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. 

 

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 Garden, Part III

Read the first part here,
and the second part here.

The next day I resume my position in my chair. The clouds have knit together across the sky causing a gloom I don’t believe will never shift. It’s funny how much the weather seems to affect my mood. I flick through the latest copy of Gardener’s Weekly but soon the neighbours’ voices become intertwined with the words on the page and I pause to listen.

“Can’t you find some way to forgive me?” he asks.

It’s as if the conversation is continuing from yesterday. An electric blue butterfly catches my gaze.

“I don’t know. The kettle’s boiling, come inside.”

The butterfly, with all its exotic patterns and intricate filigree, flutters away.

I don’t know what’s going on between them. I’m not usually one to pry, and I am content in my little sanctuary, but I feel as if I need to know.

Watch this space for the next instalment.

Children’s Fiction: My Pet Hate

Literature is a form of escapism for most of us. We reach for a novel and instantly forget those pending bills, those emails we need to send and what’s on the agenda for tomorrow. Children are no different. They might not have the same worries as us but they have problems none the less. Children use literature to escape from reality just as we do, which perhaps is the reason fantasy is such a popular genre when it comes to little readers. Who wants to be thinking about tomorrow’s maths class when they could be knee deep in snow in Narnia or on adventures with their daemons? The books of C. S. Lewis and Philip Pullman have to be some of the greatest kids books around; their creativity is unparalleled.

The lack of creativity is my problem with writers like Jacqueline Wilson. I hated her books as a child and nothing’s changed since. Jacqueline Wilson wrote books about school, bullying and eating disorders. These were aspects of my life that I wanted to escape, I did not want to spend hours face to face with them on the page. I already spent 8 hours a day in school, why would I want to read about school? However, I had very little choice. A Secondary School library is FULL of these types of books because writers of children’s fiction like to include things a child can relate to, which (and I’ll give them this) only really leaves them with school because at the age of 13 you haven’t experienced anything else.

I remember reading one Jacqueline Wilson book (I’ve googled it and found its name to be Girls Under Pressure) where the protagonist mentioned her dislike of her fat nose every few pages. I’d never considered before that the facial features you were born with could be considered ugly, I just thought my face was my face. This book taught me to judge my own appearance – and what worse message can you send a pre-teen? To start body shaming yourself at such a young age (or at any age in fact) is a dangerous thing to mess around with. Then there was the binge eating and purging involved with one of the character’s bulimia. This was something I’d never come into contact with before and to this day I believe it’s something that should be discussed in a science class and not in children’s literature. The problem with fiction is that it doesn’t often address problems neutrally or factually. By convention fiction is a matter of interpretation; these stories can plant ideas in children’s heads that are perhaps not what the author intended.

Girls Under Pressure

I think it’s far safer, and far more entertaining, to stick with the abstract – to explore the incredible world of fantasy and magic, even if it is rooted in a realistic setting like J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books. These combine school with magic in such a way that, for me at least, they are still included in the category of escapist literature. I can open a Harry Potter book and be transported to the corridors of Hogwarts that in no way resemble my old school halls and yet I still get it. I can still relate to the characters and their dramas but the portrayal of them is creative. I can only conclude by saying that children are some of the most creative among us and therefore inherently going to enjoy creativity in their books.

Hogwarts

What do you think? Did you prefer fantasy or realist literature as a child? And in hindsight, did you ever read anything that wasn’t totally appropriate to your age? Are there any subjects that just shouldn’t be included in children’s books at all? Post your comments down below!

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 Garden, Part II

Read the first part here.

It’s a Friday afternoon and I’m sitting in my chair, a straw hat firmly atop my head to keep the sunlight at bay. Sparrows flutter in and out of their nest and bees hop from one milky buttercup to the next, but that’s not what holds my attention. There are voices on the breeze. One the jagged tones of a man’s speech, the other a woman’s, bright as a dropped gem. Some of the words blend together, a myriad of textures overlapping. I uncross my legs and lean forwards.

“Why would you do it?”

“I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

A door slams and the words are pinched from the air. I turn back to the swallows. The life of a bird must be so easy. I envy them and their simplicity.

Watch this space for the next instalment.

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 Garden

I push open the gate, the white paint flaking off in chunks, and walk into the garden. I remember when the lawn used to be freshly trimmed, now it’s an overgrown haven for voles and mice. They scurry about beneath the foliage, the leaves trembling as they pass. Birds nest in the trees overhead. When they hatch I will watch as the mother regurgitates food for them. When they are strong enough I will watch as they make their first attempts at flight. I watch everything from my garden chair. It’s a deck chair really, one of those pink and white stripe ones meant for the beach, but I make the rules here. This is my safe place. This is my sanctuary. This is my Eden.

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