‘Swimming Home’, by Deborah Levy: A Review

wp-1484491550591.jpg‘Life is only worth living because we hope it will get better and we’ll all get home safely’

-Deborah Levy, Swimming Home

Swimming Home has been part of a backlog of books I have wanted to read for a while now- and I completed it in less than 24 hours. It’s been a while since I was so glued to a book I couldn’t put it down, but Swimming Home definitely made that list.

I felt as if this novel would be hard going when I began it and, if I’m honest, I wasn’t sure that I’d be able to get into it. The style and tone isn’t something I’d usually go for, but this feeling dissipated within the first few pages. Initially, withheld information can be slightly confusing, but as you go along the picture the novel creates becomes increasingly clearer. The ending wasn’t entirely what I expected, and came as a slight shock- I actually gasped. But when you reflect on the novel, and what you’ve read, it becomes obvious that this was what was coming (I’m trying my best to avoid spoilers here). Continue reading

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The Danish Girl: Book Review

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Around two weeks ago now I picked up a copy of The Danish Girl from HMV (£2.99 guys, £2.99!!). I’m pretty sure that most of us have seen the trailer for the Eddie Redmayne film, if not the film itself. But today, I’ll be dealing with the book, written by David Erbershoff. I’m less certain many of us know that the book and film are loosely based around the life of a real woman, named Lili Elbe.

Lili Elbe was born Einar Wegener in Denmark, in 1882. Einer worked as an artist, and eventually was one of the first to undergo gender reassignment surgery, having begun living as a woman some time previously. Though the transition operations were successful, Lili later died from post-op complications. The author’s note in the back of the book tells us that the storyline follows real events, though it is only loosely based upon them, with the characters themselves being close to fictionalised – as, obviously, no one can know the true feelings of Gerta (Einer’s wife, named Greta in the book), or Lili, or Einer themselves. The novel takes place over six years, where we see Greta and Einer move around from Copenhagen to Paris, whilst coming to terms with how their future will look with Lili in the picture.

Though I enjoyed the read (I couldn’t put it down), and Ebershoff writes beautifully, more could have been done to cover the feelings of displacement Lili goes through when she realises that she is in fact a woman in a man’s body. I’ve seen a fair amount of online critique of this, and though in one sense I agree, I have to say that I can see why Ebershoff chose not to go into such detail. For anyone not in the position Lili Elbe was in herself, to write a story including her point of view, and those surrounding her, must have been a challenge. Though not perfect, Ebershoff did rise to this. Continue reading

Bleak House, by Charles Dickens: A Review

1475660192922.jpgIt took me just over 2 weeks to finish this book. Granted, I was reading it alongside preparing to come back to uni, and volunteering- but that is a long time to be reading one book for me. Surprisingly, just as boredom began to set in, I suddenly started to really enjoy this monster of a novel…

When I saw this on the reading list for my third year Murder, Mystery, Mayhem module I cringed. Wasn’t Charles Dickens really hard to understand? To even like? I remember trying to read the unedited Oliver Twist when I was 11. Needless to say, that was a bit ambitious. But, returning to Dickens 9 years on, and this is being added to my “Favourite Books of All Time” list.

Dickens has a dense writing style, and often goes off on a tangent of description, which can make his novels slightly hard to follow. Don’t let this put you off. Once you get into the swing of his narrative style, the story opens up for you, and you won’t be able to put it down.

*If you’re good at putting two and two together, then the below may contain some spoilers, just to warn you now.*

 

This particular novel follows Esther Summerson, a girl with mysterious parentage, but a kind heart, who becomes involved in a world that sits in the shadow of an on-going court case called Jarndyce vs. Jarndyce. This court case is with regards to the fortune of an old Jarndyce, who made two wills- but which was the right one? Whilst the descendants fight it out in the courts of chancery, no one actually knows who should inherit his wealth. This is the backdrop to the story, and the narrative always seems to return to the courts of chancery in London (where wills and such are supposedly sorted out, though the lawyers most seems to just be fannying around, wracking up “costs”).

Esther’s story, told by herself, runs alongside another narrative which follows Lady Deadlock, a cold and proud society lady- with a secret to hide, and a blackmailer waiting in the wings to destroy all she holds dear. I have to say, Lady Deadlock was one of my favourite characters. There were many characters that I point blank hated, or was annoyed by (Harold Skimpole, Richard Carstone), but she was not one of them. Despite her history  and secrets, I feel Dickens wanted his reader to like Lady Deadlock, or at least appreciate her force of character.

Upon the discovery of the body of an unknown man and law copy writer, both these worlds are sent into a tail spin, and eventually they’re set on course to collide. The novel follows the secrets that gradually come to light, and then the death of Lady Deadlock’s blackmailer himself… Continue reading

The Moonstone by Wilke Collins: Review

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About a month ago now, for part of my third year pre-prep, I read The Moonstone, by Wilke Collins. This is the original detective story…containing not as many clichés as you would think. In fact, it’s very well written. It may shock you, and this isn’t really a spoiler, but unlike most detective novels it is not a death being investigated, but a theft. This at first didn’t seem such a thrilling reading prospect, but I actually became very heavily absorbed in this book- it came everywhere with me until I’d finished it.
The narrative follows a cursed Indian diamond, part of a shrine to a Hindu moon god, stolen when members of the British army lay siege to said Indian shrine. John Herncastle kills the three Brahmins (priests sworn to protect the diamond) and claims it as his own, returning to England with it.
The story the novel tells takes place several years after the above, when upon his death John Herncastle leaves his diamond to the daughter (Rachel Vernier) of his estranged sister (Julia Vernier), whom pretty much disowned him. Turns out that the diamond is rumoured to be cursed, throwing suspicion as to why he would want to leave it to his niece- especially as it was on the proviso that her mother is still alive. Has he left it to her as proof that he forgave Julia for disowning him, thus simultaneously guilt-tripping her and making amends? Or, is it because he hopes that the curse of the diamond will serve as his revenge on his sister and niece?

Continue reading

‘This Book Will Save Your Life’: Review (no, it isn’t self-help)

After reading a selection of classic books so far this summer (a lot of detective and dystopian fiction), I decided I wanted to read something a little more light hearted a few weeks ago. I have to admit: the doughnuts on the front cover were what first attracted me to it in Waterstones.

This is not a self-help book, as my friends and family initially thought when they saw me reading it. Having flown through this novel, I will definitely be purchasing some more of A.M. Homes’ work. In the story we follow Richard Novak, uber-isolated control freak, as he is forced to leave his personal bubble, and interact with the world outside. The only people he sees at the opening of this novel are his trainer, housekeeper, and nutritionist. Everything is planned out, in order, and perfect in a sterile sort of way. Until something completely unplanned happens: he ends up in hospital with an attack of severe and mysterious pain, that seems to have no traceable cause. This is actually where the novel opens, and knowing little about Richard or his life, the reader is pushed straight into this unpredictable plot line.

Not many books can actually make me laugh out loud in the middle of a coffee shop- this one did. Richard is pushed into several adventures, and it’s touching to see him form new- and fix old- relationships, most notably with his estranged son Ben. And if you’re wondering about the doughnuts: the first thing Richard does on leaving the hospital is go to a doughnut shop he has passed but never been in before. Here he meets Anhil for the first time. As the novel progresses he also meets and befriends a movie star, a desperate housewife, some technicians trying to fix the sink hole rapidly threatening to swallow his LA home, a collection of family members, some strangers in a silent retreat, a writer, and a horse. I’m trying not to say too much about how this novel plays out, because the situations Richard finds himself in, and that gradually force him to let go, are so brilliantly thought up that it would be a shame to ruin them. Each passing situation lead me to like our protagonist a little more, and I want you to have that same experience when you pick this up for the first time.

The one thing I wasn’t so sure about with this novel was the structure. Instead of being sectioned neatly into chapters, it’s divided into episodes, each taking up as little as a short paragraph, or as much as a few pages. The lack of a neatly divided structure has a lot to do with the theme of the book: that life can’t be neatly divided and contained, but is rather a series of episodes where things fall to pieces and then fall together again. All the same, it took me a while to get used to stopping after a paragraph, rather than a chapter. Ultimately, it did add to the book; I became more absorbed in what was happening, than trying to figure out how much more I had left to read before I felt I could stop for the night.

All in all, if you want a funny, touching, contemporary read this is one for you. I’m not usually a fan of contemporary novels, but this has won me over, and definitely has my stamp of approval.

 

‘Brave New World’ Book Review

While I was on work experience I had some time to get through this book, which- after reading 1984– I couldn’t wait to get my hands on. Though written by a different author, I like to think of Brave New World as the ideal complementary read to 1984. Whereas Orwell’s 1984 is all about a society controlled through fear of Room 101, and having just enough to get by on- in Brave New World, mankind have everything they could wish for…

Society in this novel is complex. Mothers and fathers don’t exist: they’re dirty words. People are sterile. Babies are grown in test tubes, and what is added to these tubes determines your stature, intelligence, and place on the hierarchy. Alphas are at the top of the hierarchy, Epsilons are at the bottom; Alphas are intelligent and attractive, Epsilons are simply a source of labour, and are unattractive. Every level of this society is kept in place by having access to pleasure of all forms. The society that the characters live in is drugged up on soma- which they take whenever anything displeases or distresses them. Oh, and there’s little danger of disliking your place on the hierarchy; you’re conditioned from birth to love it. There’s also a complete reversal of tropes from classical books: sex is fine. Monogamy is not. Which is where the character we initially follow comes in:

Bernard Marx wants an exclusive relationship with Lenina Crowne, the shallow but desirable woman everyone wants. Bernard doesn’t like the fact that there is never any chance of being alone. And so he is taking Lenina on a trip with him. To the one place left in the world where savages still exist: the Reservation.

I don’t want to spoil the storyline too much, because even I didn’t see some of the twists and turns coming, but it’s here that they meet John: a man who looks like an alpha in a hoard of “savages”. John has had access to books banned from civilisation: primarily the Bible, and the collected works of Shakespeare. As such his language is pretty comic at time- I have never laughed so much at the use of the word ‘strumpet’. One comic moment is when Lenina attempts to seduce John (who she and Bernard bring back to civilization), not realising that John’s attitudes to male-female relationships is very, uh, Shakespearean. You will find some incredibly funny moments in this novel, but it isn’t all fun and games- just to warn you now.

The characters irritated me immensely. John annoyed me, Lenina annoyed me, Bernard especially annoyed me- the society they lived in annoyed me. This is definitely Huxley’s intention- his characters are not intended to likable. John is melodramatic and naïve, Lenina is shallow, and Bernard is inconsistent.  Amoung Huxley’s characters there were two I felt would be worth knowing. One was  Helmholtz Watson, a man who appears to share common values with Bernard- but who sticks with these values. The second is the man I suppose would be considered the “villain”: Mustapha Mond. He is completely unlike the key villain figure of 1984, O’Brien, and I can’t wait for you to meet him in this book.

Ultimately, this novel is a study of nature vs nurture, and whether society itself is more of an evil as an unthinking mass than one arch villain can ever be. The earlier chapters can be hard work to get through; a lot of information is thrown at the reader at once, and the structure can be slightly confusing (you’ll see what I mean)- but the story does move past that, and all of the information is necessary for the novel to then flow. I can definitely recommend it to you.

Really into dystopian? Here are a few more classic dystopian/utopian novels for you to check out…

  • 1984, George Orwell
  • The Time Machine, H.G Wells
  • Herland, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

A Game of Thrones: Review

I have just finished the first in George R.R. Martin’s series, and I cannot believe how quickly I got through it. I put off watching the show until this year, as I wanted to read the books first. Eventually I accepted that that wouldn’t be happening around exams, and so began watching it- but also bought the books. And following my last exam, sat down for the rest of the afternoon and began Book One.

For so long, I was wary of this series because of how gargantuan these books are. I pictured the kind of novels my dad reads: choc-full of boring descriptions and technical battle terms and stuffy characters. Instead, George R.R. Martin creates a subtle and beautiful world, and equally rich characters. I think one of the best things about this book (and also the TV show) is how virtually none of the characters are entirely good, or entirely bad- they are all 3D. You can’t entirely hate any of them- except Joffrey. I do hate Joffrey. I can’t say I am amazingly keen on Robert Baratheon to be honest either; characters that shirk responsibility at the expense of those around them really get under skin, and in the books this is an emphasized aspect of Robert’s personality. I am also aware of other characters I can later hate, but this book hasn’t introduced them yet. It’s hard to separate what I know later happens to the characters and what is happening now, when it comes to being bias on if I like them or not. For example, so far I can say that Jaime Lannister is not likable in the slightest, though I know his character does develop later on. And, I’m sorry guys, but I will be comparing and contrasting this book to season one of the show, as I know that a lot of my readers probably haven’t delved into the books, but are more likely to have watched the show. I am going to try and encourage you here to do the former as well as the latter.

You get a mix of perspectives in this book, with each chapter being taken by a different character, and focusing on their internal thoughts and their actions. So far we have heard from: Eddard, Catelyn, Bran, Arya, Sansa, Jon, Daenerys, and Tyrion. Some of the characters surprised me in how different they were when you knew their internal dialogues. Also, in how much younger they are in the books. Jon, Robb, Sansa, and Joffrey are all much younger here- though Bran, Rickon, Arya, Tommen, and Marcella are all roughly the same age as HBO chose to portray them. Due to these multiple perspectives, we see the fight for the iron throne from several opposing sides, though Martin seems to choose characters we can view as the underdog to be the voice of the story.

This book ends where the TV show also chose to end, to give you an idea of the narrative timeline it covers- though Daenerys keeps her hair in the TV show, whereas it’s burnt off in Drogo’s funeral pyre in the book. Speaking of Daenerys, I received a slightly different impression of her from George R.R. Martin. Daenerys’ character development is just beginning to become apparent in this novel. Daenerys is also where we see that this is not particularly a children’s/ young adult fantasy book- but adult fantasy. Martin writes about sex and sexuality easily, nonchalantly, and without making it too cringey (as many books do). Daenerys seems bolder than the other female characters because of this element of sexuality, which she eventually appears to become more comfortable with- seen in the scene where she and Drogo make love outside, Dothraki style*. I can see why HBO chose to cast Emilia Clarke in place of an actual 15 year old.

Moving on from characters, to writing style. This book’s world is fantasy rich, and the descriptions Martin writes obviously contribute heavily to this. If you’re lacking in imagination then the descriptions are almost as if you’re watching the action, they are that detailed. Particularly beautiful or useful descriptions include the story about dragons hatching from the moon, the description of the children or the forest and background of Westeros from Maester Luwin, and also the poignant moment that Daenerys walks into Drogo’s funeral pyre. Martin’s style is easy to read- I cannot emphasise this enough, as my belief that it would be the exact opposite put me off for so long. However, the battle scenes…

Okay, so, it wouldn’t be GoT without some battle scenes. And this is where my only critique comes in. I find battle scenes boring. They go on too long, the action is mixed up with too many words, and I basically skim read them. They just aren’t my thing, and Martin’s writing is no exception. I think that unless you are writing the battle scene, they are very difficult to read. As such, I found much of Catelyn Stark’s narrative regarding the antics of Robb and his army fairly boring.

However, overall I encourage you to give this a read- I can’t wait to begin the next one, and plan on getting to at least Book Three before I head back to uni in September.

*Edit!! I also have to add: in the books Drogo is much gentler with Dany than in the show: it’s one change I have to say I wish HBO hadn’t made.