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

The Good, The Bad and The Average

From where I’m sitting there are three types of books in this world: the books you stay up all night reading and just can’t bring yourself to put down, the books that you’re tempted to toss aside right from the very first chapter, and those in-between books that are fine, just fine, but maybe a tad bland.

Reading

The last book I just couldn’t put down was Gone Girl, and I know I’ve raved about this book to death but I just found the pages disappearing as I got deeper into the story. This was a true show-stopper; I felt like I never wanted it to end. I love Flynn’s writing style and I was completely taken in by her characters. I don’t think I’ve ever connected so much with any book before and I doubt I’m ever likely to again (until I get around to finishing my own).

The most recent book I just wanted to junk was Before I Go To Sleep by S J Watson. I hate giving up on a book; I always feel like I owe it to the author to see it through to the end, just in case there’s something spectacular waiting for me there. The thing is, nine times out of ten I remain disappointed and then feel that I’ve wasted my time giving it a chance.

The in-betweens are undoubtedly the largest category. Here I could list The Grown Up, Me Before You and Girl With A Pearl Earring to name just a few books that I’ve read recently. These fill up the majority of book shelves; they are the true definition of the word ‘average’. There’s nothing wrong with them but there’s also nothing special about them, so I’m not exactly going to recommend them all to my friends.

I guess what I’m trying to work out, both as a reader and as a writer, is what makes a novel ‘un-put-downable’ and ‘easily-put-downable’. What do you think fully engages a reader? What books have you fallen in love with recently? And what books have you wanted to chuck out of the window from the very first chapter?

Over and out. M –

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 –

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.

The Grownup – Gillian Flynn

This book isn’t quite what I expected. ‘The Grownup’ is written by Gillian Flynn and was published as a stand alone short story just last year, in the November of 2015. Realising it was written by the same author as Gone Girl, a book I believe I’ll be in love with until the end of my days, I bought it immediately without even pausing to read the blurb. As it turns out, I should have read the blurb. This isn’t a typical Flynn-esque domestic thriller like Gone Girl.

‘The Grownup’ is an interesting concoction of horror, psychological thriller and damn right weird. It opens with an explanation as to how the main character, who remains unnamed throughout the text, ends up working as a psychic-come-hooker. Hoping to break through into the ‘spiritual cleansing’ business, she makes a home visit to new client Susan Burke. Ready to sprinkle her lavender water around as a part of her con – from which she hopes to earn $2,000 – she enters Carterhook Manor. However, upon entering she finds that the house is full of noises an uncanny goings on. She too believes it is haunted…

The Grownup

For me this book had too many twists in too short a space of time. Had the story been longer (but yes I understand it’s called a short story for a reason) then I think Flynn would have had more time to execute her plot twists better. The last ten pages seem to completely undo everything and then undo everything again, leaving you with no time for the dust to settle before the story is over. I understand it’s meant to have a shock factor, that that’s the point, but I don’t think it works. I don’t like open endings so I certainly don’t like books that leave you just hanging there, dazed and confused.

My guess is that Flynn – or more likely Flynn’s publishers – wanted to have a new book out in quick succession of the film Gone Girl to make a little extra $$$. To do this they printed an old text, a short story that was originally published as part of an anthology edited by George R. R. Martin, as a stand alone piece.

Perhaps it’s just that this story shows signs of underdeveloped writing that I didn’t particularly like. I was expecting something comparable to Gone Girl but given this was written a long time before, before Flynn had a chance to hone both her writing and her story-telling ability, then I’m not surprised it is subpar. Expectation can be a dangerous thing.

The work of a good book is to still be thinking about it hours, days or even weeks after you’ve finished it, but perhaps not if all you’re thinking is ‘what the hell was that all about?’

Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Girl With a Pearl Earring is written by UEA alumni Tracy Chevalier. Because of this I knew right from the outset that it would be a good book. UEA churns out good writers, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro and more recently Emma Healey to name just a few. It was pretty much guaranteed to be well written and that’s something I particularly look for in a novel.

If I’m honest, it’s not a book I had a hankering to read until I stumbled across it lying on a dusty shelf at the Book Barn (the biggest second hand book shop in the world – probably anyway). I’ve never seen the film and honestly knew nothing about the story but wanted to give it a go.

This novel tells the story of how the iconic painting Girl With a Pearl Earring came to be painted. The novel, however, is pure fiction since the identity of the real girl is still a mystery. Griet, as a very young woman, begins working at the painter Vermeer’s house as a maid when her family come into financial trouble. The family are Catholic with a million children – or at least it seems that way – and Griet is Protestant. She struggles to adjust to their family life and faces a number of challenges along the way.

Girl with a Pearl Earring

This doesn’t sound like an extraordinarily interesting book but it is. It reminded me a little of The Miniaturist because of the setting and era, but this is better. It’s well written and that’s so key for me; some of the language is really gripping. The other thing I suppose is that I’ve come away from the novel feeling as if I have learnt something. I know a little more about life in the Netherlands in the Seventeenth Century. I know a little more about life.

Girl With a Pearl Earring is written in first person and I felt I could really connect with the character. I felt sorry for her when the children played tricks on her, I understood her closeness to her sister and her conflict of feelings over Pieter the son. In simple terms, I understood the character and all of her actions and all of her motives. This made it a very moving novel in a way that The Miniaturist never was.

The only thing I could have wished was that this novel had a more rounded ending. I don’t want to give too much away but I wish I knew a little more about how she felt about the way her life turned out. I suppose by that point in the novel you know the character so well that you know how she feels about the whole situation but still, I wish I had been told. I wish I didn’t have to do the thinking myself.

The Makings of a Good Book

I wasn’t sure about making this post because everyone has their own opinions and everyone is capable of deciding what makes a good book, but I’ve slated a few novels over my blogging-life-so-far and feel obliged to explain why. I hope to clarify what I’m looking for in a book and explain why certain reads turn out to be big disappointments. Don’t worry, I’ll make it snappy.

Books

1. It has to teach me something new. By this I don’t necessarily mean it has to be factual or historical but I have to feel somehow intellectually better-off after having spent hours of my time sifting through its pages.

2. It has to be well written. If I feel I could write the book better myself then it’s not a good book. Before I Go To Sleep. Cough. The language has to have some thought behind it. It has to be interesting. I have to notice it.

3. The plot has to keep me engaged. Of course there will be moments of tension and times where things sort of plato, that’s natural in every story, but there has to be constant progression or else I (and many other readers I suspect) will get bored.

4. The characters have to be well-rounded and developed. They also have to be believable. If a character’s actions do not seem to suit his or her personality then I seem to lose any connection I had with that character; I no longer understand them and I no longer care. They have to have layers and they too need progression. Also, a good book needs at least one likeable character, if I hate all of them I’m likely to hate the book. This is really important. The Girl on the Train. Cough.

And I think that pretty much sums it up. If a book is well written with interesting characters and an engaging plot – and I have like I’ve gained something from reading it – then I’m bound to like it. Hopefully this somewhat justifies me slating the odd book. A bit. Sort of. Maybe?