National Book Lovers Day

In keeping with the date I have decided to dedicate this post to my favourite book of all time. I can hardly contain my excitement in getting to talk about The Great Gatsby yet again. I’ve got to say that it was a pretty close battle between The Great Gatsby and Gone Girl but I feel that Gatsby has more of a lasting impact. I can still quote it despite it being years since I last read it (though it is one of the only books I’ve ever read multiple times) and it’s hands down better written – Sorry Flynn!

The Great Gatsby

The Plot: The Great Gatsby is set in New York in the roaring 20s. It’s the era of prohibition but no one obeys the rules. There’s excessive drinking, the most extravagant parties you can possibly imagine and an element of dream-like romance to tie it all up.

The Characters: Let me begin with the almost completely aloof narrator. We never know a great deal about Nick Caraway, nor do we care. The story isn’t really about him, it’s about his observations. He’s a bystander, a fly on the wall if you will, taking note of all the drama that seems to just twirl in the air around these glamorous New Yorkers.

Then there’s Gatsby himself. He’s a man on money and a man of passion. Utterly smitten with Daisy he’s equally in love with his dreams. His persona is charming and you can’t help but feel empathy for any man who strives for something so hard.

Daisy herself is a pretty young flower, pure and sweet and innocent. I can’t help but equally fall in love with her spirit. She may seem flakey but I have a feeling she’s acting the part set out for her by society. After all, she makes the insightful comment concerning her daughter, “I hope she’ll be a fool — that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”

Last but not least is Daisy’s husband Tom Buchanan. Playing the part of dominant husband and pro sportsman Tom at first appears to be the perfect husband. However, there is a darker side to him and as Shakespeare said ‘the course of true love never did run smooth’…

Language: This book is so full of passion. Perhaps it’s the affect of the American Dream but everything in this novel reads as if through rose tinted glasses. “The exhilarating ripple of her voice was a wild tonic in the rain.” Lines like this make me truly believe in the beauty of life. This brings me on to my fourth a final section, the quotes, (which is really just me emphasising how much I adore Fitzgerald’s writing).

Quotes: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past..”

“In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.”

“Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.”

“There must have been moments even that afternoon when Daisy tumbled short of his dreams — not through her own fault, but because of the colossal vitality of his illusion. It had gone beyond her, beyond everything. He had thrown himself into it with a creative passion, adding to it all the time, decking it out with every bright feather that drifted his way. No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”

“So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star.”

“It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

“Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.”

I simply cannot get over the beauty of these words. I am in awe of F Scott Fitzgerald’s talent and I hope and I dream that one day just maybe I might be at least semi capable of creating poetic prose like his. 

 

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When You’re Struggling…

I’m not telling you anything new when I say it can be a massive effort sometimes to stay motivated. The key is how to solve it.

When I’m struggling I take time out. I know that’s not always possible if you’re working under pressure but usually I’m okay at getting stuff done if there’s a certain amount of pressure. The problem comes when no one is there to press you to do something, when it’s all down to self-motivation.

For those who don’t know, for the last few months I’ve been working on a novel, something I’m choosing to do for my benefit alone. In other words, it’s totally down to me to get the thing written.

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Progress was going well both in terms of character development and plot, then, quite suddenly, I stopped. (You might have noticed because it’s been a while since I last blogged too). There wasn’t one particular reason for this sudden apathy, things were just getting too much and I was struggling to find the time. Now I’ve taken just over a week off writing.  I know this will set me back because I’ve lost the thread of the bits I was working on, but it was so completely and utterly necessary. Sometimes taking a break will do you more good than anything else. I now feel refreshed, revitalised, and have a whole bank of new ideas to bring to the table. I’m excited to get these new leads down on paper and even more excited to tell you all about them, but I won’t spoil the surprise just yet.

I’ll keep you posted. Over and out –

 

Taking on a Challenge

A few days ago I began the longest novel I’ve ever attempted, War and Peace. I’m not going to lie, it weighs a tonne and it’s pretty daunting, but I’m convinced it is going to be worth it. I’m not usually a fan of epically long books, especially those made to be long for the sake of it – Mr Charles Dickens – but War and Peace seems different; it’s long because it has content.

I feel like I already know a lot about the story from watching the BBC adaptation that aired a few months ago. Perhaps this is a hasty conclusion to jump to but I’ve heard that it was pretty faithful to the book. Unlike a lot of ‘epics’ this novel unfolds quite rapidly and, as the title suggests, there is a combination of war and peace going on. It tells the story of the French invasion in Russia but it also deals with the daily lives of various members of the aristocracy. Apparently there are over 500 characters and almost all are given adequate roles. By this I mean that their stories are interesting and each and every character adds to the book as a whole (so far).

I’m not very far into this novel as yet, though if it were a regular book I guess I’d be about half way. I’m circa page 160 of about 1360 so I have a long way to go but I’ll keep you updated. My only regret so far? That this certainly won’t help me achieve my Goodreads challenge and I’m already falling way behind schedule.

Over and out –

war and peace

Stay Alive – Simon Kernick

Stay Alive, as the cover tells me, is written by ‘the number one bestselling author’ Simon Kernick. This gave me doubts from the very first moment, and as it turns out, my gut instinct was right.

The thing about bestsellers is that they’re almost always appallingly written. In order for them to be read by the masses they need to be simple enough for anybody to handle. They need to be accessible for that person who only reads one book a year, which offers no challenge to those who read dozens. The plots are predictable, the use of language is at times laughable and the grammar is invariably off.

This book was recommended to me but the problem with that is that everyone has completely different tastes. Perhaps I’m a book snob after three years studying Literature at University but I was hoping for something better.

Stay Alive Simon Kernick

Now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. SPOILER ALERT.

My biggest problem with this book was the utterly ridiculous storyline. ‘The Disciple’ (who thought of that name?) is murdering couples all over Surrey, so when cheating husband George and his lover Ivana are found dead in their home it’s pretty obvious where the investigation leads. Except this plot isn’t obvious; it’s all over the place. There is a pedophile living in the woods, a murderous Grannie, and who thought escape via canoe was a good idea? At times I wondered whether this book was supposed to fall into the category of black comedy since it reminded me greatly of the film ‘Hot Fuzz’, what with the extreme gore and the complete and utter bad luck the protagonists seemed to have. However, judging from the other thrillers Simon Kernick has written and the reviews online this is clearly not the case, which is kind of a shame; I think I would have enjoyed it more had the humour been intended.

The next problem was the choice of language. This was perhaps one of the things that steered me into the direction of thinking it was intentionally comedic. Take this sentence for instance: ‘Jess would never forget the slightly confused expression in Jean’s eyes in the half-second before they closed and she toppled heavily in her seat, falling sideways so that her ruined head hung over the side of the canoe, grey hair hanging down towards the water as if she was leaning in to wash her hair’. Never before has an atmosphere been so completely obliterated by a simile. Well done Simon Kernick, that takes some doing.

Then there’s the repetition. In my three years of Creative Writing classes one of the things they really drill into you is to never say anything twice. Pick the best way of saying something and run with it; never repeat yourself. Simon Kernick could have benefitted from a class or two at UEA because he explains everything to his readers at least twice. Perhaps he assumes we are all a little hard of understanding but the beautiful thing about books is that they are written documents, meaning it is possible to flick back through if you ever want to reread or check anything. Someone please explain the concept of writing to him. (Am I being a bit harsh?)

My final problem with this novel is the sheer amount of characters. It is 420 pages long, I’ll give it that, so you would think there would be space for a fair amount of characters but Stay Alive has millions. Ok, 32 to be precise, but that’s insane, especially as there is very little to differentiate between the millions of cops and corrupt ex cops (other than their morals). It wasn’t until probably a quarter of the way through this novel that I actually got my head around Mike Bolt, Mo Khan, Keogh, Mehdi, MacLean, Sayenko, Grier and Scope. Until this point they were pretty much all the same person. I would say this novel lacks characterisation because they are literally nearly all the same other than names and ethnicity but (and this will sound really contradictory) on the flip side every single character has reams and reams of back story, so much in fact they almost all deserve their own novels. The problem is that it’s all forgettable backstory and none of it is actually relevant to the main plot. What you’re then left with is a long, meandering plot with predictable twists and irrelevant background information. Do not waste your time with this novel. Life is too short. (As proven by this novel where most of the characters are shot to bits before you can even begin to sympathise with them).

– Over and out x

Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl

I’ve put off writing this for a really long time because what is there to say? After all, how do you review what is essentially a historic text? I can’t comment on the book’s plot or pace or how well written it is because it isn’t fiction and it wasn’t exactly intended to be published. Anne had always hoped to one day write a novel entitled ‘The Secret Annexe’ about her experiences in hiding but I very much doubt whether she ever foresaw that the diary she wrote between the ages of 13 and 15 would be read by millions of people all around the world. I’ve taken this extract from the diary:

Just imagine how interesting it would be if I were to publish a novel about the Secret Annexe. The title alone would make people think it was a detective story.
   Seriously, though, ten years after the war people would find it very amusing to read how we lived, what we ate and what we talked about as Jews in hiding.

I think everyone knows what happened to Anne Frank and her family. I remember learning about it at school, I’ve seen documentaries and visited exhibitions, but nothing is quite like reading the words of the girl herself.

Anne Frank

Before writing this I decided to read some reviews on Amazon to see what other people wrote. As if I wasn’t already disgusted enough by humankind after reading the diary, this made matters a whole lot worse. Overall the book scores 4.7 out of 5, which of course is excellent and most people have positive comments to make, but I am astounded by the 1 star reviews that call the book ‘boring’ or say that ‘she whines too much’. I doubt there was a lot to do in hiding and any complaints she expresses are fully warranted given the situation she was in.

The persecution of the Jews has to be one of worst injustices of the last century. The fact that Anne spent the only teenage years she ever lived in hiding is heartbreaking. She lived in what was effectively three rooms at the back of her father’s office, unable to open the windows in case someone saw, unable to move around during the day in case warehouse workers heard and unable to flush the toilet for the same reason. What this girl and so many others like her went through is incredible, in the true sense of the word. I simply cannot comprehend this extreme racial hatred that forced thousands to flea the country or go into hiding. It’s mind-numbingly unjust, and it wasn’t even that long ago. Reading the afterword I realised that Miep Gies, one of the office staff and helpers, only died in 2010. That brought me back to reality. All this happened only 65 years ago.

The Diary of a Young Girl isn’t a story, it isn’t fiction, it’s exactly what it says on the tin – it’s Anne’s thoughts, feelings and fears – after all, ‘paper is more patient than man’. At first it’s sweet and endearing, it reminded me of myself at 13, egotistical as children are, but completely understandable. Then towards the end it turns darker as the fears of being discovered become almost unquenchable.

If you want to understand what happened on an emotional level then I fully recommend you read The Diary of a Young Girl. It’s so touching and heartfelt, but utterly devastating at the same time that a life, many lives, were taken before their time. Anne hoped to be a writer, to start a family and live a long happy life, but she never got the chance. It truly opened up my eyes to the horrors the Jews experienced, and it isn’t just learning the facts like a history lesson, it’s feeling the same feelings and sharing her fears. It does what fiction does best, it places you in her shoes. To quote To Kill a Mockingbird, ‘you never really understand a person until you consider things from [their] point of view…until you climb into [their] skin and walk around in it.’ Placed in Anne’s shoes, be prepared to feel everything with a raw edge. Anne’s diary must be one of the only good things to come out of this injustice, but it is a good thing because her memory will live on and her story will be heard. RIP Anne Frank, Margot Frank, Edith Frank, Hermann van Pels, Auguste van Pels, Peter van Pels, Fritz Pfeffer and all the other 6 million Jews and 5 million Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, disabled people and Roma who didn’t survive the holocaust.

Anne Frank

 

One Day: A Cinematic Disappointment

When I read One Day by David Nicholls I was sceptical it could be made into a film worth seeing. I was right to be sceptical; this film in no way captured the beauty of the book.

One Day

I think the problem is two fold. Firstly, it really comes down to time. Nicholls spends 435 pages, perhaps 10 hours depending on your reading speed, telling you all the ins and outs of Em and Dex’s magical friendship and the film has to condense this into 108 minutes. Purely mathematically, that’s pretty impossible. The result is a film that moves far too quickly, misses far too much out and doesn’t have time to really explore their relationship. The whole point of the book is how a relationship changes over time – 20 years to be exact – so without the aid of time I don’t see how this can even hope to be achieved.

The second issue is casting. Anne Hathaway is a wonderful actress but she’s not who I imagined as Em. I wanted someone a little less self-pitying. Emma Morley is supposed to be tough even in times of sadness and Anne Hathaway just can’t pull this off with her little doe-eyed, lost puppy face. Sorry but it’s true. However, the even bigger problem here is Jim Sturgess. He’s not attractive or suave or endearing. He’s none of the things Dexter Mayhew is supposed to be. And I know the film keeps leaping years ahead and he’s supposed to age but he looks like a completely different person in every scene.

On top of all this they seem to have gotten all the minor parts wrong too. Why does Ian look like a crazy person? Why were Sylvie and Callum given absolutely no personalities? I saw the film yesterday and I can’t even remember what either of them looked like. They’re pretty key characters and the film didn’t do them justice. I think the only character I really liked was Alison played by Patricia Clarkson – shame she died so early on really.

I should have listened to my gut and not watched this film. It brought to life about a quarter of a really good story, badly. Over and out –

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

Apologies everyone but I finished this a while ago and it’s taken me ages to get around to writing a review!

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood took FOREVER to get through (about 5 weeks to be precise). I’m going to blame that mainly on my dissertation, but one thing I will say is that this book is difficult to read. You have to sit down fully prepared for a coarse subject matter and for me the last thing I felt like doing at the end of a long day was sitting down to oppression, corporal punishment and an appalling lack of human rights.

The Handmaid's Tale

This novel tells the story of a young woman, Offred (Of Fred, as in belonging to her commander, Fred). Society has transitioned around her and there is no escape. Through flashbacks we learn her old life was a domestic one, complete with boyfriend Luke and daughter, but now her family has been taken from her and she is made to act as a concubine for the wealthy men, the commanders, in the hope of giving them children. Fertility rates have declined rapidly due to an increase in sexually transmitted diseases and problems with contraception. There are very few woman left able to bear children. Those who have proven they are able through previous conception are the handmaids, the concubines like Offred. They are made to dress in flowing red gowns and headpieces to disguise their sexuality and given extremely limited freedoms. Their diets are controlled and smoking, drinking and the use of any other substances is banned. They have regular health screenings and do little other than perform routine tasks for the household. Their existence has one purpose: to procreate.

This novel is creative but it’s not innovative. Atwood uses only laws and beliefs known to exist in certain cultures around the globe. The novel depicts Gilead as a homophobic nation, the women are made to cover their skin with long gowns and winged hats and are not allowed to leave the house without permission and the chaperoning of another handmaid. The novel explores the class system – the women dress in coloured gowns depending on their position in society – and the power of political extremism. No one breaks the rules through fear of death, those who do find themselves swinging from ‘the wall’. The leadership have eyes and nothing escapes their notice. The novel incorporates ceremonies and rituals not too dissimilar from those in some far corners of the world and then there’s ‘The Red Centre’, the camp created to re-educate these women. Through the medium of fiction Atwood has merged some of the worst violations of human rights imaginable into one nation. The result? Something scarily a little too close to reality.

Although The Handmaid’s Tale was written in 1985, I am about to discuss Saudi Arabia today. I realise there is a flaw in this plan but I doubt much has changed (for the worse anyway) in the last 31 years and will therefore plough ignorantly on. In Saudi Arabia women are not allowed to leave the house unaccompanied, they must be escorted by a guardian (known as a Mahram) wherever they go. Saudi women are banned from driving, opening bank accounts without their husband’s permission and from wearing any clothing or make up that enhances their beauty. In fact most women wear abayas (long black cloaks) and headscarfs. Their faces need not necessarily be covered but this is to the chagrin of some hardliners. Saudi women risk criminal charges should they spend time with any male outside of their family and reading uncensored material is banned. It’s not too hard to see where Atwood may have gotten some of her extremist ideas from. The Handmaid’s Tale may exaggerate some of these beliefs – in the novel the handmaids are not allowed to read at all and all reading material is said to have been destroyed – but they are very much present in today’s society.

The Handmaid's Tale

I praise Margaret Atwood for the ingenuity of this novel. She has uniquely combined some of the world’s most major flaws and also predicted some of the issues the world would face in this rapidly-changing modern era.

Now enough of the mechanics of the novel and down to the nitty-gritty.

The Handmaid’s Tale is excellently written. The language is eloquent without standing out as being pretentious and the plot is well paced. My one issue with the structure of the novel is that it is very segmented. Each section (I say section because it is structured with chapters within chapters) is typically only 3 or 4 pages long, which can become jarring if you are tempted to only read a couple of pages before putting it down like I am. In fact, I think this style encourages you to only read a few of pages before replacing it on coffee table , and whereas on the one hand this can make it disjointed, it also allows you time to stop and think. And that’s what this novel really wants you to do: think. It is aware of its power and its message. Without wishing to sound like an A Level student I need to mention metafiction. This novel is very self-aware. Every few pages there is some reference to writing or the knowledge of a reader. There are a lot of direct addresses, and although this is usually something I like as narrows the gap between reader and text, coming from a character so alien, I found it a little uncomfortable.

The Handmaid's Tale

Now to the ending. I won’t give away any spoilers, but I wanted a little more. I thought the final section with Professor Pieixoto was a clever way to tie loose strands together but I wanted a more definitive answer. I suppose I’m just the kind of person who is never happy with anything that even hints at an open ending. I imagine most readers would have been satisfied, but I wanted to understand how society had changed since the last mention of Offred. I was eager to know more, but I suppose that’s just how this novel functions – it gives you snippets of information until you have a whole picture. From the very first page you are thrown into the deep end and have to wait for things to unravel – it’s like you can hear the little clicks in your brain as you read and learn about Gilead. That’s why I wasn’t totally convinced by the end; I wanted the clicks to keep coming, I wanted the story to continue. I wanted more, and that must be the sign of a very good book.

Over and out –

Me Before You – Jojo Moyes

Having just finished my degree I wanted a trashy read for a change and found myself picking up Me Before You by Jojo Moyes in a charity shop. I’d seen the trailer at the cinema for the film adaptation and thought it might be an interesting read, something outside of my comfort zone. I’m never usually a fan of this genre; I’ve steered well clear of My Sister’s Keeper, The Fault in Our Stars and other such things because frankly I find them too depressing. The thing that made me try Me Before You was that I liked their casting choices for the film (Sam Claflin as Will and Emilia Clarke as Lou) and I always like to read a book before I see the movie. (Has anyone seen the film? What do you think?)

Me Before You

I suppose this book was exactly what I was expecting. It has that dreadful sense of impending doom from the very first page. A sad ending is obviously to be expected due to genre conventions if nothing else, but this made it difficult to read. I hardly wanted to finish this novel because I wanted to delay the grief I would inevitably feel at the end. So I cannot tell you it is one of those books you won’t be able to put down. I put it down many times, often for days at a time, because I didn’t want the sadness to get any closer. However, that’s really my issue with this genre of novel.

What I enjoyed most was the continuous flow of the narrative. Although at times predictable, I liked that the plot took the shape of one long undulating journey. The steady unfolding of Will and Louisa’s personalities and the slow progression of their relationship meant growing to love them both, and adoring them together. Despite being predominantly in Louisa’s head it was equally easy to sympathise with Will and his condition. I can see why this novel has been so popular. It’s rare to see such thorough character development in this type of ‘easy-read’ novel.

Me Before You

It is by no means a literary masterpiece. In fact there were numerous occasions where I paused and thought ‘what a ridiculous metaphor’ or ‘why would anyone write that?’ Here are a few examples:

The castle baked in the high heat of summer, the ground cracked
and the grass wispy, like the last hairs on the head of a balding man.

There was a definite waft of large haddock in the atmosphere. 

I understand Moyes is attempting humour here but she didn’t quite pull it off for me. In fact it made me feel a lot better about my own writing.

That being said, not all great novels are brilliantly written. I would recommend Me Before You to anyone who’s after a good story, not a good novel.

Over and out –

The Girl on the Train and Why Audiobooks are Awful

Apologies for the not-so-snappy title everyone.

Anyone who knows me knows I live a very long way from where I go to University at UEA in Norwich. Because of this every few months I find myself having to drive 300 miles across the country. Usually I’d just listen to music but a few weeks ago (yes I know I’m a little late with this post) I found myself with a problem: I don’t own any CDs, I don’t pay for a subscription to Spotify of Apple Music, and I was planning on driving through the night so the radio would be unthinkably awful. For this reason I decided to download the free trial of Audible and have a go at listening to an audiobook. With the Audible free trial you get one free book and I chose The Girl on the Train. It’s a book I’ve wanted to read ever since the reviews compared it to Gone Girl (my favourite book EVER) and I saw this as a great opportunity.

night driving

That was were the greatness ceased. Perhaps this wasn’t the best choice for an audiobook since the narration comes from three different female voices, but I found it quite confusing. Although driving hundreds of miles on the motorway is an almost mindless task, there are times when you have to concentrate – junctions, roundabouts, the M25 in general and times of tricky overtaking – and during these moments it is impossible to follow the audio. For The Girl on the Train this was crucial since I frequently missed the name at the beginning telling me who’s perspective the chapter was in – and when the book was knew to me I couldn’t work it out either.

If you were literally sat doing nothing at all and could solely concentrate on the book then an audiobook would be great – but then why not just read?

The Girl on the Train

The story blended into a nonsensical mess and I lost interest in it. Needless to say, I never finished the audiobook of The Girl on the Train. However, from the reviews I’ve read and from my brief experience with it, I don’t think I’ll be attempting the paperback either. The three female voices are all similarly unlikeable – particularly the alcoholic (I don’t remember her name) None were gripping and parts of the story revolved around completely irrational behaviour. I wouldn’t recommend The Girl on the Train and I’d advise you to steer clear of the audiobook as a substitute for reading. If you want to read, just read.

P.S The fact that S J Watson’s recommendation is featured on the front cover doesn’t fill me with confidence. Find my review of his book Before I Go To Sleep here.

Seasonal Creativity – My Writing

Apparently seasonal creativity is a thing. Artists – of all descriptions – apparently have periods of creativity that align with the seasons. Productivity increases in certain months and lessens in others. It’s different for everyone when these peaks are, and I suppose it depends on what kind of material you are trying to produce (I’m just assuming here that gothic literature for example would come easier in the depths of winter with a blustering storm outside your window).

Seasons

For me writing comes more naturally when I’m happy and my happiness is undoubtably greater in summer months. I love feeling the warmth of the sun on my face, having longer lighter evenings to spend with friends, day trips to wonderful places like the Valley of the Rocks etc. Being cold and damp from the rain all the time (I live in the UK, it’s always raining) isn’t a pleasant experience.

Now that Spring is finally upon us – which incidentally coincides with me finishing my degree- I’m ready to begin writing again. I haven’t exactly taken a break but everything I’ve been doing has been for coursework and my dissertation. Now, with the evenings getting longer and a big bank of spare time coming up, I want to start writing for me again.

It may be ambitious but I want to write something longer. I want to write a novel, maybe a novella, let’s not get ahead of ourselves. I’ll keep you all posted! xoxo