The Glorious Heresies – Lisa McInerney

This was the latest read for book club, and was shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction in 2014. Continue reading

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How to be a Grown Up – Daisy Buchanan

A while back, before I started this blog and was only posting in my personal blog (a sort of public online journal – because I am, at heart, a classic oversharer) I wrote about feminism, personal growth, and Caitlin Moran’s How to be a Woman. (Please note, the post at the end of that link is four years old, and I was still a baby feminist… as I have aged, I have grown more strident and the tone of the post, were I to write it today, would be somewhat different!)

Aaaanyway, I refer to HTBAW in that post, and others, because for me it was a pretty identity-building read. I lvoe the book, and have become evangelical about recommending it, and reading it (again, and again, and again) has helped shape the woman I am today. So, when I say that How to be a Grown Up is very much like How to be a Woman, I want to be clear what I mean… to me, that’s a huge compliment! Continue reading

The Princess Bride – William Goldman

When I first saw the film of The Princess Bride, I was just a kid and I… didn’t get it. I didn’t pay attention; the SFX were terrible, the storyline implausible, and I just… I didn’t get it.

A few years later, when I had a better attention span and sense of irony, someone (probably my dad) got me to watch it again and SNAP. That was it… I fell in love with this sublime and ridiculous story, instantly joining the legions of cult fans. I always meant to pick up the book, too, but – like so many I’ve read in this year of the insane reading target – only got around to hunting a copy down recently.

Long blog post short – the book is just as good as the film. If you adore one (like me), you’ll adore the other. If you think one is puerile and all a bit stupid really… well, you’re not going to find much to enjoy in the other. A sweeping, grand adventure, the story follows the epic love story of Buttercup and Westley; the trials, the tribulations, the miracles and downfalls, all with frequent interruptions from the author of the book, who reassures the readers each time that he is only telling us ‘the good bits’ of the story. To my delight, I found that the most iconic lines from the film are lifted directly from the book (that word really doesn’t mean what he thinks it means), and although I’m usually firmly in ‘the book is always better’ camp, when a book has been so purely adapted for screen as in this case, it’s like recognising a well loved friend in a slightly different haircut. It’s still them!

Love love love this book!

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Carrie – Stephen King

As I’ve mentioned before, horror isn’t so much my scene. However, having rather successfully broken my own prejudice somewhat with Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box a while ago, I figured his famous father should probably be on my to-read list. Believe it or not, until recently, I had never read any Stephen King!

I figured I’d start easy with a story I already knew and liked – I’d seen the Carrie remake when it came out a couple years ago, and really enjoyed it. Paranormal, creepy and – above all – containing decent character development and an actual storyline, I figured I would probably enjoy the book too.

And (no surprises here) I did! The book is – obviously – better than the film, with more subtlety and nuance, both in the narrative itself and in the characters themselves. It’s hard to feel anything but positive emotions towards Chloe Grace Moretz as she portrays the titular character in the film – she’s a wonderful actor, but she is also very likeable and beautiful. The Carrie of the book is complex – there are moments when you feel the strange mix of pity and revulsion that some of the bullies and bystanders feel, mixed with moments where you love her, and moments where you’re scared of her… it truly is great writing. I also love the pseudo-scientific device King uses to frame the book; it adds a clinical, distancing effect, just as you’re drawn in, like spice in a great stew.

It’s a phenomenally popular and successful book, so I’m not saying anything new – but Carrie is a great read!

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Homegoing – Yaa Gyasi

I’m part of a book club at work (because of course I am) and Homegoing was the book selected for this month. It definitely prompted some interesting discussion – prompted by the narrative, we covered fluid versus fixed identity, and talked about the question of knowing who you are based on knowing where you come from. We talked about the interesting structure of the narrative – it follows several generations, each character only getting one chapter before time skips on and we meet the children (then their children, and their children’s children) – I personally found it a little jarring at first, because I wanted closure for each character, but by the end of the book Gyasi has built a picture of a whole family tree, and it feels complete again.Many of us in the room had learned things – about Ghana and the Gold Coast, or about the slave trade and the historical basis for this work of fiction – as you can tell, there was a lot to talk about!

The narrative itself starts with one woman, Maame, and her two daughters, who are born to different fathers and raised in very different circumstances. Each chapter then takes turns switching between the two branches of the family tree, introducing the next generation each time. The timeline stretches from the beginnings of the western-run slave trade in Ghana all the way up to modern day America, and it’s breathtaking to see how these awful crimes that were committed hundreds of years ago halfway across the world echo down the generations to have impact still today.

Honestly, I could probably write several essays about this book (it would make a good book for a literature class, actually!) but rather than bore you all, I will simply say this: Homegoing is well worth reading. I recommend taking your time, making heavy use of the family tree at the front of the book, and being ready for some emotional impact – there are some horrors described that don’t make for easy reading. But absolutely read it – if only for the fascinating conversations it will provoke.

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The Boy in Striped Pyjamas – John Boyne

I’d heard of this book years ago – it was made into a film in 2008 – but have only just got around to reading it. Like The Storyteller and The Complete Maus, it’s about the Holocaust, and it took me a little while to work up to reading it, as I wanted to make sure I was in a good place mentally.

The Boy in Striped Pyjamas is a pretty short and (subject matter aside) easy read. I’m not sure if it’s supposed to be a children’s book, but in feel it reads a little like one, especially because the protagonist is a nine year old boy; however, in approaching this review I’ve assumed that – because of the subject matter – it’s not written for children. I think my opinion would change slightly if it was.

Anyway, the narrative is written from the point of view of Bruno, the nine year old son of a commandant in the Nazi party. We follow his anger at the unfairness with which he is forced to move from his lovely home and his three best friends for life because the Fury has cause his father to have to move to Outwith. We see Bruno settle grudgingly into his new home with the weird fence a little ways away, and slowly forget his three best friends for life back in Berlin as he adjusts to his new surroundings. We follow his as he goes exploring, and one day meets a young boy – about his age – dressed in the cloth cap and striped pyjamas that he notices all the people on the other side of the fence wear.

Sensing that he probably wouldn’t be allowed to explore much if his parents knew he’d made friends with Schmuel (for that is the boy’s name), Bruno keeps the friendship a secret, but visits Schmuel almost every day, bringing stolen scraps of food (Schmuel seems so hungry all the time!) and talking with his friend. One day, Schmuel can’t find his father, and the boys concoct a plan to smuggle Bruno under the fence in disguise, so he can help his friend find his lost parent…

There were lots of criticisms of the book (and I assume the subsequent film as well) in terms of the realism of the story. Historically speaking, a nine-year-old boy, too weak or young to work, would not have been interred at Auschwitz, but would have been killed straight away. And certainly, a prisoner in Auschwitz would hardly have had the freedom to develop a clandestine friendship with someone on the other side of the fence, unbeknownst to the guards and other inmates. However, having finished the book, I don’t believe factual accuracy was the point that Boyne was trying to make with this story.

Like Look Who’s Back – another implausible/improbable/impossible plot around the Nazis and Holocaust, the point is not whether this could actually have happened within the historical context. With The Boy in Striped Pyjamas, the reader is faced with the realities of what did happen through the things that happen to Bruno – Bruno is angry about being forced to move, and children were ripped from their homes and sent to ghettos and death camps. Bruno’s parents argue and seem as though they might live apart, and couples, families, communities were torn apart permanently with no warning. The normality and innocence of Bruno’s story only highlights the atrocities of the things the we know were done, to real human beings.

Also like Look Who’s Back, a major point of the book is the wilful ignorance of the general populace. Bruno’s naïvety and misunderstanding of the horrors and crimes of which his young friend is a victim comes to represent the deliberate blindness of the rest of the adult world – the refusal to see or acknowledge the crimes against humanity that were being perpetrated – while in the former, the insistence of the fictional modern Germany on treating the real Hitler like he and his ideas are a hilarious joke is brought to a point (in the film adaptation at least) when one old woman explicitly points out that people thought Hitler was joking in the 1930s, too.

Ultimately, I found this a very worthwhile read. The point for me was to bring home the humanity and the human impact of these crimes (something that can be lost when looking at the facts, and the sheer staggering numbers involved) – although I do appreciate the point that critics make about the implausibility of the plot. For me, that didn’t undermine the gravity of the facts, but that may be something about which you wish to make up your own mind.

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the house at midnight – Lucie Whitehouse

This was another birthday gift from the ever-generous Book Fairy (she spoils me rotten, I swear) and is deliciously unsettling. A deceptively gently-paced psychological thriller/horror, the house at midnight is set and centred around a large old country manor, inherited by the protagonist’s best friend. Lucas – the best friend – loses his beloved uncle to suicide, and when he inherits his house and art collection, he insists to his close-knit circle of friends that they treat it as a home-from-home.

Joanna, the protagonist, has always wondered if there might have been more to the friendship with Lucas that began at university, and she is nervous about how his sudden bereavement and windfall might affect the dynamics of the group. How can it not change things between them? Still, she rocks up, along with everyone else, for New Year’s, and it seems that she and Lucas are as close as ever. There’s a weird vibe, about the house, though – something about the mural on the ceiling, or the settling noises of the house in the dark and the quiet…

The story takes place over the course of a year, and I did not want to read it after dark! It focuses more on the interpersonal than any overtly ‘boo ghosty’ or ‘argh violent’ type of horror narrative – I’ve always preferred that kind of horror, to be honest. Think Sixth Sense as opposed to Paranormal Activity kind of feeling.

Insidiously creepy and pleasurably unsettling, and full of interesting and flawed characters.

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Elegance – Kathleen Tessaro

I first read this book more than ten years ago. (Man, I’m getting old…!) I can’t remember what it was about it that caught my eye first, but it’s become a fond favourite. I don’t re-read very often, but this understated little gem is one that I have come back to four or five times over the years, which in my eyes is a big seal of approval.

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Each time I pick it up, I remember that I loved it, but think of it as a nice light read, forgetting that it actually packs quite an emotional punch! Tessaro writes such a believable main character – she’s incredibly relatable, without being ~~Relatable!!1!~~ (i.e. Manic Pixie Dream Girl or the Cool Girlfriend tropes) – Louise, the protagonist, is realistic and someone I remember identifying strongly with – even as a young teenager the first time I read it.

Louise is decidedly no longer twenty two. She is married, and an actress (well… she’s working in the box office right now, but she’s an actress really…) and although she just fine, she’s not exactly what she would call elegant. In her own eyes, she is certainly no Audrey Hepburn. So one day, when she stumbles across an A-Z of style written by a French fashion expert, entitled with one clean word – Elegance – she knows she’s found a gem…

The narrative follows Louise as she attempts to apply the lessons of Elegance to her life. Taking it often as gospel, and sometimes rebelling mutinously, the changes – small at first – begin to snowball. Hijinks certainly do ensue, but this is what I forget between each read; that it is a very funny book in places, and quite light to read (there’s something a bit Bridget Jones-esque about the idea of a hapless fashion-unconscious married woman trying to religiously follow a guide to elegance in her life), but the narrative never veers into slapstick, as it easily could. Instead, Tessaro effortlessly works in moments of pure pathos; honestly, my heart just ached for this fictional woman. Even though I’d already read the book a bunch of times and knew what was going to happen.

There are two or three key scenes I’m thinking of – I don’t want to describe them because a) spoilers and b) the author actually describes them much better in the book anyway – where I could so clearly see Louise in my mind’s eye. I could feel what she was feeling, and I wanted to wrap my arms around her and be gentle with her and tell her that it’s all going to be ok. The vulnerability of Tessaro’s writing is absolutely breathtaking.

Basically, I love this book and I love the main character and I hope you love them too.

(If you don’t, don’t tell me because it would break my heart just a little bit.)

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