Book Review

Review: This Family Of Things, by Alison Jameson (2017)

This Family Of Things was quite a surprise to me. In spite of the blurb implying that lives would change forever, I still underestimated intensity of the emotional rollercoasters (yes, that is meant to be plural) that Alison Jameson would take us on in this, her fourth novel.

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Let’s start at the beginning: The Prologue. What a fantastic opening! It draws you right in, watching a woman (no spoilers) arrive at a house in Oregon, U.S.A., and contemplate this moment in her life. I’ve heard that getting the opening of a novel right is often a difficult aspect of writing that for authors, but Jameson strikes exactly the right tone and balance, catching our attention without revealing too much.

The narrative shifts, in time and location, to a cold, November day in 2013, in the town of Tullyvin, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. By the time this day ends, the wheels have been set in motion for the relationships, attitudes, hopes, and ambitions of the central characters to change completely.

In the rural outskirts of Tullyvin, the Keegan family own a farm and surrounding fields. Passed down through generations, Bird, Olive and Margaret feel like they belong to this land and the surrounding landscape. They understand it, they feel ‘at home’ there. Their lives are in tune with the changes that nature’s seasons bring. This regularity, unchanging year after year, is a source of comfort to them, but now, as each feels their lives somehow slipping away from them, it also feels like a trap. As the novel opens, each of these siblings wonders in their own way if there might not be more to see and experience in the world than the peaceful seclusion of their family.

In the more urban centre of town resides Midge Connors, a young woman fast losing hope of a life that does not include violence or despair. She is the last of her siblings living at home, watching her parents tearing (quite literal) pieces out of each other day after day. After a particularly brutal confrontation with her father, Midge finds herself alone and injured in a cold, wet field.

A field, we discover, belonging to Bird Keegan, who finds her there in her confused state, and takes her back to the safety of the farm.

The collision of these two worlds – the Keegans’ and Midge’s – is the catalyst for the lives of these characters being taken in new, unexpected directions. It’s as though an electric shock runs through each of them, giving them the motivation and confidence to take action.

By the stage at which we are returned to 2016 in Oregon, a lot has happened. These characters experience love and loss; tenderness and violence; poverty, illness, romance. They encounter fear and hope; the comforts of home and the excitement of travel. Yet Jameson masterfully structures the narrative and portrays the characters in a way that grounds these events so much in real, human emotion that it never, in my opinion, feels melodramatic. It could easily have felt chaotic and over-saturated, but it didn’t.

The pace is rather slow initially, but I think this is necessary to really get readers involved with these characters. When I’m reading, I want to understand characters, to be given reasons to stay with them on their journeys in the story, and Jameson does that in the opening chapters of This Family of Things. This initial calm pace also reflects the regularity of the Keegans’ lives, which then provides a fantastic contrast to the upheavals that occur later.

The rural Irish landscape surrounding the Keegan’s farm is a beautifully imposing and particularly memorable feature of the narrative. The simultaneous brutality and peaceful seclusion it conveys makes it part of the stories being told, reflecting and influencing the lives of the characters. I also adored the humour running through the novel: it lightened the tone at important moments, but I also recognised it from some of my own Irish relatives.

Though there are moments in this novel that are incredibly dark and brutal, there’s always a sense of hope in every character that they will find happiness, freedom, or simply peace with the way they have chosen to live their lives. I think that’s incredibly important, and one of my favourite aspects of Jameson’s narrative here: that no matter how many knocks these characters take, they somehow find the strength to move forward.

Full of joy and heartbreak in equal measure, this is a wonderful novel that, I hope, will have you turning the pages with intrigue as I did.

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Books for Change: Days 6-8

​Day 6: Favourite First Line 

“Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” – Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier

This is my favourite book of all time* and du Maurier created a fantastic opening for it. It has everything: the intrigue, the suspense, an almost mystical atmosphere.
Who’s the speaker? Where/what is Manderley? Why is the speaker dreaming of going back? Where are they now? 
The entire first chapter is just so beautifully Gothic, with the description of the house and grounds, thebreader moving through the landscape through the narrator’s eyes.

Simply spectacular. *special thanks to @novelobservations who first introduced me to this book, and to du Maurier’s writing. She bought me one of these awesome mugs!

Day 7: Favourite Short Story

The Bloody Chamber, by Angela Carter

I was torn between The Bloody Chamber story from this collection and Monte Verità by Daphne du Maurier.

I went with Carter in the end, because I think her use of underlying themes in traditional fairytales to create new stories is nothing short of spectacular. This collection, and much of Carter’s writing, is divisive to say the least, but personally, I love the imaginative extremes she experiments with. 

I love the tense, Gothic atmosphere and pacing of The Bloody Chamber story (perhaps that’s why I was torn between this and du Maurier). There’s so much skill used in drawing these vivid characters and experiences, and creating that sense of unpredictability. Like the narrator, we are drawn almost compulsively forward, despite the uncertainty and foreboding.
In short, it’s a wonderfully complex and tense story. And that’s without the weaving in of complex ideas Carter manages here.
Day 8: (International Women’s Day) The book that changed my life.

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara.

This was incredibly difficult because there are so many that have changed the way I see the world, approach life, or simply the books I want to read more of.
However, when I read A Little Life last year, it really moved me emotionally in a way I hadn’t expected. 

Some of the experiences detailed in this novel are dark to say the least, but they’re so ‘human’, so real, and the darker aspects of the characters’ experiences are counterbalanced by uplifting, hopeful moments. It’s a novel about friendship, love, acceptance; about dreams and ambitions, success and failure; about negotiating the transition from youth to adulthood. New York is there in all its complex vibrancy, the opportunities and realities of life in the city explored throughout. The four central characters are wonderfully, vividly drawn: we are frustrated by some of their actions as much as we are in support of them. 

This novel changed my life because it made me consider afresh the world around me, and how small actions can make big differences to another person’s life. It showed once again the importance of compassion, empathy and understanding. The novel celebrates difference and diversity AND the basic essences, like love and friendship and happiness, that connect everyone too. I got so enmeshed in the stories being told that some parts actually made me cry (and that never happens). It was harrowing because it really felt like I knew these people, and I desperately wanted things to change for them. 

I also appreciated how brilliantly constructed it is: moving between the characters and the different ‘moments’ in their lives seamlessly. Even though it’s a long novel, I never felt like it was dragging. It’s truly a work of art, a masterpiece of literary genius.
If I ever doubted that novels written in the twenty first century would be considered ‘classic’ in the way that, as an example, the Brontës are, Yanagihara’s novel put paid to that.

Book Review, Text Post

Book Review: A God In Ruins, by Kate Atkinson (2015)

“A handful of heartbeats. That was what life was. A heartbeat followed by a heartbeat. A breath followed by a breath. One moment followed by another moment and then there was a last moment. Life was as fragile as a bird’s heartbeat, fleeting as the bluebells in the wood.”

I adore this quote from ‘A God In Ruins’. It’s so simple but it’s a beautiful and profound elucidation of life and meaning. Atkinson makes use here of the bird and flower imagery that runs through the entire characterisation of Teddy (Edward) Beresford Todd, our protagonist in this novel. I found it particularly affecting considering the pivotal moment of the narrative it relates to but it’s also a great example of Atkinson’s skill as a writer. She brings ideas like this to bear within her characters’ lives, making them human and relatable rather than simply ‘types’.

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Kate Atkinson’s writing -her wit, intelligent plot structures, and unique methods of characterisation – has been celebrated since her debut novel, ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ (1995), won the Whitbread First Novel and Book of the Year award in the year of its publication. In 2013, she was awarded with the same accolade (now renamed the Costa Book Award) for ‘Life After Life’, in which we follow Ursula Beresford Todd through multiple versions of her life.

‘A God In Ruins’ is a ‘companion piece’ rather than a sequel to ‘Life After Life’ according to Atkinson. The primary focus is on Teddy’s role as a pilot in a Bomber Command unit during the strategic bombing campaign against Germany in the Second World War. This aspect of Teddy’s life has a lasting affect on his attitude and experience in the aftermath of war. Certain sections of the narrative focus on characters close to Teddy and their perspective of his influence in their lives. I think it’s a really great way of disrupting the boundary between ‘truth’ and ‘fiction’, between a person’s understanding of themselves and how other people understand them.

Each ‘part’ or ‘chapter’ of the novel is dated, and so give insights into Teddy’s childhood, his life as a young pilot, in middle age, and in the final stages of his life. He is a son, a nephew, a friend; a husband, father and grandfather. The entire narrative is non-chronological – the parts are not ‘in order’ and within each ‘Part’, we seamlessly and continuously move from ‘present’ events, back several decades through thoughts and memories, or ‘forwards’ as the narrative presence (not a character in itself, but providing a unique tone and commentary throughout the novel) hints at future events.

The little ‘windows’ into the future are particularly good for maintaining intrigue: signposted by such phrases as ‘Teddy would have been surprised to learn that in twenty years…’, these brief time-hops make you want to read on in the hopes that all will be detailed further as the novel continues. Even if she does not expand on the events, this unusual structure gives the sense of the scope of influence that one person, Teddy, can have on the world in the form of other people. It shows that legacies take greater forms than inherited wealth and property: it is revealed in behaviours, words and actions.

This is one of the many ways in which Atkinson’s novel is a ‘page-turner’, because you’re constantly anticipating ‘where’ and ‘when’ you’ll be taken to next. I really enjoyed how Atkinson blends past, present and future times throughout the narrative, using Teddy as the central ‘thread’ connecting all the other characters together.

As the title suggests, one of the central themes is ‘Man’s Fall from Grace’. Teddy, a kind compassionate man throughout his life, has his morals and attitudes challenged repeatedly. As a pilot in the Bomber Command Unit, as a husband, father, grandfather, as a friend, and indeed simply as a human being, he is confronted with difficult choices whose consequences he is forced to live with. Even those with the best of intentions can cause pain to others. In war especially, be it face-to-face combat or dropping bombs on economic strongholds from the sky, the distinction between ‘good’and ‘bad’ is not absolute – at least not in terms of civilians and ‘foot soldiers’ (for want of a better term). In the aftermath of war, especially when Viola begins making pointed remarks about his morality, Teddy is forced to accept the fact that he was responsible for the loss of innocent life in the same way that the German air force was. In his role as husband and father, too, Teddy makes decisions that will haunt his future relationships and perspectives.

The fraught relationship between Teddy and his only child, Viola, is a highlight of mine: it is so unashamedly difficult, with neither father nor daughter able to fully communicate or appease the other. Seeing Teddy, one of five siblings and his mother’s favoured child, trying to form a meaningful relationship with his distant, prickly daughter is so interesting.There’s so much dark, almost gallows humour in their relationship:

“He imagined she wouldn’t be satisfied until she’d badgered him into his coffin.”

Such instances running through the novel energise it, and I think it makes Viola, a difficult, antagonistic presence in Teddy’s life (and in the lives of her own children) more relatable. There are certain events which shape her, influencing her attitude towards her father and to her own parenting methods, and at her core, she is incredibly lonely. There’s a sadness to her life that, while not making her wholly endearing, at least makes her more human.

Though the war effort is perhaps the most significant focus and thrust of the plot, well-researched and portrayed by Atkinson, she also explores the way in which society, and countries as a whole, change in a relatively short space of time on a grander scale. We see that through Teddy, a man who grows up between two world wars (becoming a pilot in the second), who approaches middle age in the 1950s and 1960s as Britain was attempting to recover culturally and economically; his daughter becomes involved in drugs culture, in political activism concerning the environment, gender equality and economic policy; he helps to raise his grandchildren in the 1980s and 1990s. He experiences electricity being installed in his childhood home and the rise of social media in the twenty-first century. It’s something that has been fascinating to me for a while – the vast changes that can occur over the course of a lifetime – so I really enjoyed seeing it here in ‘A God In Ruins’.

There’s a fantastic plot twist at the end of the novel. It’s a brilliant narrative sleight of hand that connects with the idea that is central to ‘Life After Life’: the impact of one person’s life and decisions on those around them, and the world as a whole. The twist really brings home the how fine the line that exists between fiction and reality can be; how ‘truth’ and ‘imagination’ are in many ways not mutually exclusive or opposite concepts.

I think the final words of the novel are great too. It wouldn’t really be considered a spoiler, but I’ll leave it to you, if you read ‘A God In Ruins’, to find out what they are. The line made me laugh more than it probably should have and I just think it’s a great way of bringing the reader ‘back’ to reality.

All in all, I would say this is a great read. It’s funny, it’s tense, it’s dramatic, and it has an emotional resonance that really grips you. Teddy is an exemplary protagonist: watching him grow from childhood until his final days as a 98 year old man, you understand his attitudes and behaviour, however frustrating he may seem at times. As a reader, you appreciate the difficult challenges and choices Atkinson confronts him with, and I felt that because I cared about him, it made me reflect on how I might act or think in similar situations. You care about each of the characters, even the antagonistic ones, because Atkinson makes them human rather than just character types. It’s fairly long, just over 500 pages, but it never felt like a slog to read. I was gripped from start to finish. It’s a great ‘companion piece’ to its predecessor, Life After Life, but Atkinson creates such a rich tapestry of characters and events in A God In Ruins that reading the first installment isn’t a necessity for following the plot of the second. I would really recommend this novel to those who like stories about war time experiences, because Atkinson has clearly done extensive research to make her portrayal of the bombing operations over Germany as accurate and sensitive as possible. In addition, though, it’s just a fantastically constructed plot dealing with love, family, morality, society, and traumas of many kinds and degrees.

Enjoy!

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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.

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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.

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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?

 

 

Book Review, Text Post

Book Review: Unsung Heroes, by Elizabeth Darrell

Rating: 3/5 stars

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I haven’t read any work by Elizabeth Darrell before, so I had no prior expectations for this novel. It was nice to approach a work with a completely unbiased or unprepared mind.

This is a ‘historical’ novel, focusing on the life and work of Helicopter Squadron 646 throughout one year in the early 1990’s. (I’ve put historical is single quotation marks there because, as a 90’s baby, I’ve always understood historical to mean anything set pre-1990’s, and I can’t quite resolve myself yet to this new development) We see how new recruits, Dave Ashmore and Maggie Spencer, adjust to life with the team: we follow them on rescue missions in mountains, training exercises in deserts, as well as personal tragedies and obstacles.

I thought the plot was good, mostly engaging with many cliff-hangers or points of tension throughout. Some of these moments were genuinely shocking and unexpected, and Darrell evidently showed skill in characterisation because I was quite moved by the situations they found themselves in. It was also incredibly interesting to find out more about these ‘invisible’ aspects of life in Helicopter Squadrons – the rescue missions, the training exercises, and so on. This was definitely something that is highlighted in the narrative – that the work of these people, highly dangerous and requiring skill, courage and quick-thinking, go largely unrecognised by the general public, partly because such work doesn’t seem as interesting to media outlets.

Giving us snapshot-style insights into each character’s life and their perspective on events in each chapter was a good technique – it certainly allowed me to properly engage with and understand characters, their motivations and their flaws. Randal Price, I think, is a compelling flawed hero. He has a short fuse, especially where his wife is concerned, but he also cares deeply about his children, about his team, and about the work he does. The fate allotted to him is heart-wrenching, and I was genuinely moved by his struggle.

Some aspects, though, were a bit distracting – the pace was off in some parts of the story, so reading was rather slow, while the ending felt rushed. The resolutions to certain character strands could have been tighter and more detailed – some rather big conflicts seemed to resolve themselves too quickly for my liking.

I also think I was meant to empathise with one character in particular more than I actually did. While it could be simply my personal character preferences, I just couldn’t help thinking that this character was someone readers were being actively encouraged to really care about – we were meant to identify with their struggle against the odds, take their side in disagreements with family and colleagues – whereas I found them to be selfish and rather too defensive. I couldn’t engage with this character at all.

Overall, though, it was good. Randal Price really is a wonderful flawed hero, and the story itself, revealing the thrills and dangers of flying professionally, allows for a lot of dramatic tension to be built up in some places. It’s definitely worth a read.

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Book Review: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

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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!