allow you any respite. You are never settled into the story, you aren't nicely carried along. You are reading in a perpetual state of unease, your shoulders are at your ears, and your disconcerted body throws goosebumps up all over your skin. These stories are so strange, so unnerving, that it's impossible to relax when reading them. It's wonderful.

The format is the same as the previous two novels; stories are told to our protagonist, and we glimpse both the storyteller and listener interacting between tales. We know something isn't quite right, but it isn't until the end that the twist is revealed. Despite Priestley's delicious little hints, I wasn't able to work out the storyteller's secret this time, and I loved the book even more for this. The tension was unbearable, and the trilogy is tied up nicely with an incredibly frightening nod towards the first novel.

My favourite story was The New Governess, a gorgeous twist on The Turn of the Screw, which I've only just recently read. I wasn't able to look under my dinner table for a few nights afterwards.

These aren't your usual kid's tales where the bad guy gets his comeuppance at the end. Priestley will kill off the good guys, the innocent, and more often than not, the kids. I love this about his novels. He shows that these terrible, frightening scenes can happen to anyone, and that's what makes it all the more terrifying.

Once again, I found the stories bloody terrifying, and once again I will add that I am very easily scared, particularly by the supernatural. I did find this round a bit more macabre than the previous two novels, and again I wonder how children can get through them without turning into a gibbering wreck. Perhaps they are just made of sterner stuff than this whimpering (almost) twenty-six year old. Despite my lack of nerve, I'd challenge anyone to get through this book without at least one chill racing down their spine.

Priestley is absolutely fantastic, and I would encourage anyone to read this trilogy. The short stories are entirely timeless and remarkable. I'd encourage anyone to give these a try, and if you say you aren't frightened by at least one of the stories, I absolutely will not believe you.