Tag Archives: fiction

A beautiful mess…a review of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

QuestionsSometimes when I sit down to write my blog posts, my book reviews, I find it really tricky to begin…to know where it is that I should start – today is one of those days. I’ve spent the last twenty minutes faffing around googling quotations from The Book Thief (which I’m supposed to be reviewing). It’s helped in a way, the spirit of the book which I finished a couple of weeks ago now has returned to me somewhat. It has also hindered, for it has confirmed to me the enormity of the task I’m trying to complete. I think it’s far, far easier to review a book which you dislike, a book which angers you or a book which you consider poor. To review a book you rate and esteem, that’s a weightier task altogether. And so it is that I find myself struggling for an adequate beginning, an opening if you like. Where to begin?

“Even death has a heart.”  cover

As you may have already gleaned, I was very impressed by Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, it’s one of those books that you know will stay with you all your life. Aptly, it will haunt you. I say ‘aptly’ because this book is a story about death, and consequently life. It is narrated by the most omnipotent of all narrators, death himself. It opens,

“HERE IS A SMALL FACT

You are going to die.” and then,

“…does this worry you?” Continue reading

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Filed under 21st century, Books, Fiction, Markus Zusak, Novel, Reading

Nourishing the fantasy…reading A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.

**Please note, there are no spoilers in this post.**

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.” 

bookGeorge R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons.

GOT booksI know I’ve been away a while, but in all fairness I have spent my time well. I have read five books in seven volumes (a bit confusing I know, simplified that’s seven pretty big books). I am now up to date with George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books and am left waiting, like the rest of the world, as he pens the next in the series.

Like a great many others, I was inspired to read A Song of Ice and Fire after watching HBO’s television series Game of Thrones. Naturally, having loved the TV series, I had pretty high expectations. In fact, it has been said to me by other fans of the show that they were wary of reading the books in case they didn’t live up to their television twin. I can firmly say that those people’s fears are unfounded. I absolutely loved George R. R. Martin’s books and was gripped with every chapter. The characters on the page are just as compelling as those on-screen and the plot-lines are even richer and more developed.
Hand-of-the-King

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I began reading the books, I couldn’t imagine what narrative voice would be used to encompass so very many characters and worlds. I needn’t have been worried, Martin has an ingenious solution. Each chapter in his series of books is narrated by a different character (some characters having more chapters than others) and the events of that chapter take place from their perspective and show the events transpiring wherever they are in the story-world’s ‘seven kingdoms’. This narrative device ensures that you never feel like one character is more important than another, you also get a snapshot into the mind and thinking processes of each of the story’s principal characters. It makes for a very unbiased narration. Continue reading

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Ruthless fidelity…a review of The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling.

The Casual VacancyAs I mentioned in my previous post, I had high hopes for J. K. Rowling’s first adult novel, The Casual Vacancy; my hopes were not unfounded. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading Rowling’s story over the past few weeks. For me this book seems to have been the catalyst for a return to a more fulfilling style of reading. I think I have, for some time now, been stuck in a bit of a rut where my reading is concerned – not able to find as much enjoyment in it as I used to and frustrated by my inability to become engrossed in the books I was reading. Not so with The Casual Vacancy,  I read it almost every day and thought about its characters and events when I wasn’t reading it.

PagfordAs I’ve already mentioned in this blog, I’m a huge fan of Rowling’s Harry Potter books and have read them many times. You can imagine, then, how I approached The Casual Vacancy with tentative fingers and an almost desperate hope that this book would be as rewarding a read. I wasn’t sure how many comparisons I would be able to draw between Harry Potter and The Casual Vacancy, and while the plots and setting are vastly different, there are comparisons to be made. The narrative style of Harry Potter is still clearly discernible in Rowling’s latest offering. The narrative voice has the same nuances and the characterisation is not wholly dissimilar. Both novels also depict contemporary British society and its many facets and factions.

The Casual VacancyPrior to reading I’d wondered exactly how much of an adult novel The Casual Vacancy would prove to be, suffice to say this is definitely a book for the adult market and not something you would expect to see in the hands of a child or even young adult. This is a story about the complex issues that weave their ways in and out of our contemporary adult world. Just as the Harry Potter books deftly depict the politics of a secondary school and teenage years, so The Casual Vacancy brings the politics of suburban Britain to the fore.

While reading The Casual Vacancy it struck me that there are, it seems to me, parallels to be drawn between Rowling’s Pagford and the rural country settings depicted in Jane Austen’s novels. Sure, Rowling’s story takes a wider sweep of society, showing us people from all walks of life; but, to me, there is something decidedly Austen-like about The Casual Vacancy. I think the similarity, for me, lies in the characterisation and in the intense focus on the minutiae of everyday life within a tight-knit community. Both authors have their settings under a finely-tuned microscope, examining the merits, faults and vices of their characters with almost ruthless fidelity.

ballot boxAs I said above, I truly enjoyed reading The Casual Vacancy, the pace of the story is spot on, never becoming tedious or speeding by too fast. The characters provoke strong interest: some have you rooting for them, others fill you with disgust and others claim your pity. There is a whole gamut of emotions to be experienced in the reading of this book. It takes you on a rollercoaster with every chapter. As you would expect, Rowling’s characters are fully fleshed out human beings, with vivid pasts, strong motivations and very real lives. From a drug-addled mother dependent upon her teenage daughter to keep the social worker at bay, to a gossiping middle-class housewife obsessed with her reflection in society’s mirror…there is a whole spectrum of society exhibited for your reading pleasure.

RowlingI feel Rowling has very expertly put her finger on a pulse with this novel. Living, as I do, amongst a very similar (if slightly larger) community in the east of England, I feel that this is perhaps the only book I have ever read which depicts the type of society in which I live with almost unerring accuracy. Rowling really has presented a very honest and very vivid picture of contemporary Britain. The many layers of society are peeled away with the confident hand of an author who knows her setting well. It is also refreshing not to find a wholly idealised vision of Britain. Too often we are greeted with images of Richard Curtis’ Britain. Quaint country idylls where life is moneyed, on track and everything charming. Failing that, we find Britain depicted with a grimy, gritty kitchen-sink realism. It’s refreshing to see an artist such as Rowling, take a more heads-on approach and show Britain for what it so often is…a complicated, interwoven mesh of old and new, rich and poor, with varying family structures and a plethora of races and religions all living alongside one another.

The Casual VacancyI would definitely recommend The Casual Vacancy, with the caution that it is by no means a happy feel-good successor to Harry Potter. In fact, it is a real heartwrencher of a novel, with many deeply touching narratives and several moments that are hard to read. The Casual Vacancy leaves you pondering your own life and the lives of those you come into contact with in your community, whether that be through work, socially or in passing in the street. Rowling’s novel forces you to face up to the prejudices and injustices in your own society by seeing them mirrored before you on the page. It also touches upon the changing face of Britain’s towns and villages and the politics of daily life in our communities.

It’s my opinion that Rowling has made the transition from children’s literature to an adult readership with flair and grace. I, like a great many others, wait with anticipation to see what she will do next.

Having read and reviewed its predecessors, I move on to the third of Nancy Mitford’s companion novels, The Blessing.

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Redefining bravery…reading Charlotte Gray by Sebastian Faulks.

150px-BWMRevA war hero doesn’t necessarily wear a uniform or receive a medal.

It was quite a while ago that I finished reading Charlotte Gray but, sadly, I was away and didn’t have my laptop with me and, since then, work and everyday life have somewhat taken over. So it is that I find myself, nearly three weeks later, finally sitting down to write my review.

greyI read this book pretty quickly (for me!) and very much enjoyed it. As I said in my last post, I tried reading Charlotte Gray once before – when I was about fifteen years old. I never finished it. I think I was, perhaps, too young and immaturely drawn into reading a book whose heroine shared my own name. Charlotte Gray is not a book for the idle reader who happens across it by coincidence. It has a very specific topic and is not what I would call a feel-good read. It’s heavy going and deals with some weighty subjects.

At eighteen, just a few years after I failed to complete Charlotte Gray, I found myself studying another of Faulks’ novels set in France: Birdsong. I studied Birdsong as part of my A level English syllabus and found it equally – if not more – harrowing a read as Charlotte Gray. Both of Faulks’ novels deal with the subject of war. In Birdsong Faulks explores life in the trenches during the First World War and in Charlotte Gray we learn more about the Second World War from the perspective of the French and English undercover resistance efforts in Vichy France.

1-woman-in-vintage-1940s-clothing-waiting-with-suitcase-jill-battaglia I found Charlotte Gray unusual as it is narrated largely from the perspective of a woman. I find it interesting that Faulks chose this narrative perspective for a war story. War is largely the dominion of men, and was even more so in 1942 when Charlotte Gray begins than it is today. Charlotte is an intriguing heroine. An ordinary girl who flings herself into extraordinary circumstances. I have to say I was a little disappointed that Charlotte’s main motivation for her bravery in France was due to a man, and her, somewhat immature, ideas about love and relationships. Certainly Charlotte Gray does some amazingly brave and patriotic things, but I couldn’t help thinking, “she’s only doing it for that sap, Peter Gregory”. I do realise, however, that Faulks’ writing is probably more true-to-life, than if Charlotte had been a ballsy, go get ’em, war heroine. The reality of war was probably far less glamorous and people far less confident than our latter-day Hollywood ideals make us believe. The men and women who found themselves fighting for their cause were probably driven by much simpler and more everyday motivations than an over-arching patriotism. So perhaps I have no right to be disappointed that Charlotte went to France because of her love for Peter Gregory, maybe that’s how it would’ve been. I guess it’s more inspiring to fight for those we love than for a blurred, vague concept of King and country.

ParachuteCharlotte Gray tells a story that most of us, I think, are unaware of. We all know about the fighter pilots, the strategists, the foot soldiers. I have to say
that prior to reading Charlotte Gray I didn’t know much about the occupation of France or about the French resistance. I knew even less about the brave men and women who were parachuted into France as couriers and spies – with little more than a cyanide pill and their wits to keep them from being discovered. I found the varying French reaction to the Vichy government another interesting element of the book. During her time in France, Charlotte encounters a diverse range of French citizens, some proud that their country collaborated with the Germans and some ashamed to be French because of that same collaboration.

CoinAs I mentioned earlier, Charlotte Gray is certainly not a happy-go-lucky beach read. The story deals with some very traumatic and distressing events. Faulks deals with these events in unexpected ways – always from surprising perspectives and often in a way that makes them more tangible and real. Faulks’ characters are well-drawn and his characterisation is unusual. Faulks often uses the technique of telling us about the objects that surround a character – the things on their desk, the items in their bags – and it is through these objects that we come to form our ideas about a character and what their life has been, and is, like. Faulks’ novel also allows us to glimpse how people can form unusual relationships under extreme circumstances. War certainly seems to bring out relationships that would otherwise never even begin. From Charlotte’s relationship with Levade to Peter Gregory’s relationship with Nancy, an American woman living in wartime France. The story also highlights how there are many different sorts of bravery and that a war hero doesn’t necessarily wear a uniform or receive a medal.

Charlotte GrayI would recommend Charlotte Gray to others, particularly if they are interested in the Second World War and the ordinary people who did extraordinary things in their otherwise ordinary lives. The novel contains some very sad moments and really highlights our ability to live on despite experiencing harrowing times and devastating events. It’s an eye-opening and engaging story and is well worth reading.

I move on to another modern novel, J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, her first novel for the adult market, I have high hopes for this book.

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