Sunday, 2 August 2015

Month in review: July

Hello to you all. In the books world, July was all about Go Set a Watchman. Whether you couldn't wait for it, or were nervous about it, or tried to avoid it entirely, it was everywhere. I used the two weeks running up to Watchman's release to read through the small pile of library books, loans, and gifts, which I did not count towards my "read 3, buy 2" policy for this year. After Go Set a Watchman, with all the hype and discussion, I fell into a little bit of a reading slump, a sense of "Now what?" It may not be a full-on reading slump; I've still read four books (plus a penguin mini-classic) in the past two and a half weeks, which is still pretty good, but I haven't felt that draw to my bookshelves, or that immersion into a really engrossing novel. That's okay. It happens, and it's nothing to beat myself up about.

What I read

Abarat - Clive Barker
The Rabbit Back Literature Society - Pasi Ilmari Jaaskelainen
The Coincidence Authority - John Ironmonger
The Outcast Dead - Elly Griffiths
Nunslinger - Stark Holborn
The Night Guest - Fiona McFarlane

The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick
Go Set a Watchman - Harper Lee
The Beginner's Goodbye - Anne Tyler
Weirdo - Cathi Unsworth
Interesting Times - Terry Pratchett

And (Penguin Mini Classics)
The Fall of Icarus - Ovid
The Night is Darkening Round Me - Emily Bronte
Lord Arthur Savile's Crime

With a new to-read pile for August, I'm starting to feel a bit more excited about reading again. I bought two new books yesterday, both from the children's section: First Class Murder, the latest in the Wells and Wong series about schoolgirl detectives in the 1930s, and Katy by Jacqueline Wilson, a modern-day retelling of What Katy Did. I'm often very wary of retellings, but I think that some of the literary webseries, such as The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Green Gables Fables (as well as, recently, Project Green Gables.) have softened my purist's attitude, and I find it very interesting to see how they translate to the modern day. And What Katy Did is a book full of really good characters, incidents and stories... but it is ultimately very Victorian in its moralising in the second half, and the "character development" turns an adventurous, ambitious, feisty little girl into a dull, sanctimonious little angel. I think the characters and family life of Katy and the Carrs would fit quite well among Jacqueline Wilson's original novels: she writes about dysfunctional families, often with lots of children and maybe a single or remarried parent, and her characters are believable children. Let's see how she handles this classic.

Provisional August To-Read Pile

Thief of Time - Terry Pratchett
First Class Murder - Robin Stevens
A Wizard of Earthsea - Ursula Le Guin
When We Were Orphans - Kazuo Ishiguro
Dark Places - Gillian Flynn
HhhH - Laurent Binet
Goodnight, Beautiful - Dorothy Koomson
Reasons She Goes to the Woods - Deborah Kay Davies
Katy - Jacqueline Wilson
The Rook - Daniel O'Malley

I've really got stuck back into my writing in the last month or two. Where I work part-time, I'm trying to make the most of my days off as an opportunity to work on my novel, which I began for NaNoWriMo last year. I'm setting myself achievable targets and am really pleased with how it's coming along now. And I've also come up with my idea for this November's project: a children's book set in a girls' boarding school, involving time travel. But unlike the usual time-travel narrative in which someone goes back from the present day into the past, this girl, Olive, comes from 1940 and has to figure out how to pass as a 2015 teenager, with many lessons to learn, while trying to get back to her own past and her family. It's taken inspiration from Charlotte Sometimes, Cross Stitch and Captain America, and I'm going to have to reread a load of my old school stories from childhood, in order to figure out Olive's character and world. 

Which is handy, seeing as Bex is organising another ReReadathon for September, not one but two weeks this time. I fully intend to reread last year's favourites: 11.22.63 and The Martian, as well as at least one Sarah Waters novel, but I'm sure I'll have plenty of time to read a Chalet School, Malory Towers and maybe a Trebizon or two for comparison. 

And away from the world of books, reading or writing them, I've finally got around to buying Star Trek: Deep Space 9. We don't have many places left on the Island which sell DVDs, and especially not older ones or box sets (although CEX the exchange shop opened this week - yay) so I'd been looking in every HMV or CEX whenever I went to the mainland, with no joy. But suddenly I remembered that Hive sells DVDs as well as books. Hive is an online shop I don't mind using - normally I go out of my way to buy in a shop if at all possible - because it supports local independent bookshops.

My Trekkie friends either seem to like DS9 best of all, or hate it. I'm really impressed with it so far; I've only seen about half a season, but I already like it more than The Next Generation. (Gasp! Controversial!) TNG is pretty much how I imagined Star Trek to be before I ever had any interest in Star Trek. It's got some good characters, and some really interesting, thought-provoking storylines, but I never quite warmed to it the same way I did the original series. I felt like it was trying to be more of the same. Picard's crew is still seeking new life and new civilisations, boldly going where no-one has gone before, their ship is even called the Enterprise. DS9, by contrast, is set on a space station, and it's not even a Federation space station; instead, a team from the Federation has been called to work alongside the Bajorans, whose space station DS9 really is, and there is the conflict as the two teams learn each other's ways.

Deep Space 9 ties in nicely with the franchise so far. The pilot opens with a flashback to the biggest season finale of The Next Generation - the Borg attack in which Captain Picard was assimilated, and the battle of Wolf 359, where a Starfleet officer's wife is killed. This officer is Benjamin Sisko, three years later the commander of Deep Space 9, who has been bringing up his son alone. It was good to have some of the issues I'd had with the series so far addressed: the throwaway nature of the doomed redshirts and unseen nobodies, and why it is really not a great idea to have civilian spouses and children onboard the Starship Enterprise. Yes, she is a ship of exploration, not of war, but you might be forgiven for forgetting that, considering the number of space battles all her incarnations have seen, and of course the redshirt mortality rate!

Monday, 20 July 2015

The Atticus Problem: Responding to Go Set a Watchman

There has been a considerable amount of controversy in the bookish world, ever since it was announced that a sequel to Harper Lee's classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, had been found, and was to be published. Miss Lee is famous for having published just one masterpiece, and nothing since. There were concerns that the publishers may be exploiting a lady who is very elderly, frail, and reclusive, and no great assurance that she willingly approved the publication of Go Set a Watchman. Then, at the weekend, came the first newspaper reviews with their bombshell: Read this, and it could affect the way you see To Kill a Mockingbird and its most beloved characters. I didn't want to know this. I hate spoilers, but worse, I hate being told before I read or watch something new, what I ought to have a problem with. Because once I've read these (perfectly valid) criticisms, they stay in my mind, and I find myself picking holes that I might not have done otherwise. So I'll give you the chance to click away now, if you've managed to avoid the publicity so far and want to read Go Set a Watchman unspoiled, or keep To Kill A Mockingbird as a stand alone classic without a sequel.

The Garment-Rending Approach

The big bombshell of Go Set a Watchman is the character of one of American literature's greatest heroes of all time. Atticus Finch, for over half a century a champion for right and justice and equality, an extraordinary figure in 1930s Alabama, is toppled from his pedestal in the 1950s, when he reveals his less savoury views.

It's difficult to reconcile Atticus Finch with racism, and all the more so as in every other way, he remains 100% Atticus, polite, respectably subversive, a leading member of the community. Is everything we ever believed a lie? one asks. As To Kill A Mockingbird was actually written after Go Set a Watchman, it's hard to picture Miss Lee presenting us with a perfect hero, while sitting on the knowledge of his alter ego for fifty five years or more. But Go Set a Watchman is an unusual sequel, because it was written earlier, because of the gap between it and its predecessor, and because of To Kill a Mockingbird's magnitude. Does this invalidate the last fifty five years of literature? Can we ever read the triumphs and tragedies and honest goodness in To Kill a Mockingbird without remembering this other side to Atticus? How might one approach teaching Mockingbird in schools now? I'd scoff at the idea that one work of art might be "ruined forever" by another, but I wonder how long it'll be before I reread Mockingbird without holding Watchman in my mind throughout Atticus's scenes.*

The Dual Perspective Approach

Although, unlike To Kill a Mockingbird, Go Set a Watchman is told in the third person, the focus character and the one to whom the reader most relates is Scout Finch, now known by her full name, Jean Louise. Jean Louise is twenty six years old, and naturally she has a different view of the world around her than she did as a little girl. It stands to reason that she would have a more critical, less blindly accepting attitude towards her father. A painful part of growing up is to discover the flaws in our heroes, that they are only human too. Does one flaw cancel out everything good about them? Is it possible for Atticus Finch to fight with all his heart for justice and do the right thing in the face of opposition, and still hold in his heart the same prejudice that influenced everyone else? I'd argue that nothing in Go Set a Watchman changes Atticus's behaviour or even his motivation in To Kill a Mockingbird. His character is another matter.

When you look up to people, whether they be celebrities, acquaintances, close relations, or ink and paper, they have the power to let you down. Go Set a Watchman is painful reading in places, for the very reason that the reader is going through the exact same thing that Scout (I can't call her Jean Louise) does, in seeing Atticus toppled from his pedestal. Literature takes us inside our characters' minds, makes us feel what they feel, and on a meta level, the fifty years of hailing Atticus Finch as a hero has made us all the more sympathetic, her dismay and ours all the more powerful. It is Atticus himself, fallen, and yet still recognisable, whose lesson to Scout is that she stand up for what she believes to be right and true - even against him.

The First Draft Approach

The important thing to remember is that To Kill a Mockingbird evolved from Go Set a Watchman. The publishers rejected the original manuscript, but liked the memories of Scout as a young girl so much that Harper Lee wrote a new novel entirely from that perspective. And the thing is, writing evolves. Stories evolve. Characters evolve. Regardless of author's intent, the evidence we've had to work with has been in the bookshops for over half a century; is that not long enough for it to be "real"? It's a story that lives not only printed on paper and on film, but in the hearts and minds of so many people. At some point (but at what point?) I think a story comes alive, becomes more than just the words of the author. To Kill a Mockingbird is certainly such a story. It's different from, say, Tolkien's Histories of Middle-Earth, which charter the evolution of the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings. Go Set A Watchman is almost entirely a different story, with some overlap and some contradiction, but it formed a starting point, the end result of which was To Kill a Mockingbird. Anna James wrote her review from this perspective on the Pool website, describing the new novel as "the origin story of an iconic book" and the Atticus Finch portrayed within as "a work in progress."

The Discontinuity Approach

Related to the above, where do we place Go Set a Watchman in the canon of Harper Lee? To Kill a Mockingbird is not simply a modern classic, but a classic, full stop. The publication of a sequel to a classic in my lifetime, so long after the first installment, is unheard of. Does Go Set a Watchman automatically rank beside its sister novel, or does it have to earn its own place in the annals of literature on its own merits, over time?

Add into the equation the moral doubts about whether Miss Lee really wanted the book published; after all, she refused to publish anything for over half a century, and some have noted that the "discovery" of Go Set A Watchman shortly after the death of her sister, who was also her lawyer, is too suspicious to be a coincidence. We'll probably never know her wishes, but if we read it, we should do so in the knowledge that it might not be the story she wanted us to read in the end.

On the other hand, like it or not, Go Set a Watchman has been released into the wild now. It exists, and people are reading it, and talking about it. Does that fact alone make it canon? It is more than a first draft, and follows on quite well as a sequel to the casual reader. But the text of Watchman contradicts the biggest plot events of Mockingbird: the court case Jean Louise remembers here had a different outcome, different details, but was clearly the inspiration for the Tom Robinson trial. One could view this as evidence that Watchman must be viewed as a separate story from Mockingbird, that the two books don't fit together in the same fictional universe.

But I feel uncomfortable denying Go Set a Watchman outright. "I can't believe in Atticus as a racist, therefore this can't be the real Atticus." I don't want to simply shut my eyes to unsavoury elements to a story just because they make me uncomfortable. It puts in mind the things I've been reading about the American school curriculum omitting to teach significant chunks of race-related history, as if ignoring them would make them go away. Obviously, Atticus Finch is a fictional character, but his dilemmas, opinions, strengths and flaws reflect the real world. Is it wrong of us to want to preserve a clean, good image of a hero at the expense of those who suffered as a result of the hurtful attitudes we'd rather not admit he expressed?

Or am I taking this all far too seriously? After all, "it's just a story."

Who gets to decide whether this is an official sequel, or a stage in the evolution of a masterpiece? I guess it's up to the individual reader, and I don't have an easy answer to any of the questions raised. One thing is certain, though: this is one of the biggest events in the history of publishing, and people will be discussing Go Set a Watchman for a long time to come.

*I watched the film after writing this post. I still have a huge amount of love for Mockingbird's Atticus Finch. Go Set A Watchman does not seem to have changed this. Perhaps it is like the rebooted Star Trek universe, canon and not canon, the same and not the same AT THE SAME TIME. Star Trek and To Kill A Mockingbird: not a comparison you come across every day, I suspect.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Book Review: Go Set a Watchman - Harper Lee

Contains spoilers

A young woman takes the overnight train home to Maycomb, Alabama, for the first time in many years. Before she arrives, she makes sure to dress in slacks, in part to scandalise her aunt, in part because they are the clothes that make her feel most like herself when she returns home. The woman is Jean Louise Finch, once known as Scout, the narrator and heroine of To Kill a Mockingbird. In many ways, Maycomb is the same, but in other ways it has changed. It is the 1950s, and times are changing. Racial tensions are high, with talk of desegregation, which meets with resistance among the white members of the community. Jean Louise's homecoming is bittersweet. Maycomb is home, with all the memories of her childhood; her boyfriend is here, and her father, although  her brother Jem is dead now, and Atticus is older, more creaky, but still the wise, quietly witty, respectably subversive lawyer. And Jean Louise will never see eye-to-eye with her Aunt Alexandra, and she no longer quite feels that she fits in at her hometown. There are shocks in store for Jean Louise, and everything she has previously taken for granted comes crashing down around her.

Go Set a Watchman was written before To Kill a Mockingbird, and, although it works as a sequel, being a completely new story, the elements which later evolved into the classic are visible in another form. Harper Lee brings the humour and warmth that readers will instantly recognise from Mockingbird, the same wry observation and understated wit. Jean Louise is older, but the tomboy child is never far from the surface, and Atticus, though he may seem serious, has a dry wit of his own.

The prose is inconsistent in quality; less polished than in Mockingbird, a weird combination of dry exposition and presumption that the reader to has a little more contemporary political knowledge than I had half a century later. Go Set a Watchman is character-driven, without a big major plot event such as the trial at the heart of To Kill A Mockingbird. As such, I felt it a bit less engrossing, a series of events and flashbacks, and wondering what the actual story was going to be. But when it's good, it really shines. Some lines of dialogue or description had me laughing aloud. (People who grew up in a certain kind of church will know exactly which hymn is being described as "bloodthirsty.") The characters walk onto the page fully-formed, and it's easy to forget that it was their first appearance on paper. Scout is as lovable, passionate, outrageous and unconventional as a woman as she was as a girl, a person who transcends ink and paper. The flashbacks to Scout's childhood and teenage years were very funny, as was the scene at Jean Louise's "coffee," and the way snippets of conversation from one-time acquaintances came together to be faintly ridiculous.

It doesn't really feel fair to compare the novels, except to observe how Harper Lee took the good elements of Go Set a Watchman and made them great. The change in narration from third person (Watchman) to Scout's first person (Mockingbird) brings you closer into the world, and the way that events run together in the latter, with a mixture of childish imagination and adult reality, build a complete child's view of the world out of the fragments of memory presented in Watchman. 

Go Set A Watchman covers similar themes to those at the heart of To Kill a Mockingbird, of race, and justice, family, an end of innocence and Right and Wrong with capital letters. But Right and Wrong are more complex here; it is a more adult novel and leaves you, the reader, conflicted. Because here, Atticus Finch, Defender of Good and Right, a man with a sense of justice beyond his time, is wary of the changing of the times, and stands against the desegregation of the races in the South, attending meetings alongside hateful, bigoted people and condoning them with his silence.

The confrontation and conversation at the end of the book would be powerful and upsetting enough were these characters we'd met for the first time a couple of hundred pages back. With the weight of half a century behind it, however, and with literature bearing Atticus' reputation for more than twice as long as Jean Louise's twenty six years, I too felt that sense of betrayal and hurt, all the worse because Atticus remains in character throughout. His arguments against desegregation are calm, reasoned and thoughtful - and awful and wrong. It's hard to reconcile some of the terrible things he says with the man who has been long considered a hero, and I'll be posting a whole separate essay about that issue in the next day or two. There is a time when the bitterness of the rift between Jean Louise and Atticus seem impossible to get past.

Yet Go Set a Watchman ends on a note of hope and reconciliation. It has become necessary for Jean Louise to smash the idol she'd made of her father, in order to live by her own conscience, to fight battles because she knows them to be right, not to accept that everything Atticus says or does is good and right. Without wishing in any way to downplay or defend his beliefs and words, he is, for the most part, a good man, with strong morals, and a good father. The lessons she learned from him as a child and young woman set her up well for life. But he is still a man, and he is still flawed. It's as true for the reader as it is for Jean Louise; we come of age alongside her. Heroes will only lead us so far. Ultimately, we must become our own heroes.

Go Set A Watchman is not as wonderful a novel as To Kill A Mockingbird, but it was never going to be. It's a patchy, but pretty good, literary novel of its time; darker and more nuanced than its sister novel. It's interesting to compare the complex adult morality to the simple black and white of a child's understanding. Is it essential reading? Not in the same way that To Kill a Mockingbird is, but Go Set a Watchman is an interesting piece of literature, more than a first draft, but not quite a sequel, to be read thoughtfully with a critical mind.

Thursday, 2 July 2015

June in Review

Another month is over, and June has been a satisfyingly bookish month for me. We're in a heatwave in the UK at the moment, and it's uncomfortably hot at work (the air conditioning has broken in its classic timely fashion) so I'm spending as much of my free time as I can on the beach with a book. Last month I was working a lot, but I had a couple of days off to go up to London for a weekend. I met up with the lovely Bex around the time of her birthday, and met her family. Of course we did a little book shopping in Canterbury - although I only bought one book with her: Harriet the Spy, which I vividly remember reading as a kid, but not one I ever owned. However, I also came home with two more full-sized books, and a handful of the 80p Little Black Classics from Penguin. I've also paid a few visits to the labyrinthine Ryde Bookshop and the petite, vaguely Black-Books-esque (but only in the best way) treasure-trove that is Babushka Books in Shanklin.

Books from June's to-read pile

  • Tigerman - Nick Harkaway
  • Weirdo - Cathi Unsworth
  • Mr Mercedes - Stephen King
  • The Coincidence Authority - John Ironmonger
  • The Man in the High Castle - Philip K. Dick
  • A Room Full of Bones - Elly Griffiths
  • Dying Fall - Elly Griffiths
  • Lock In - John Scalzi
  • The Year I Met You - Cecelia Ahern

Other Books Read in June
  • The Janus Stone - Elly Griffiths
  • A Girl of the Limberlost - Gene Stratton-Porter
  • Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh
  • You Say Potato - Ben and David Crystal
  • The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend - Katarina Bivald
  • The Somnambulist - Jonathan Barnes
  • Family Secrets - Deborah Cohen
  • Emma: A Retelling - Alexander McCall Smith

Books bought in June
  • When We Were Orphans - Kazuo Ishiguro (Babushka Books, Shanklin)
  • Thrice Upon a Time - James P. Hogan (Fantastic Store, Ryde)
  • Harriet the Spy - Louise Fitzhugh (Waterstones, Canterbury)
  • Penguin Mini Classics: A Slip under the Microscope - H. G. Wells, The Fall of Icarus - Ovid, The Night is Darkening Round Me - Emily Bronte, Lord Arthur Savile's Crime - Oscar Wilde, The Life of a Stupid Man - Ryunosuke Akutagawa (all from Foyles, London Waterloo station)
  • The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend - Katarina Bivald (Regency Bookshop, Surbiton)
  • Penguin Mini Classic: Caligula - Suetonius (Regency Bookshop, Surbiton)
  • You Say Potato - Ben and David Crystal (Foyles, Charing Cross Road, London)
  • The Golden Notebook - Doris Lessing (Babushka Books, Shanklin)
  • The Go-Between - L. P. Hartley (Babushka Books, Shanklin)

July's To-Read Pile

For the first half of July I've planned to take time away from my own to-read shelf in order to get through my library books, borrowed books and gifts, the ones that "don't count" as part of my "read-three-buy-two" rule. I'm giving myself until the 13th to get through as many of the following titles as possible. The 14th, of course, sees the publication of Harper Lee's very long-awaited second novel, Go Set a Watchman (or first - I believe it was written before To Kill a Mockingbird.) I have my copy pre-ordered and will want to read it as soon as it becomes available.

  • Abarat - Clive Barker (borrowed from a friend)
  • The Rabbit Back Literature Society - Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen (borrowed from sister)
  • The Coincidence Authority - John Ironmonger (from Hanna)
  • The Outcast Dead - Elly Griffiths (library)
  • Nunslinger - Stark Holborn (library)
  • The Night Guest - Fiona McFarlane (Ninja Book Swap gift from Sarah)
Have you read any of these books? Any recommendations on where to start?  Here's wishing you all a happy July!

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Lock In - John Scalzi

It is the not-too-distant future, and the world has changed. After a worldwide epidemic of a debilitating disease, called Haden's Syndrome, whose worst (non-fatal) effect is lock-in syndrome, science and technology have made great leaps to help sufferers lead some semblance of a normal life. Firstly there are remotely-controlled robotesque bodies colloquially known as "threeps" (as in C-3PO). The Haden's afflicted person may physically be lying paralysed in a bed, but their minds can inhabit these synthetic bodies and do most of the things that everyone else can do. Then there is the Agora, a sort of fully-immersive internet, where people can meet in cyberspace without the hastle of computers or smartphones. Finally, there are the integrators, a small minority of people who can let the Hadens borrow their bodies for a while - but fully conscious, and are an essential part of the decision-making and action processes.

So, this is the world of Lock In. Quite a complex set of ideas to get your head around, and it's best to take the first chapter or two slowly to figure it all out, but it's a really fascinating concept for a book. After all, if a person's mind/soul/personality are all made up of electrical signals from the brain, then why not? Why can't they be remotely transmitted to other places outside the body?

The protagonist of Lock In is Agent Chris Shane*, a new recruit to the FBI - and a Haden. On Shane's very first day, an apparent suicide leads to the discovery that someone is abusing the Haden's technology for their own nefarious purposes, and it is up to Shane and partner Vann to get to the heart of the mystery. But the conspiracy goes far deeper than Shane could have imagined, with far-reaching implications...

Lock In is an intelligent science fiction novel which uses fantastical ideas to make you think about real-world issues, such as corruption in business, the dangers of the commercial side of the health industry, and raises questions about the ethics of  medical advancement, technology, and quality of life. The scientists in the world of Lock In see opportunity in disaster, and in treating Haden's Syndrome, they have made steps towards the evolution of a new life form. But what does this mean for the human race? In such a situation, do we have a moral obligation to fix what is broken or to take the broken pieces to create something new which could end up replacing us?

It is these questions which make Lock In something beyond a simple science-fiction detective novel. After finishing the book, I found myself missing it, sorry to have reached the end and said farewell to the characters, the world and the questions it provokes. An excellent novel, and I recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Ready Player One, Scalzi's Redshirts (very different kind of story but the same humour and narrative voice) or Joss Whedon's TV series, Dollhouse. 

*It was not until it was pointed out to me that I realised that Scalzi never specified whether Agent Shane was a Christopher or a Christine. I assumed all the way through the book that the character was male, possibly because of the masculine-sounding surname, but I'm going to have to reread imagining the character as a woman. Apparently there are two audiobook versions, too, one read by Wil Wheaton and the other by Amber Benson (the lovely lovely Tara from Buffy!)

Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Top Ten Tuesday: Best books of 2015 so far

Ahhhh, how can it possibly be the last day of June already? Just the other day, at work, I was standing in the store room planning where I was going to put the Christmas stock when it starts to arrive, with exactly half a year to go. Madness! But the calendar tells me we're halfway through the year, so in no particular order, here are my favourite books of the year so far. (Note: these are books read in 2015, not necessarily published this year.)

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted at The Broke and the Bookish

  1. Elizabeth is Missing - Emma Healey An excellent book to start 2015 with, a compassionate psychological study, and a compelling and satisfying mystery. A remarkable, perfectly-crafted debut. 
  2. The Thirteenth Tale - Diane SetterfieldThe Thirteenth Tale is a rich, atmospheric novel that calls to mind the smell of old books, the cosy feeling of being wrapped up in a blanket with a hot chocolate while a storm rages outside. It is a self-aware entry into the canon of classic gothic fiction, settling among the classics as though it has always been there.
  3. Trigger Warning - Neil Gaiman Such is the power of his short stories that I found myself unable to go straight from one tale to the next without taking some time to digest what I had just read. If I tried, I found I would take one story with me into the next. Gaiman's writing lingers, whether it be a letter from a human statue, a Doctor Who adventure, or a reinvented fairy tale or three. 
  4. The Elements of Eloquence - Mark Forsyth. What makes Shakespeare a genius? In this entertaining and enlightening volume, Mark Forsyth analyses the tricks of the English language that make up good and memorable writing. I possibly learned more about good writing, especially poetry, than I did in the three years of my degree course.
  5. Arsenic for Tea - Robin Stevens. An instant classic of children's literature... Agatha Christie for children: a well-plotted, twisty mystery with plFenty of red herrings, a limited cast of suspects, but everyone keeping secrets, even if none of them are the secrets they are suspected of hiding. But Stevens plays fair, and hides the clues within the text, if you only know what you're looking for.
  6. Geek Girl - Holly Smale. The first in a series of books about hapless schoolgirl model Harriet Manners. For anyone who has felt like the odd one out among cool people, this is both hilarious and relatable, easy to read and impossible to put down.
  7. White is for Witching - Helen Oyeyemi - An extraordinary gothic masterpiece, centred, as so many novels in the genre are, around a big old house with a secret and a personality of its own. Unlike most gothic novels, however, the house itself is one of the narrators - or is it a ghost, a combination of all the women who have lived before? Miri, the daughter of the family, has battled mental illness and eating disorder, gone to Cambridge and started a life and love affairs away from the house, but always the house calls to her.
  8. Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage - Haruki Murakami. Not one of Murakami's weirdy fantastical stories, Tsukuru Tazaki is a subdued, pensive tale of the lingering hurt caused by four friends' sudden abandonment of the titular Tsukuru. Years later, Tsukuru goes about finding out what happened that fateful summer, in a search for self-worth and his place in the world. This book quietly spoke to me on a personal level.
  9. The Year I Met You - Cecelia AhernAlong with Jasmine, we come to recognise that even unpleasant people are human too, and they'll never change if you write them off as irredeemable. Both Matt and Jasmine learn from the enmity that turns to friendship over the course of a year. 
  10. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend - Katarina BivaldThe Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is like settling down in a personalised, cosy bookshop with a comfy chair, all the time you need, and good friends to rave to about your latest read. It is... full of references to familiar stories and authors, and not just the classics to make you feel smart for recognising the reference... just as much a love letter to Sophie Kinsella, Terry Pratchett and Bridget Jones's Diary as it is to Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice.
Honourable Mentions:
  • Cross Stitch - Diana Gabaldon
  • Vintage Girl - Hester Browne
  • Resistance is Futile - Jenny Colgan
  • Love Alters - ed. Emma Donoghue
  • Saplings - Noel Streatfeild
  • Reaper Man - Terry Pratchett

Friday, 26 June 2015

The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend - Katarina Bivald

I went back to Surbiton last weekend, and while I was waiting to meet a friend, I had a look in the Regency Bookshop. I am ashamed to admit that, although I lived ten or fifteen minutes' walk away for two years, I rarely shopped there as a student. I don't know if it intimidated me a bit, or if it was simply that I overlooked it in favour of the 3 for 2 or Buy One Get One Half Price offers in the chain stores. I have since become more picky in what I buy, which has helped me to realise the value of books, that a good book in a good bookshop is worth paying the full retail price for. While I was in there this time, my eye was caught by a bright, cheerful hardback, which I had never heard of before, but before I'd finished reading the cover blurb I had decided instantly to buy it; The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend was the perfect book to buy to make amends for my former neglect of the Regency Bookshop; a book-lover's dream.

Sara Lindqvist is a shy young Swedish woman, for whom life is something to read about in the pages of her beloved books. She has few close relationships, but has started up a pen-friendship with Amy, an elderly woman from Broken Wheel, Iowa. When Sara plucks up the courage to fly out to visit Amy, she is greeted by the sad news that Amy has died. Broken Wheel is a tiny town - a village, really - in the middle of nowhere, and it is little more than a ghost town now. But its people are kind, in their way, and they take Sara to their heart. And Sara decides that the thing she can do for them is to open a bookshop in town. Books make everything better, right? The people of Broken Wheel are not really a literary sort, but they support her in her venture, and in her cosy little shop, she pairs customers up with a carefully-chosen book. But Sara is only in America on a tourist's visa, and shouldn't really be working at all. As her time begins to run out, both she and her new friends realise that they don't want her to leave. So they come up with a plan...

There is something really special about a book about books. The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is like settling down in a personalised, cosy bookshop with a comfy chair, all the time you need, and good friends to rave to about your latest read. It is, as you might expect, full of references to familiar stories and authors, and not just the classics to make you feel smart for recognising the reference. This is just as much a love letter to Sophie Kinsella, Terry Pratchett and Bridget Jones's Diary as it is to Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice. (And Anne gets a mention too, so even if I hadn't been won over before - I was - I would recognise this book as being a Kindred Spirit.)

As a small town, we get to know a few characters really well. There is George, a recovering alcoholic and a divorcee who just longs to see his daughter again. Grace, the latest in a long line of tough, strong, contrary women called Grace (though that isn't her real name at all.) Andy and Carl, who own the bar, the vicar, William, who is called to be all things to all people, and Caroline, the stern, disapproving church member who carries the same sorrows and fears as everyone else, hidden behind her stuffy exterior. And Tom; Amy's nephew, who everyone thinks would be such a perfect match for Sara, even if he doesn't seem to like her at all. It is a real joy to meet these characters, watch as their lives unfold, and see them won over to the pleasure of reading. Sara's venture really seems to breathe new life into this tired old community, which is falling to pieces, but is not ready to give up just yet.

Unfortunately, the story gets a bit weaker towards the end, with the introduction of a romance plot, which felt more like infatuation than a real relationship, and I felt that the ending was too neatly tied up, and somewhat implausible. Also, I couldn't help noticing a few basic proof-reading errors, most notably the spelling of George's daughter's name, which was sometimes Sophie and sometimes Sophy, many times both spellings on the same page! But none of this detracts from the fact that The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is a really happy, feel-good book, with lovable characters and a setting so vivid I just need to close my eyes and imagine myself there.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

A Girl of the Limberlost - Gene Stratton-Porter

"But what is a limberlost?" my childish self wondered. I was at the height of my school-story-loving days, which would place me between ten and twelve years old. I must have been at some family function, and bored, so my Grandma went to her bookshelves and found an old favourite from her own schooldays, an ancient red-covered book held together by tape, smelling of dust and vanilla. Flash forward to 2015, and A Girl of the Limberlost now sits on my own bookcase - or rather, that same antique bookcase with the glass doors, but now in my room and full of my own childhood favourites. When my Grandma moved out of her house into a retirement flat, she let me choose from a selection of her books, as well as the bookcase, and I vividly remembered enjoying this one, even if I probably didn't finish it, and didn't actually remember what the Limberlost was. (It was an area of swampland in Indiana, full of wildlife and secrets.)
A Girl of the Limberlost is a sequel to Gene Stratton Porter's novel Freckles, but I read it as a stand-alone novel and didn't feel as though I'd missed out on much. It follows Elnora Comstock, a determined young girl, as she works her way through high school, against the wishes of her loveless mother Katharine. Although the language and details had changed, the opening chapter read just like so many modern-day books for teenagers, as Elnora turns up to her new school unprepared, unfashionable and humiliated. It reminded me a lot of the start of Eleanor and Park, and I realised that although fashions may change, high school students do not.

Luckily, Elnora has a kindly aunt and uncle, who are determined to make sure that she gets the upbringing and love that her mother has neglected. Katharine resents Elnora due to her being born at the same time that her husband, who she idolised, drowned in the swamp. Their fraught relationship is central to the book, and eventually Katharine comes to realise that the man she's been resenting her daughter over for sixteen or more years was not the perfect husband she has believed.

Elnora bears a few warning signs of being a turn-of-the-century paragon of virtue: generous to the poor, hard-working, beautiful and devout. But she is a very human character, one who may have an optimistic outlook, but who feels keenly her mother's neglect and the shame of being the outsider. She is proud when it comes to money, not allowing anyone to pay for her schooling but herself, which she does through selling moth and butterfly collections, and through tutoring younger children about natural sciences. She also inherits her father's talent for the violin, which she practices in secret, away from her mother, who would have none of it. But she is not so good at keeping track of her money, and when it runs out, she turns to her mother for help. This was where I thought she had a weird switch from being the Good Girl to being a bit of a brat: her high school graduation requires not one but three new dresses, but instead of buying them, her mother washes last year's white dress for her. Oh, the horror! Cue the horrified cries of "I've got nothing to wear!" and the frantic clubbing together of other friendsandrelations to customise someone else's cast-offs instead. For someone so normally thrifty, it seemed very out of character for her to throw a tantrum about wearing one white dress instead of another, but perhaps I just don't understand the importance of having a brand-new outfit for high school graduation (or perhaps prom.)

If Taylor Swift can do it, so can Elnora Comstock.

Elnora spends that summer working with a sickly young man called Philip Ammon, and they become close friends. He is engaged to another woman, a great beauty, but conveniently one who is an utter harridan, and who breaks off their engagement out of jealousy over Elnora, in front of all their friends and family. Elnora, it is implied, has developed feelings for Ammon, and as soon as his fiancee breaks up with him, he comes running back to Elnora. I didn't have a lot of patience for Ammon, finding him a bit of a drip. Like Romeo - and I don't mean that as a compliment; remember how Romeo mopes over the loss of his true love Rosaline at the beginning of the play, only to fall straight into the arms of someone he's only just met? But Elnora has more sense than to take Ammon at his word, and insists on giving him space to see if he really is over his first love. But he plays the persistent lover, which I'm not so sure is so romantic as it is intended to be. When he proposes formally to Elnora later on, her response is essentially, "Ooh, a ring, shiny! Let me try it on and see if I like it before I decide whether or not to marry you." Um... not quite sure that's a great basis on whether to marry someone or not. The whole romance element to the story is rather melodramatic and silly. A Girl of the Limberlost is not quite up there in the classic girls' coming-of-age canon with Anne, Katy and the March girls, but it is a good contemporary of them to keep them company.

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Be A Good Human (part two)

Ignorance is bad, books are good. Books educate and enlighten, this is why books are important. They take you out of your own mind, and show you what it might be like to live a different life, with different struggles and triumphs in different circumstances. And yet, invariably, you find a common humanity in each life, fictional or biographical. So Jen created the Be A Good Human tag, for vloggers and bloggers to celebrate those books which we think help you become you a better person in one way or another. This is the second half of my list.

Where I've reviewed the book previously, I've linked to it in the title, and quoted from my review in italics. I also plan to go through my blog tags and include one for Be A Good Human.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods - Gavin Extence

Few books have completely challenged my worldview so much as this beautiful story of a friendship between a bright but innocent young lad and a curmudgeonly old widower with a love of Kurt Vonnegut books, who are faced with a very difficult decision. The novel combines humour and pathos, sometimes uncomfortably side-by-side, in a way reflective of real life.

Speak - Laurie Halse Anderson

I first read Speak when I was about fifteen, and it was a book I reread a lot in my high school years (see how battered my copy is in the picture above!) I was reminded of it a few years ago when parents called for it to banned from school libraries - ironically, considering its theme of encouraging people not to suffer in silence. Although, of course, there are books inappropriate for certain places and age groups, literature gives people a safe place to confront the dangers that well-meaning but misguided moral guardians may not be able to protect their children from. Author Laurie Halse Anderson has written about how many students have found help through reading this book, and how it has quite literally been a life saver.


Two stories in different timelines: one of a young boy called Byron who becomes fixated on an unattainable "perfection" in the 1970s, to try to bring order to his troubled family life, and the other of an older man in the present day, who, after decades of battling mental health issues, is trying to get back into the community and live something resembling an ordinary life.
Deceptively simple in style, Rachel Joyce's prose is powerful and hard-hitting, yet it is not without hope or beauty. Perfect leaves the reader with a lot to think about and to feel, concerning family, class and mental illness, the power of friendship, the nature of time and the struggle for an impossible perfection.

Elizabeth is Missing - Emma Healey

This was the first book I read in 2015, an excellent start to my reading year. Elizabeth is Missing is a mystery with a twist; it is told from the point of view of an elderly lady with dementia. As she muddles around trying to find out what has happened to her friend Elizabeth, she finds herself reliving her past and uncovering a long-forgotten mystery.
We get to experience Maud's frustration and fogginess while seeing what she forgets, as she forgets it. This fictional view inside a fading mind encourages empathy, patience and understanding. Maud's world is not the same as the one she physically inhabits, but is a world of the mind, of past and present perceived as fluid and changing. 
To Kill A Mockingbird - Harper Lee

How could one write a list of books that help you to be a better human without including this one? Harper Lee shows us very adult issues simply, shown from the point of view of eight-year-old Scout Finch. This youthful point of view makes you want to scream and cry - especially when, daily, you read online of systematic racism in the American police force. Prejudice is not natural, it is learned, and it is stupid. A child can tell you what is right and what is wrong, but somewhere in adulthood things get muddied. Let's all retain a bit of the innocence of childhood, and the quiet heroism of Atticus Finch, a man who knows he will not change the world overnight, but who will fight just as hard as he can for right because he can do nothing else. And slowly, perhaps, the world may change a little for the better.

Monday, 8 June 2015

Be A Good Human (part one)

I wrote this post in response to Jen Campbell's video, in which she revealed some of the ridiculously ignorant, thoughtless and cruel comments she regularly hears about the condition she has called ectrodactyly, meaning that her hands don't look quite like everyone else's. What is wrong with people? In what tiny, self-contained world is it acceptable to make personal remarks to and about a complete stranger. It's utterly gobsmacking.

Ignorance is bad, books are good. Books educate and enlighten, this is why books are important. They take you out of your own mind, and show you what it might be like to live a different life, with different struggles and triumphs in different circumstances. And yet, invariably, you find a common humanity in each life, fictional or biographical. So Jen created the Be A Good Human tag, for vloggers and bloggers to celebrate those books which we think help you become you a better person in one way or another. I ended up with such a long post that I've split it into two parts; part two will appear tomorrow morning. Where I've reviewed the book previously, I've linked to it in the title, and quoted from my review in italics.

Kindred - Octavia E. Butler

Although Kindred's plot relies upon time-travel, it is more historical than science fiction, taking a black woman out of the 1970s and sending her to a Maryland plantation of the early 19th century. This narrative means that it's impossible to view the past as a dim and distant country unconnected to the world as we know it, and poses some uncomfortable questions about humanity and morality.
"He wasn't a monster at all. Just an ordinary man who sometimes did the monstrous things his society said were legal and proper."
I wonder. From twenty-first century England I'd shout YOU KNOW BETTER, RUFUS! IN YOUR HEART, YOU KNOW RIGHT FROM WRONG. At the same time, I found myself questioning myself. Are we born with a conscience, or do we learn it from our social context? Even at my most conservative and suggestible, I could never talk myself into accepting everything I was taught. I like to think that I would be a decent person even if I lived as a white middle-class person in the American South in the 1800s, but I wonder, and part of me is afraid to find out. I hope at a bare minimum I would hang onto the truth Terry Pratchett's witch Granny Weatherwax summarises as"Sin... is when you treat people as things."
I Am Malala - Malala Yousafzai (with Christina Lamb)
More than just a memoir, this book helps you to understand not just what it is like to live under threat from the Taliban, but also the social, historical and political context that allows extremism to take hold. Malala is intelligent and passionate about the importance of universal education, demonstrating the harm done by ignorance, her frustration with those who would warp her religion to make it a tool for oppression. A powerful read from an extraordinary young woman.
The Year I Met You - Cecelia Ahern

This book struck a chord with me when I identified with some of the heroine's less heroic traits: Jasmine is judgemental, somewhat misanthropic, and highly opinionated. The "You" of the title is Matt, a radio DJ, who Jasmine despises for his controversial show which relies on people's bigotry to make for "entertaining" discussions. He is also a lousy husband and father, and unpleasant neighbour, regularly driving home at stupid o'clock in the morning and making a scene. But along with Jasmine, we come to recognise that even unpleasant people are human too, and they'll never change if you write them off as irredeemable. Both Matt and Jasmine learn from the enmity that turns to friendship over the course of a year. There is also a moving and thoughtful subplot about Jasmine's relationship with her beloved sister Heather, who has Down's Syndrome.

The Casual Vacancy - J. K. Rowling

Sometimes we learn what being a good human is by seeing examples of what it is not. J.K. Rowling's first novel for adults shows a seemingly idyllic community destroying itself in the run-up to a local council election, with the comfortable middle-class residents forced to confront that which they'd rather not acknowledge: the existence of the poor, the broken, the vulnerable, living in their midst and imposing on their self-satisfied worldviews.
The Casual Vacancy burns with an anger, a passionate call for justice for the social outcasts comparable to Dickens at his strongest: an exposure of hypocrisy, prejudice and complacency and forcing us to look at People Like That as human beings. If we can write off the poor as being only responsible for their own predicament, then it spares us the need for uncomfortable compassion. Rowling challenges us to ask ourselves: what right do we as humans have to give up on our fellow-creatures? How dare we? 
A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens

It irritates me a little when people call each other "Scrooge" if someone shows signs of not liking the sparkle and commercialism that comes with Christmas. That, to me, is missing the point of A Christmas Carol. Scrooge's sin is not that he doesn't like to have a good time, or is a party pooper, but that he has no compassion for his fellow humans. Christmas is not important because of the presents or the food or the carol-singing, but, as Scrooge's nephew puts it, it is "a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of the people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therfore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it." This is the message Ebeneezer Scrooge learns from the three spirits of Christmas past, present and future, and this is what he resolves to remember by keeping Christmas all year round.
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