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.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

Book #14

Tales of Terror from the Black Ship by Chris Priestley

At the Old Inn, which clings precariously to a cliff top above a storm-lashed ocean, two sick children are left alone while their father fetches the doctor. Then a visitor comes begging for shelter, and so begins a long night of storytelling, in which young Ethan and Cathy, who have an unnatural appetite for stories of a macabre persuasion, sit out the last throes of the storm in the company of a sailor with more than enough grisly tales to satisfy them. But something about this sailor puts Ethan on edge, and he becomes increasingly agitated for his father's return. Only when the storm blows itself out can Ethan relax - but not for long, for the new dawn opens the children's eyes to a truth more shocking, more distressing than anything they heard the night before.

After reading Priestley's Uncle Montague's Tales of Terror, I was thirsty for another scare, and borrowed Tales of Terror from the Black Ship from a friend. As stated in my previous Priestley review, I am very easily scared, and Black Ship was no exception. Having finished the last chapter only a short time ago, I'm still finding myself peering over my shoulder as I type.  What a collection of stories this is! Each one told by a strangely dressed sea-faring gentlemen who knocks the door of two ill children during a storm. It's soon apparent that there's something not quite right about this man, and the chilling backdrop of strong weather did nothing to calm my nerves. This, coupled with the fact that the children's father had gone off to fetch the doctor, meaning no grown ups, made me very nervous indeed.  Although I realised quite quickly the sailor's secret, I was still bloody terrified, and can imagine how fascinated a younger person would be by these tales. They are absolutely haunting, and at times unfathomable, but all the while entirely delicious.

The format is the same as Uncle Montague; lots of short stories which could stand alone, but which all add up to something bigger, something more macabre, a formidable twist in the tale. The stories tend to be cut off suddenly after a plot twist, and this sort of sudden death is absolutely delectable. This may be a spoiler (avert your eyes), but I adored Uncle M making a very subtle appearance at the end.

Other than Treasure Island, I can't admit to reading any sea-faring novels, and this is probably why I was so disturbed. I can't think of anything worse than the sea raising over my head, or being on a ship in a bare expanse of ocean with nowhere to escape to. Thank goodness I'm landlocked.

Priestley's prose is gorgeous, yet again, however I feel some sentences may be quite challenging for younger, more reluctant readers. The stories themselves are incredibly gripping, however, so it's well worth giving it a try. If you need any more encouragement, see Chris Priestley scaring me below:

Haunted, and entirely unsettled, I now move on to Tales of Terror from the Tunnel's Mouth.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Book #13

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
The parties of Gatsby's Long Island mansion were legendarily glamorous affairs. Yet amid the throng of guests, starlets and champagne waiters, their host would appear oddly aloof. For there was only one person Jay Gatsby sought to impress. She was Daisy Buchanan: married, elegant, seducing men with a silken charisma and a 'voice full of money'.

The Great Gatsby is my favourite novel, and one of the most perfect I have ever read. Fitzgerald writes stunning, elegant, glittery prose that parallels the glamour of Gatsby's parties immaculately.

Gatsby is all about pretense, deception, paper-thin relationships and shallow personalities. Fitzgerald shows us an America fallen from grace after World War I. The wealthy, respectable population have lost their moral compass, their social and moral values are decaying, and they are devoting their lives to meaningless, expensive pleasures. The American Dream is dissolving around their ears as a grim result.

Fitzgerald explores the social etiquette of the wealthy, and compares those of 'old money' in East Egg, to those of 'new money' in West Egg. He uses the geography of both areas to contrast the social values expressed by individuals. The West Eggers are gaudy show-offs without social grace or taste, whilst the East Eggers are more graceful and elegant, but entirely lacking in heart.

Nick Carraway as narrator is likeable in an instant, and becomes our trusted calm in the storm, a voice of absolute reason among the wreckages. He experiences an inner turmoil throughout the book, which isn't resolved until the final chapter. Although the fast-paced lifestyle of sin attracts and excites him, he also deplores it on a more sensible level. His relationship with Jordan is the perfect symbol of his conflict; he finds her sophisticated and intriguing, but is disgusted by her selfishness and habits of dishonesty. I had so much trust for Nick as narrator for this reason; I could identify completely with his mixed reactions, and felt the same throughout the novel.

Jay Gatsby himself is originally introduced to us as a stable, polite, well-to-do gentleman. Our narrator is impressed by his lavish home, and his solid charm. Shortly after this first encounter, however, Fitzgerald begins to deconstruct Gatsby, exposing him as the insecure, tragic creature he really is. We begin to understand Gatsby's past, his rise from pauper to prince, and the reasons behind it; we begin to judge, begin to realise that there's something not so desirable about Gatsby's lifestyle after all. This is a mask designed to hide his inner torment; not only Gatsby himself, but many of his guests are wearing a similar mask.

The love Gatsby feels for Daisy is something that really interests me. She really is a loathsome material girl, and although she is elegant, beautiful, and somewhat capable of showing affection, she is a bored, shallow debutante. Gatsby's obsession by her originates in his fixation on wealth and material, and as this continues he believes her to be the epitome of complete perfection. This is a dream which can never be realised, however, and I'd argue that this long hope is the entire crux of Gatsby's fate.

Fitzgerald uses many beautiful symbols in the novel, my favourite being the eyes of Eckleburg in the valley of ashes. These were, to me, the eyes of God looking down on the sinners. Fitzgerald does infer, however, that symbols are what we make of them, and I would tend to agree.

I could type up my thoughts on this novel all day, but they would never stray from my opinion of it being fantastic; I'll spare you. Every single word is wonderful; Fitzgerald has created something extravagant to match Jay Gatsby's hopes and dreams. This novel is absolutely pristine and one of the greats, without a doubt. I would struggle to name another work of fiction which has been written with such elegance and fluidity, without becoming a cumbersome, excessive read. I feel everyone should have read it at least five times, and be ready to discuss its merits at a moment's notice.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

Book #12

White Oleander by Janet Fitch

When Astrid's mother, a beautiful, headstrong poet, murders a former lover and is imprisoned for life, Astrid becomes one of the thousands of foster children in Los Angeles. As she navigates this new reality, Astrid finds strength in her unshakable certainty of her own worth and her unfettered sense of the absurd.

I tried so hard to like this. I totally understood the message Fitch was trying to convey, and I really did enjoy the story in places, but I'm not entirely sold. My copy has a cover which has complimentary words such as BEAUTIFUL POIGNANT CAPTIVATING all over it; I don't agree with any of these.

The first thing I noticed about the prose, and the first thing that irritated me to such an extent I almost gave up reading after one chapter, was Fitch's love of the simile. Dear God, around ninety of them are thrown at you like grenades in the first chapter alone. This continues throughout the novel, along with other cringe worthy metaphors, and I was forced to skim over the more descriptive paragraphs to get to the real meat on the bones. In particular, Fitch's sex scene prose was mortifying; I certainly have never pertained sex to riding a horse through the surf. Oh dear.

Our narrator, Astrid, is simply ridiculous. She goes through assault, statutory rape, prostitution, near starvation and is shot without even batting an eyelid. Surely a young teenage girl would come away from all of that severely disturbed? This completely destroyed my trust in her as a narrator at a very early stage; I am more than certain any person in her position in life would not be as calm and collected as she was. She just didn't react the way you would expect her to. And this isn't because (as other reviews state) 'she's not your average teenage girl,'; this is because Fitch has written her with zombie characteristics.

The plot has some serious potential, but Fitch ruins it with her overly lyrical writing. The story is interesting in places, but soon becomes melodramatic. Any time Astrid settles somewhere, or starts to feel settled, Fitch throws something else at her. Think you're going out for a night time stroll, Astrid? Here are some rabid dogs that will chew your skin to shreds! Bitches get stitches! Come on, Janet, give her a wee break. Am I being too much of a princess thinking that terrible things like that don't happen to people as constantly as that?

Astrid's statutory rape was the most unbelievable part of all. She is fourteen when she is sent to her first foster home, and develops an obsession for her foster mother's boyfriend, who is in his forties. She ends up having sex with him, loves it, and craves more. She's fourteen, and this is ridiculous. Of course, we didn't have too much time to consider it, because before long Fitch sends the foster mother in to Astrid's room toting a gun, and a bang and a sore shoulder later, it's new foster home time.

It concerns me that young girls have and will have read this novel and found it fantastic. I certainly hope none of them take Astrid as a role model, particularly those in similar situations. This is a book disguising itself as literature, and I have no real idea how it came to be so well-known.