musings, Text Post, Uncategorized

An unsuccessful reading month (with a good ending)

To say that May has been a hectic month would be quite the understatement. Between job applications and interviews, relatives being admitted to hospital, and various other dramas, my reading has unfortunately had to take a back seat.

However, I finished This Family of Things by Alison Jameson this morning. It’s due for UK release on June 8th, and I would seriously advise you to buy it. A full review will follow after it has been published, but what I will say is that it’s a wonderful novel. There are some really dark moments, but has joy and heartbreak in equal measure. A highlight of the month was getting half an hour to read it outside St. Paul’s Cathedral.

So now my task is to complete Cloud Atlas, and the audiobook of Three Daughters of Eve, and get ready to celebrate 20 years of Harry Potter magic in June!

In other news, I love that the weather is so gorgeous at the moment so i’ll be able to enjoy reading outside with a view of our flowers.

Have a wonderful evening!

Text Post, Uncategorized

2017: Reading Again

Wow. Have not updated this for a long time. With various family issues, breaks away, and a university degree to complete, I’ve only read two, ‘not-university’ books in the last 8 months. It’s been awful not being able to read, especially because every time I go into a book shop, I seem to leave with a couple of books. Those have since accumulated into an ever-growing pile on my bedroom floor, admonishing me for not reading them.

However, now that all of my assignments are submitted (only need to wait for the grades and for graduation now!), I can FINALLY start making my way through them. And I can dedicate proper time to reviewing at last. I am so excited!

My dissertation focused on Daphne du Maurier’s mid-century novels and her portrayal of masculinity, so I’ve been ‘existing’ in the past and with male psyches for far too long. Even though I adore du Maurier’s novels, I was desperate for a change.

20170127_094353
Du Maurier Dissertation: The bottom three books have occupied my life for months.

I decided to pick up Kate Atkinson’s ‘A God In Ruins’ first. I adored Life After Life (one of the two books mentioned above, and sadly I have not had time to review this…yet), and I’ve been impatiently waiting to read the sequel since my good friend sent it to me in September. I began reading it Wednesday morning (25th January) and am already 300 pages in. It’s a seriously good novel! Atkinson’s use of wry humour is just spot-on. She infuses it into every character, subtly marking all the wonderful, funny parts of life that we often miss when we are ‘in the moment’. I’m also loving how she creates a sense of ‘continuation’: the family evolves, branches out and adapts as time goes on, but various characteristics pass down through the generations, and all the characters are connected by ‘Teddy’, the central ‘thread’ of the novel, if you like. Full review will follow, I promise.

20170127_095733
Current Read: Loving this book so far

I have also invested in Audible (Amazon) – I thought it would be good to have something to keep me occupied on walks and car journeys other than music. I have tended to avoid e-readers and audio-books but Audible have a great 30-day free trial so I downloaded  ‘Swing Time’, by Zadie Smith, with my free book credit. Smith is a fantastic author: she creates such rich, complex, entertaining stories. I’m a few chapters into Swing Time, and it’s good so far. It’s just difficult to get used to listening rather than reading: I keep having to go back 30 seconds because I’ve been distracted.

Thanks for being patient. Reviews will be more regular now I have free time.

Wishing you all a wonderful weekend! Are you all going to get some time to read?

 

 

Text Post, Uncategorized

Musings on Fiction Prizes

So, I completely missed the announcement of the shortlist for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction earlier this week (I have become a but of a hermit, trying to finish university assignments) hence why I’m only writing this now.

I love when shortlists are announced, because they always provide the opportunity for some really interesting debates. Essentially, shortlists (and long-lists), and prizes in general are a statement of value. ‘These are the best books of the year. Read them.’ Statements like that are obviously going to spark debate about what constitutes ‘good’ literature. Debates about plots, genres, structure, characterization. Whenever I see “Shortlisted for /Winner of [insert prize name here] “, I always try to see what it was that the panel may have found interesting about the book, and whether I would have picked it myself.

I think that’s part of the success of prize culture: it gets people reading, and talking about those books that they’ve read. With the spread of social media, the debates are even bigger (in some ways, more heated) – people want to be a part of it all, they want to share their opinion. It’s obviously great for all the books mentioned, and even each author’s other works. There’s that amazing story of A.S. Byatt’s previous titles being re-released after Possession: A Romance winning The Booker Prize (now the Man Booker Prize) in 1990, and they all sold better in one year than they had in all the years previously. Being shortlisted almost always guarantees becoming a best-seller, for the very reason that some use shortlists as reading guides. It also means great publicity for future works, although some believe it puts added pressure on authors (new works will always be compared to shortlisted or winning books).

One of the best things about prize shortlists, I think, is that it gets people reading (and enjoying) fiction that they otherwise may not have read.  There are so many titles that I picked up because they stood pride of place in the bookshops during ‘prize season’. It diversifies people’s reading habits – they may go on to read more from that author or genre, or they may even be inspired to write something themselves.

After seeing the shortlist for The Bailey’s Prize, I’ve decided to take a couple of them for my holiday reading. I have 20 hours for each journey to fill, and I’m pretty excited to finally have some time to read for pleasure.

The book that really caught my eye was The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney. There’s something about the whole ‘Irish underworld’, the lives of those on the periphery of society, that really interests me about the synopsis. Although it mentions a murder, it seems like this is a story about ‘real’ emotions, about love and regret and loneliness. it sounds thrillingly dark and exciting, but still grounded in reality rather than a generic ‘horror’ (if that makes sense). So this is my first choice.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara also looks really good. How people and relationships change over time, but the connection still draws people to each other. Past traumas resurfacing, and affecting people in new ways. I do like when novels seem to focus on small groups or communities, rather than individuals – I think there’s just something more substantial about the plot and characterization, something more interesting about the work. Obviously it depends on the skill of the author at bringing characters to life, and I have enjoyed novels written from a subjective point of view or focusing on the life of an individual, but generally, I like shifting between different characters, and seeing how they connect and interact.

These are probably what I’ll be writing about and reviewing next. I just wanted to take the opportunity to write here again – it’s amazing how quickly the days pass when you have university deadlines to meet. Catching up with all the publicity from The Bailey’s Prize basically reminded me what great fiction is currently out there, and it made me excited to soon have the chance to read some of it again.

Book Review, Text Post, Uncategorized

Book Review: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

51KOK64918L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_

I love being an English Literature student for many reasons, but the main one is this: I get to read some truly fantastic literature that would not have crossed my path had I not been on this course.

Americanah is the latest of these revelations. Since reading this novel, I have noticed how prominently Adichie’s work is placed on the displays in many book shops. Her debut novel, Purple Hibiscus (2005), received wide critical acclaim along with numerous shortlistings for literary awards, Half of a Yellow Sun (2006) won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for fiction, among others, and Americanah was named as one of the Ten Best Books of 2013 by the New York Times. In spite of all this, I’m almost certain that Adichie’s fiction would have gone under my personal radar if it had not been featured on the reading list of one of last semster’s modules, which meant I would have missed out on some amazing writing.

Americanah begins with Ifemelu visiting a hair salon to get her hair braided in preparation for her move back home to Nigeria, after 13 years living in America. The decision to move has come as a shock to many of her friends and relatives, and to Ifemelu herself – she has ended a relatively happy relationship, shut down her highly lucrative blog, all to move back home with no motivation other than that it feels like what she needs to do.

As she sits in the salon, Ifemelu emails her teenage love, Obinze, now a successful property developer in Nigeria, with whom we are told she cut off all contact many years ago. This prompts a sequence of prolonged flashbacks (and flash-forwards, back to the present but also to some scenes in the not-so-distant past), which tell us the story of how she arrived at this moment, contemplating seeing her home again.

Adichie presents us with a Nigeria that is forward-looking and ambitious, producing a well-educated youth in spite of the political upheaval of the 1990’s. Even those people who do not attend university have hopes and dreams, and the motivation to succeed in those dreams (even if, for some, that means breaking the law – there are no rose-tinted glasses used here). This is not the Nigeria – seen through the eyes of her American characters and the global media – constantly in need of charity. Nigeria, and Africa more generally, is a vast and varied landscape. Yes, there are people living in poverty, but there are those, like Ifemelu, Obinze and their school friends, who have been taught to work hard, to dream of success, with the final goal being America, or England.

We see America as a place to achieve freedom, success and independence. The American Dream lives in all its glory and splendour in the minds of those who see it from afar. Ifemelu gets a scholarship to study in Philadelphia, leaving Obinze to finish his degree in Nigeria, planning to join her later. Alone, however, Ifemelu discovers an aspects of America that nowhere featured in her imagination, an America she wished had remained hidden. Her experiences lead her to suddenly cut off contact with the one person who had grounded her, made her feel hopeful for the future and safe in this foreign country: Obinze.

Obinze, confused and hurt, fails to get his American visa after graduation, moving to London in the hopes of somehow finding success, or at least a new path to America, there.

This is almost a ‘coming of age’ story – it’s a novel about the experiences one goes through in order to find or understand your true self, and what really makes you happy. For the Nigerian characters, this is especially important, caught as they are between the ties of home and the belief, instilled in them from childhood, that real success is something only achieved abroad.

It’s also a story about questioning our own understanding of the world and the people around us. Ifemelu is shocked, upon arrival in America, to ‘discover’ that she has a race. She is looked at differently, treated differently, not because she wasn’t born in America, but because she is black. She learns that there are words that are supposed to offend her because she is black; there are things that she is expected to do and things she is not supposed to do, because she is black. These observations become the subject of her blog. As an outsider, someone who arrives in America as an adult and is given this role to play, she questions the rules and regulations that others simply accept. Adichie places us next to Ifemelu, forcing us to question behaviours with her. We see the political rise of Barack Obama, and the implications this has for American society, through Ifemelu’s critical eye. We see the uneasiness with which race is contemplated and talked about (or rather, not talked about) in America, in the desperate attempts to make everything seem OK. Ifemelu encourages the readers of her blog to simply listen to someone if they tell a story about how race has affected them, and through listening, and asking questions, to understand the world better, by seeing it from someone else’s point of view.

The novel isn’t a grave preaching, however. It’s a hugely funny book, mainly achieved through the tone of the observations Ifemelu makes and the interactions between characters, all of whom are crafted magnificently. We understand each character, even if we become critical of their behaviour. Even Ifemelu is not drawn to be the perfect, objective observer – Adichie shows us her flaws, her selfishness and her snobbery, her tendency to judge too harshly.

This is what made the novel so real, so vibrant and so ceaselessly interesting for me. No, it’s not an adventure novel: there aren’t many cliff-hangers or dramatic showdowns. It’s a page-turner in the sense that we exist so much ‘in the moment’ with these characters, moving slowly with them through their encounters with new environments and new faces, that we just (for want of a better phrase) drift along, thoroughly engrossed, invited to care about how these stories will unfold.

Americanah is a novel about dealing with race, about politics, and the harsh realities of life, both in Nigeria and as an immigrant in America or in England. But it’s also a story about love – romantic love, the love between parents and children, love between friends, a love of home. Most importantly, it’s about learning to love and accept yourself. For that, it’s an extremely positive novel, and on reading it a second time, I enjoyed it even more.

I always think that the sign of a good book is if you’re immediately impatient to read the author’s other work.

Mentally, I’ve already packed Half of a Yellow Sun in my holiday suitcase.

Enjoy reading everyone!

Book Review, Uncategorized

Book Review: The Birds & Other Stories, by Daphne du Maurier

birds

Daphne du Maurier has been my favourite author since I read Rebecca 4 years agoI think reading that novel is the way most people first encounter du Maurier’s writing, and it should be. Nothing can ever prepare you for the power and magic contained in that first sentence. Since then, I’ve read most of her novels, but only recently did I consider reading her short story collections.

I knew that Alfred Hitchcock had made a film adaptation of ‘The Birds’, along with Rebecca, the former in particular being a highly regarded psychological thriller. Considering how well known and praised Hitchcock film continues to be to this day, I must say I expected more from the original story, ‘The Birds’, and it wasn’t until I did some research afterwards that I learnt that Hitchcock had basically taken the title and the basic concept of du Maurier’s text and allowed the screenplay writer to create his own story around that. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course – Hitchcock’s film is great, and really taps into some dark psychological concepts through this adaptation. But I definitely fell for the assumption that films stay faithful to the original story, which meant that my already high expectations of du Maurier’s storytelling were raised further.

That’s not to say that ‘The Birds’ isn’t a good story. Du Maurier very skillfully captures a real sense of the main character’s fear, isolation and, in the end, hopelessness when flocks of birds unexpectedly begin attacking the town in which he lives with his wife and children. She created in Nat Hocken a very real protagonist – by real, I mean that I read and understood the emotional integrity of his actions and reactions, which allowed me to engage with his plight (to the extent that I felt almost desperate for a means of escape to appear). Although not written in the first person, she attaches the reader so closely with Nat’s consciousness that the claustrophobia and entrapment he experiences seeps through the page. I certainly felt that I was sitting right there next to him, waiting for a government message of hope through the radio while the relentless sound of the birds seeking entry to the house continued.

I think du Maurier’s evocation of the threat posed by the birds primarily through oral imagery (focusing on the sounds of their wings beating as an example) was highly effective, and in fact works better than any overt visual description could. Although they pose a very violent, physical threat, du Maurier’s narrative also drives home the psychological terror of the situation. The sudden mobilization of the birds, large and small, into a group intent on attack, is left unexplained, highlighting the terrifying unpredictability and violence of the natural world, a fact that is easy to forget.

I won’t lie. I was expecting a more definite resolution to the story, but on the other hand, I can see the motivation behind ending the story where she does. Sometimes, allowing the reader’s imagination to take the reigns increases the tension, the terror and the fear. Whether this is achieved is based entirely on each individual’s immersion in the story.

Overall, a decent suspenseful narrative with a likable protagonist, but there is something missing or jarring that I can’t quite describe that left me feeling a bit let down once I’d finished reading. I can definitely see why Hitchcock was inspired by the basic concept, and also why he saw that there was scope to elaborate on it.

 

The other stories in this collection continue in the vein of wreaking psychological havoc:

  • Monte Verità, on the surface, is a story about what is assumed to be a female cult that kidnaps and imprisons young women in a monastery-style building high up on a remote, twin-peaked mountain. As the narrative continues, it soon becomes a story of freedom, of unrequited and unattainable love, and I suppose it could also be read as an exploration of what it means to be an an enlightened and liberated woman, and of understandings of femininity and masculinity (issues that were fiercely debated in du Maurier’s time, and continue to be so today). Much use is made of lunar imagery (being called to the mountain by the moon), and there is much focus on conceptions of female magic and mysticism. There is a rather strange, almost psychedelic sequence towards the end of the story, and some of the dialogue is frustratingly confusing (like someone talking in riddles). I thought that the pacing was strange, as though du Maurier was trying too hard to create suspense but the plot was too predictable for this to be achieved. Some of the descriptions, however, are truly stunning, and it is in these that the reader can truly appreciate du Maurier’s skill and creativity with language.
  • The Apple Tree I found to be a very humorous story, with a very pompous, self-important protagonist. One is never quite sure whether this man really is being haunted by his dead wife in the form of an unusually shaped apple tree or whether it purely his imagination, a result of some form of repressed guilt about the changes in his feelings and behaviour towards his wife (and vice versa) in the years before her death. It’s a very enjoyable story, albeit one with a rather predictable ending. As with Monte Verità, du Maurier explores the link between femininity and the natural world, and how men interact with or alter that dynamic.
  • The Little Photographer involves adultery, murder, and blackmail, all the result of one woman’s desire to satisfy her vanity and alleviate her boredom whilst on holiday in France. On the one hand, one may read the Marquise as independent, forthright and in control, not the stereotypical emotionally vulnerable, naive woman or well behaved wife. On the other hand, however, she is rather emotionally abusive, I felt, incredibly vain of her own beauty and position in society. I know not all characters can be sympathetic or likable but something about this character, or maybe the way the story was told, stopped me from properly engaging with it and enjoying it.
  • Kiss Me Again, Stranger – female empowerment reigns again in du Maurier’s story. We encounter the story through a narrator whose sudden infatuation with a cinema usherette leads him into an almost fatal encounter. I found the narrator’s lovesickness rather creepy, and wasn’t sure whether we were meant to find his metaphorical blindness/naivety endearing (I didn’t). The revelation at the end seemed a little clichéd but that may be the intervening decades separating my reading of the story and du Maurier’s writing of it. I’m guessing it would have been shocking to her contemporary readers.
  • The Old Man, although only 10 pages long, is my favourite story in this collection, purely for the skill in narrative deception on display here. I was speechless when I read the final paragraph. The narrator’s gossiping tendencies provide an effective humorous counterbalance to the dark, sinister portrayal of parent-child relations. I don’t trust myself not to reveal the ending so I’ll leave it here.

Running through all the stories are displays and evocations of psychological terror and manipulation, be it of characters or readers. All except ‘The Birds’ deal explicitly with the power dynamics in romantic relationships between men and women, and supply us with various imaginings of masculinity and femininity. Some stories are more well written and engaging than others, but as a group, the fit very well together.

Daphne du Maurier is still my favourite author, and I found many of the elements so intriguing and effective in Rebecca present here also. For me, her writing is more effective when she had to sustain a narrative for novels, bringing greater definition to her characters and imagery. Or maybe I just prefer novels to short stories in general.

Please feel free to leave a comment.

 

Uncategorized

First Impression

Warm greetings to all who happen across my humble, budding blog. I hope what you read here proves interesting – I’m new to all this, so bear with me while I find my feet on this new writing platform. My name is Anne-Marie and, after 3 years of continuously working towards coursework deadlines for my Undergraduate Degree in English Literature,  I’ve recently been feeling rather bereft of opportunities to think and discuss critically those aspects of life, culture and literature that catch my attention. Unless I’m given a script to follow, I struggle to communicate with ‘the spoken word’. I get the feeling that my voice is quite monotonous, and I possess none of the spontaneity required for normal, everyday conversations. So I thought: ‘Why not start a blog?’. I can express opinions and process thoughts while being completely silent, avoiding all the awkwardness of actual human interaction that follows me around more successfully than my own shadow.

I am 21 years old; however, based on the reactions of those who enquire about my age, my appearance suggests that I have only just entered adolescence. I attempted to buy a lottery ticket a few months ago and was asked to show my I.D. (the required age for a lottery ticket purchase being 16 years). The shop assistant nearly fell off his chair when my driving license showed I was in fact 3 years into adulthood. I’ve learnt to accept it as a positive, in the hopes that 20 years from now, people can still tell me with a straight face that I don’t look my age.

I have lived in the second city of the United Kingdom for most of my life, apart from a 3 year interlude in Aberystwyth for my university study. In spite of the beautiful scenery, quiet environment and close community that Aberystwyth offered, I think I’ll always be a city girl at heart. Our house is located within 20 minutes of 2 major shopping centres, the roads are easier to drive on, and there’s lots to do throughout the city. Aberystwyth could become claustrophobic: everything was located within the town itself, with just small villages surrounding it. There weren’t that many places to escape to if things became stressful. It was a great change living by the sea, though, and I met some wonderful people who made me feel more accepted as an individual than I’d ever felt before. They understood (and often shared) many eccentricities of my personality – my obsessive perfectionism, my aversion to cosmetics, and most importantly, the value I set on reading and cups of tea. I finally felt comfortable with myself, although I think my hair’s resistance to any attempts I make to control it will always cause me a great deal of grief.

I loved my course. I didn’t think it was possible to enjoy learning as much as I did at university. I realised how much I loved the process of researching, writing and editing critically, and how much fun it was to discover all the clever techniques and issues, and generally great storytelling, that fiction presents us with. Reading has, as long as I remember, been my favourite past time. I would try new sports, learn an instrument, but my interest and motivation in these activities only lasted a few months, if that. I would always return to my books. A quote from Helen Keller speaks to and about my life: ‘Literature is my utopia’. When the real world becomes too complicated to deal with, I find a good book, make myself a cup of tea and read for hours on end. I’ve almost made myself late for work on a few occasions, so desperate have I been to finish a chapter of a book.
It’s madness how involved we can become in these stories, with these authors, past or present. I mean, across 3 years, I spent innumerable hours and thousands of Great British pounds to read and write about fiction. Books have the power to change people, to alter the way they perceive and interact with the world around us, without losing the basic entertainment that reading should provide. Harper Lee’s ‘To Kill A Mockingbird’ completely changed the how I reacted to literature. As a required text for my GCSE study, it was my first introduction to real analysis of fiction, unveiling the deeper historical or social issues integrated within the basic plot, yet I still appreciate and enjoy the story itself.

Whatever career I eventually decide upon, I’m not sure I’ll be completely invested in it if there is an absence of books for me to pore over. I’d prefer to work in Publishing, although as I’ve discovered in the past 9 months of filling applications and making my cover letter specific to individual publishing houses, it’s a highly sought after career choice so places are limited. I’m sure persistence will pay off though, it just takes one accepted application to start the process. In the mean time, I’m content enough in my full time employment in a restaurant. It’s close to home, I work with lovely people, and the skills and confidence you acquire are invaluable. I’ve definitely learnt how to keep calm when confronted by an unhappy customer, although I still think I go bright red and stammer over my words with embarrassment. I just don’t cope well with irate people, and you’d be surprised how worked up someone can get over chicken and chips.

I’d also like to see a bit more of the world. I’m not sure my nervous disposition could cope with being independent in an unfamiliar country for any extended length of time. I’m not even sure I’d get past arranging the flights before I formed a long list of reasons not to go travelling for longer than a month. But I love exploring, I love being a tourist and experiencing new places and cultures, even for a short while. I see photographs of castles, hills, landmarks from across the world and I envy others of their confidence to actually get up and go there. I just want to see things, and be awed by them. Just as books tell stories, so too do buildings, statues, and other such landmarks. My family and I went to Paris for our first holiday outside of the UK in 2011 (except Florida in 1999 but I was 7 and all I took notice of was Disneyworld); I can’t explain how amazed I was by everything we visited. The Palace of Versailles took my breath away, and I was seriously considering buying a tent and camping secretly in the grounds for the rest of my life before I realised how impractical and highly illegal that would be. That’s how beautiful it was to me. The history, the architecture, the gardens – I just wanted to be there forever. I’d like to experience that feeling as much as I can: of being fully aware of how important a place is in terms of natural beauty, or historical and cultural significance.

Anyway, I think I’ve rambled on enough for now. I’m hoping the content of future blog posts will flesh out this sketch of my person better than any list of ‘Fun Facts About Me’ I could compile, not that it would be that long. If you’ve reached the end if this, my first ever blog post, thank you. I hope I haven’t bored or insulted anyone enough to make them run for the hills and never return here again. Feel free to leave comments or ask questions if you’d like to hear more before I click the shiny ‘Publish’ button for the second time.