Review: Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

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At age 19 Anne Brontë left home and worked as a governess for a few years before becoming a writer. Agnes Grey was an 1847 novel based on her experience as a governess. Bronte depicts the precarious position of a governess and how that can affect a young woman. Agnes was the daughter of a minister whose family was in financial difficulty. She has only a few choices for employment. Agnes experiences the difficulty of reining in spoiled children and how wealth can corrupt morals.

There are some spoilers in this review.

As I am not a fan of Jane Austen I did not expect to enjoy the works of the Brontë sisters. This is due to the fact that until now, everyone I have spoke to who is a fan of one is also a fan of the other. I first read the Brontës at University starting with Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë followed by The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Brontë. While I did not enjoy Jane Eyre, to my surprise, I cannot say the same for The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. I believed that I had already found my favourite Brontë which was a bold claim to make having neglected Emily’s works. I hope to read Wuthering Heights this year.

 

Having enjoyed Anne Brontë’s second novel I was eagerly anticipating Agnes Grey which I requested from my local library. My first impression was almost the opposite to my first impressions of Charlotte’s work Jane Eyre (Jane as a child was far more interesting.) I enjoyed (only) the beginning of Jane Eyre and felt that, Agnes Grey in comparison was lacking a certain entertainment value, it seemed already to a slow burner. However, I expected I would soon get more immersed when the plot began to unravel. It is in fact overall slow-paced and less action packed than Jane Eyre which in my opinion is positive as Charlotte’s novel has perhaps too much going on.  I compare the two novels due to their authors and the fact that they both centre around a governess.

 

I realised fairly quickly that there was a feminist narrative in Anne’s novel, a bold move for a female author (albeit under a pseudonym) in 1847. As a feminist of her time Agnes was, on occasion, the provider of great wisdom and can therefore be a positive influencer as her role of governess requires,

 

“Filling her head with all manner of conceited notions concerning her personal appearance (which I had instructed her to regard as dust in the balance compared with the cultivation of her mind and manners)” (102)

 

However I was not fond of Agnes’s character as I found her to be far too critical of others to be a moral, likeable person, often going over the top with her descriptions of others, for example:

“My only companions had been unamiable children, and ignorant, wrong-headed girls, from whose fatiguing folly, unbroken solitude was often a relief most earnestly desired and dearly prized.” (155)

This quote in particular had me loathing Agnes as I failed to view her as more amiable than the children in question. As their governess I would have thought that she would want to make these children better people rather than wanting to run away from them in what can only be described as dramatic despair. Our protagonist then shares her fears that in solitude she will, heaven forbid, become less intelligent and less moral. In all honesty I felt I was almost choking on her morality that was being forced down our throats on almost every page.

One of her primary criticisms of Miss Murray is that she is too boy-crazy. This, in itself, is fair and Agnes gives good counsel to her pupil on such matters several times throughout the novel questioning her liking for having “so many conquests” (135) by asking “what good will they do you? I should think one conquest would be enough.” (135) However, twenty pages later we read Agnes informing her readers that

“The gross vapours of earth were gathering round me, and closing in upon my inward heaven; and thus it was that Mr Weston rose at length upon me, appearing like the morning star in my horizon, to save me from the fear of utter darkness” (155)

It was at this point of the novel when I began to like the character of Miss Murray more than Agnes herself. Miss Murray is, at the very least,  more aware of her flaws whereas Agnes sees nobody else but Mr Weston who exhibits “human excellence.” (155) Her liking for Mr Weston, which happens far too quickly (we first hear her discuss him on page 139) without ever having a meaningful discussion with him, immediately consumes her. She thinks of Mr Weston for the rest of the novel which takes away her independence, which was until this stage of the novel the one quality I could praise her for. As, though she is kind, she is kind only outwardly, therefore I assume her intention for any act of kindness is her own reputation. Her kindness in fact, seemed somewhat of a joke on page 165 when she hears of Mr Weston’s sorry tale and notes “I pitied him from my heart; I almost wept for sympathy” almost wept? almost? is this yet another moral brag? I should mention she goes on to say “but’, thought I, ‘he is not so miserable as I should be under such a depravation.” did you pick up on the human excellence that is Agnes Grey?

It was also my opinion that she often used people to her own avail, including Nancy and Miss Murray. There was also her constant worrying about her reputation above all else while she was teaching her pupils not to do so that lead me to think  of her as hypocritical. It felt as though her narrative was aimed at lecturing the reader on morals when the protagonist herself was exhibiting few.

One character I was fond of was Agnes’s mother who, upon being widowed, wrote back to her father rejecting his conditions of acceptance. Agnes’ grandfather did not approve of his daughter’s marriage and subsequent children and found her choices shameful, he then, upon her husband’s death,  agreed to overlook all of her mishaps (of which there were none in reality) and add her to his will if she admitted to all of her mistakes. After writing her reply she asks her daughters “Will this do children?- or shall we say we are all very sorry for what has happened during the last thirty years; and my daughters wish they had never been born; but since they have had that misfortune, they will be thankful for any trifle their grandpapa will be kind enough to bestow?” (214) queue the applause.It is strong moments like this, of which there are a few, that make Agnes Grey an important novel in history regardless to personal taste. I personally wish these moments were more consistent. In fact the novel as a whole seems to be disjointed perhaps due to the autobiographical elements.

As you now know I had many issues with this novel. The plot is unimaginative and due to my dislike towards Brontë’s protagonist I found little value in this novel outside of the few uplifting feminist scenes, which of course were not perfect for today’s times but make this novel important nevertheless. I do not believe Agnes underwent any positive character development in the novel or formed any positive human relationships. To conclude, I will not be recommending this novel to anyone. As previously mentioned I would like to read Wuthering Heights and perhaps Vilette. Are there any Brontë novels you would recommend I read or review? If so be sure to leave a comment. This is my third Brontë novel and I have only enjoyed one.

 

Sophie

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30 books 30 days: Week One

This is my wrap up of the first week in my April TBR challenge. I think it was around the third or fourth day in April I decided to do this challenge having thankfully already read two manga collections and a short novel which helped my number count from the beginning. In the first week of the challenge I have read seven books!

1: Deathnote Vol II by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata

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Read: April  3rd making it the fourth of April when I started this challenge. I thoroughly enjoyed this volume and hope to do a series review once I’ve read the subsequent volumes. Doing a review in this way will allow me to give an honest review without being concerned with spoilers etc.

 

 

2: Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami

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Tsukiko is in her late 30s and living alone when one night she happens to meet one of her former high school teachers, ‘Sensei’, in a bar. He is at least thirty years her senior, retired and, she presumes, a widower. After this initial encounter, the pair continue to meet occasionally to share food and drink sake, and as the seasons pass – from spring cherry blossom to autumnal mushrooms – Tsukiko and Sensei come to develop a hesitant intimacy which tilts awkwardly and poignantly into love.

Perfectly constructed, funny, and moving, Strange Weather in Tokyo is a tale of modern Japan and old-fashioned romance.

Also read on April 3rd.  This is a slow paced romance which I did enjoy however this one was just an average read in my opinion. I did not particularly love any of Kawakami’s characters although I did find the writing beautiful and appreciated the added Haiku study.

 

 

3: Orange The Complete Collection 1 by  Ichigo Takano

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On the day that Naho begins 11th grade, she receives a letter from herself ten years in the future. At first, she writes it off as a prank, but as the letter’s predictions come true one by one, Naho realizes that the letter might be the real deal. Her future self tells Naho that a new transfer student, a boy named Kakeru, will soon join her class. The letter begs Naho to watch over him, saying that only Naho can save Kakeru from a terrible future. Who is this mystery boy, and can Naho save him from his destiny? This is the heart-wrenching sci-fi romance that has over million copies in print in Japan!

Again read on April 3rd. This manga series is unlike any I’ve read before (although I have only ever tried four different series excluding this one) and while I know some people believe it has no staying power, I think it has a sort of subtle brilliance. The storyline is sad and juggles both reality and science fiction. I like the cast of characters and will be continuing with the series.

 

 

4: The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

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Having sifted through everything I have heard about the tiger and his wife, I can tell you that this much is fact: in April of 1941, without declaration or warning, the German bombs started falling over the city and did not stop for three days. The tiger did not know that they were bombs…

A tiger escapes from the local zoo, padding through the ruined streets and onwards, to a ridge above the Balkan village of Galina. His nocturnal visits hold the villagers in a terrified thrall. But for one boy, the tiger is a thing of magic – Shere Khan awoken from the pages of The Jungle Book.

Natalia is the granddaughter of that boy. Now a doctor, she is visiting orphanages after another war has devastated the Balkans. On this journey, she receives word of her beloved grandfather’s death, far from their home, in circumstances shrouded in mystery.

From fragments of stories her grandfather told her as a child, Natalia realizes he may have died searching for ‘the deathless man’, a vagabond who was said to be immortal. Struggling to understand why a man of science would undertake such a quest, she stumbles upon a clue that will lead her to a tattered copy of The Jungle Book, and then to the extraordinary story of the tiger’s wife.

Read on April 5th. I may end up writing a review for one book per week of this challenge. You can find my review in two parts: (Part One)  (Part Two)

 

 

5: A Streetcat named Bob by James Bowen

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When James Bowen found an injured, ginger street cat curled up in the hallway of his sheltered accommodation, he had no idea just how much his life was about to change. James was living hand to mouth on the streets of London and the last thing he needed was a pet.
Yet James couldn’t resist helping the strikingly intelligent tom cat, whom he quickly christened Bob. He slowly nursed Bob back to health and then sent the cat on his way, imagining he would never see him again. But Bob had other ideas.

Soon the two were inseparable and their diverse, comic and occasionally dangerous adventures would transform both their lives, slowly healing the scars of each other’s troubled pasts.

A Street Cat Named Bob is a moving and uplifting story that will touch the heart of anyone who reads it.

I believe this was my first non-fiction book of the year which I finished reading yesterday, April 6th. Bowen’s story made me laugh and very nearly cry. I thought it was fast-paced and easy to read. However, I feel like the book did not have a conclusive ending, it seemed as though the book was ended on a whim.

 

6: Agnes Grey by Anne Brontë

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At age 19 Anne Brontë left home and worked as a governess for a few years before becoming a writer. Agnes Grey was an 1847 novel based on her experience as a governess. Bronte depicts the precarious position of a governess and how that can affect a young woman. Agnes was the daughter of a minister whose family was in financial difficulty. She has only a few choices for employment. Agnes experiences the difficulty of reining in spoiled children and how wealth can corrupt morals.

Also read yesterday, April 6th. I had several problems with this novel. The first being that Agnes Grey is supposed to be a loveable and moral character. Personally, I did not like Brontë’s protagonist who, in my opinion, made no real, honest human connection after leaving her family’s home. It’s fair to say from the last statement that I was not a fan of the romance either. That being said I am more than happy to acknowledge that Agnes Grey is, for its time, a feminist novel and is therefore indisputably of high importance. I realise when writing this that I will have to write a separate review of this novel as I clearly have more to say than I had initially thought, which is also a good thing, if you are interested this review will be up over the weekend.

 

7: The Metamorphosis and Other Stories by Franz Kafka, translated by Joyce Crick

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‘When Gregor Samsa woke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed into some kind of monstrous vermin.’

With a bewildering blend of the everyday and the fantastical, Kafka thus begins his most famous short story, The Metamorphosis. A commercial traveller is unexpectedly freed from his dreary job by his inexplicable transformation into an insect, which drastically alters his relationship with his family. Kafka considered publishing it with two of the stories included here in a volume to be called Punishments. The Judgement also concerns family tensions, when a power struggle between father and son ends with the father passing an enigmatic judgement on the helpless son. The third story, In the Penal Colony, explores questions of power, justice, punishment, and the meaning of pain in a colonial setting. These three stories are flanked by two very different works. Meditation, the first book Kafka published, consists of light, whimsical, often poignant mood-pictures, while in the autobiographical Letter to his Father, Kafka analyses his difficult relationship in forensic and devastating detail.

For the 125th anniversary of Kafka’s birth comes an astonishing new translation of his best-known stories, in a spectacular graphic package.

Table of contents:

Meditation
The Judgement
The Metamorphosis
In the Penal Colony
(Autobiographical) Letter to his Father

I finished reading this collection today. After reading The Trial a couple of years ago I was really excited to read more Kafka, my favourite part of this collection was the letter he wrote to his father. While I did not enjoy this collection as much as I hoped, or as much as I enjoyed The Trial, I still find Kafka’s writing beautiful.

 

 

Sophie

Review: The Tiger’s Wife (Part Two)

Inevitably, it got pretty hard to want to pick this book up about halfway through. To see why please read Part One. It’s strange how certain books come to you at the most appropriate time of your life. Are most of our favourite novels all about timing? More than anything else this novel is a narrative of grief.

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“I had been longing for my grandfather all day without letting myself think about it….They had lost children themselves, my grandparents: a son and a daughter, both stillborn, within a year of each other. It was another thing they never talked about, a fact I knew somehow without knowing how I’d ever heard about it, something buried so long ago, in such absolute silence, that I could go for years without remembering it. When I did I was always stunned by the fact that they had survived it, this thing that sat between them.” (129-130)

This is the perfect example of how confusing grief can be, to have the world still go on around you and how you can feel as though you are not allowed to let yourself think about it. It is also an example of how grief separates us, as the knowledge of her grandparents loss distances Natalia from them. This is because grief is not spoken about. This can be seen several times throughout the novel for example when Natalia goes to collect her late grandfather’s belongings the nurse she encounters is indifferent to his death saying “nothing about my grandfather being a nice man, nothing about how it was a shame he had died.” (143) Obreht manages to express these feelings naturally without under or overplaying the role of grief in the life of her protagonist. While grieving we can see her continue with her profession, we see her continue with social interaction. While she grieves we see that the magic still exists…

“There was something familiar about the room and the village, a crowded feeling of sadness that crawled into my gut, but not for the first time, like a note of music I could recognise but not name. I don’t know how long I stood there before I thought of the deathless man.”

I found that the magical realism in this novel was done really well. In fact I believe this novel is far more entertaining than One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez, a staple of magical realism. The story takes place in various time periods, or rather the novel is a masterful combination of stories from different time periods of her and her grandfather’s life. In fact the story sometimes goes back further than her grandfather’s birth and gives the reader back-stories of lesser characters.

If someone asked me to describe the characters in this novel then I have no doubt that I would sound like a crazy person, and yet the characters were not so outlandish that it seemed ridiculous when reading. This may be due to the fact Natalia acts as a storyteller and is somewhat detached from certain stories, telling us through various word of mouth encounters. However it is Natalia’s story that is real and relatable and perhaps that is why we, as readers, are willing to come along on this journey of discovery with her.

Overall I enjoyed Obreht’s writing, I especially loved her character descriptions and I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Tiger’s Wife. Obreht did not rush the ending which I was wary about, particularly as this is a début novel, the story came to a natural end and managed to maintain some of its mystery. While it is unlike anything I’ve read so far this year, (this is book #27) if I had to name a book I found similar to Obreht’s novel it would be The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey which I happen to also have a review for. I draw this comparison due to the fact that they are both, original, modern fairytales. Although, Obreht’s fairytale is loosely based on the historical bombing of Belgrade Zoo during the Second World War where a tiger was believed to have gone missing and was never found. That being said the role of the tiger in the novel was not as clichéd as you might expect and Obreht’s novel is more than a war-novel. Some of the characters of this novel will be on my mind for a long time.

 

Sophie

 

Review: The Tiger’s Wife (Part One)

This review will not give away any spoilers about the tiger or its significance in the story but will discuss other events and elements of Obreht’s Prize-Winning debut novel.

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Having sifted through everything I have heard about the tiger and his wife, I can tell you that this much is fact: in April of 1941, without declaration or warning, the German bombs started falling over the city and did not stop for three days. The tiger did not know that they were bombs…

A tiger escapes from the local zoo, padding through the ruined streets and onwards, to a ridge above the Balkan village of Galina. His nocturnal visits hold the villagers in a terrified thrall. But for one boy, the tiger is a thing of magic – Shere Khan awoken from the pages of The Jungle Book.

Natalia is the granddaughter of that boy. Now a doctor, she is visiting orphanages after another war has devastated the Balkans. On this journey, she receives word of her beloved grandfather’s death, far from their home, in circumstances shrouded in mystery.

From fragments of stories her grandfather told her as a child, Natalia realizes he may have died searching for ‘the deathless man’, a vagabond who was said to be immortal. Struggling to understand why a man of science would undertake such a quest, she stumbles upon a clue that will lead her to a tattered copy of The Jungle Book, and then to the extraordinary story of the tiger’s wife.

 

I knew I wanted to review this novel when I picked it up from the library as I had a hunch that this novel would turn out to be unlike any other I’ve read. Thus far I have only just discovered this blurb having previously only read the exert on the back of the book. The blurb just threw a curve-ball at me as I was not expecting Obreht’s novel to be a war story. I am now hoping that the tigers, that are of such importance in the novel are not purely metaphors for the Nazis.

However I found this book to be quirky, as I had previously imagined, from the first page and whimsical from the first line “In my earliest memory, my grandfather is bald as a stone and he takes me to see the tigers.” (1) On first impression her grandfather is instantly likeable, a doctor, dedicated to his granddaughter, who reads from his ever-present favourite book The Jungle Book. It is not long before the first reference to ‘The Tiger’s Wife’  it appears on the second page in fact “I believe he is talking about me, offering me a fairy tale in which I can imagine-myself and will, for years and years.”(2) It is then that I find myself thinking of C.S. Lewis and his heartbreaking, poignant The Chronicles of Narnia dedication to his granddaughter.

At the end of Chapter  it becomes clear that the relationship between Natalia and her grandfather is far more complex than it initially seems when he allows her to witness a traumatic event, aged four.

Natalia is full of ambition which was pleasing to read. In her childhood she wants nothing more than to follow in her grandfather’s footsteps and become a Doctor and she achieves this goal. It is also interesting, in a similar way to Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde to read the fantastical elements of this novel when the two main characters, our narrator and her grandfather, both doctors, are rational and logical.

There is an incredibly vivid scene where Natalia and her grandfather come across an elephant in the dead of night and he explains to her that there are certain moments in life you should cherish and keep for yourself, this being one of them. This leads Natalia to ask her grandfather if he has any such stories he can share with her. His response provides a perfect example of the pairing between the rational and the fantastical in Obreht’s novel. Natalia’s grandfather tells her of a job he took in ’54; to diagnose the cause of death of a recently deceased man. When he arrives he then finds the man, who was recently shot in the head, alive in his coffin. The man is named Gavran Gailé who explains he ‘died’ after telling another man he was going to die from TB, the man grows angry upon hearing of his impending death and kills Gavran. Gailé ‘post-death’ eloquently describes people who are told they are going to die:

“They behave strangely..They are suddenly filled with life. Suddenly they want to fight for things, ask questions. They want to throw hot water in your face, or beat you senseless with an umbrella, or hit you in the head with a rock. Suddenly they remember things thy have to do, people they have forgotten. All that refusal, all that resistance. Such a luxury.” (69)

This novel came to me during a difficult part of my life, as Natalia remembered and grieved the loss of her grandfather, I was losing mine. Perhaps this was the reason I found myself enjoying the novel (although finding it hard to read) and being grateful for its fantastical elements. Again I find myself thinking of the great C.S Lewis; “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairytales again.” I have learned that fairytales can be a great comfort.

 

Sophie

Baileys Women’s Prize 2017 Part 1

This will not be a post reviewing the Baileys Women’s Prize Long-List as between us we have read 0/16 books. That being said, this post will be my first impressions of the selected novels after reading not only their blurbs but also a free sample of each. I will then decide if I would like to continue reading these novels or whether I think they could make the shortlist.

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Upon her arrival in London, an 18-year-old Irish girl begins anew as a drama student, with all the hopes of any young actress searching for the fame she’s always dreamed of. She struggles to fit in—she’s young and unexotic, a naive new girl—but soon she forges friendships and finds a place for herself in the big city.

Then she meets an attractive older man. He’s an established actor, 20 years older, and the inevitable clamorous relationship that ensues is one that will change her forever.

A redemptive, captivating story of passion and innocence set across the bedsits of mid-1990s London, McBride holds new love under her fierce gaze, giving us all a chance to remember what it’s like to fall hard for another

I have owned McBride’s previous Baileys Award-winning novel A Girl is a Half-formed Thing for years and yet it remains unread on my shelf. Therefore I’m interested to see what I make of this one, will it encourage me to finally pick up her other Baileys novel?…

From the blurb I find that the 90s setting really interests me as this may be the decade of recent times that I have read the least. However I’m hoping it won’t have the Sex and the City feel to it that I’m imagining. I also read Brooklyn last year and thought that similar plot aspects were done really well in Tóibín’s novel. Therefore I’m wary of the character differences and whether I will enjoy this reading experience as much. The plot does not seem wholly unique to me therefore, on first impressions,  I believe this novel to have been selected because of its author. Hopefully I will enjoy this one despite my initial concerns.

After reading the sample I am reminded of why I have yet to read A Girl is a Half-formed  Thing, I simply do not like McBride’s writing style. In my opinion it seems as though McBride tries so hard to be poetic and unique in her prose that the readers attention is constantly drawn to the craft of the novel rather than the plot which can be distracting. The prose in this almost stream-of-consciousness opening, and at times the dialogue, feels unnatural.I did find myself at times reading aloud in order to concentrate on what was happening. However as the novel goes on it admittedly gets easier to read, this may simply be due to the fact that our first person narrator comes into more human contact and these exchanges are much less scattered.

As the reading experience did become more enjoyable to me the more I read, I would continue reading this novel although I suspect it won’t make my personal shortlist.

 
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What is the difference between friendship and love? Or between neutrality and commitment? Gustav Perle grows up in a small town in ‘neutral’ Switzerland, where the horrors of the Second World War seem a distant echo. But Gustav’s father has mysteriously died, and his adored mother Emilie is strangely cold and indifferent to him. Gustav’s childhood is spent in lonely isolation, his only toy a tin train with painted passengers staring blankly from the carriage windows.

As time goes on, an intense friendship with a boy of his own age, Anton Zwiebel, begins to define Gustav’s life. Jewish and mercurial, a talented pianist tortured by nerves when he has to play in public, Anton fails to understand how deeply and irrevocably his life and Gustav’s are entwined.

Fierce, astringent, profoundly tender, Rose Tremain’s beautifully orchestrated novel asks the question, what does it do to a person, or to a country, to pursue an eternal quest for neutrality, and self-mastery, while all life’s hopes and passions continually press upon the borders and beat upon the gate.

This is the novel I have heard the most about. I have only ever seen and heard rave reviews of Tremain’s novel although I am sure there are also criticisms. From the plot alone I believe I will enjoy Tremain’s novel as I usually like novels set during this time period (1947.)  I also think I will enjoy the friendship that forms between Gustav and Anton, two boys from completely different backgrounds and upbringing.

After reading the sample I can say that while I would definitely love to keep reading The Gustav Sonata, I personally cannot see it winning the Baileys Prize. I believe it to be too ‘safe’ a choice. That being said I loved the friendship between Gustav and Anton from the beginning and found their dialogue, in contrast to The Lesser Bohemians very natural and masterfully innocent. The prose, the characters, the plot all seem effortless and realistic thus far. Gustav lives in poverty and also helps his mother work. He is too young to remember his father but feels the effect of his loss every day through his mother. He is a young boy with already too much to bare on his shoulders when he befriends Anton. I am looking forward to finding out how the story progresses from here.

 

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In the late seventeenth century two penniless young Frenchmen, René Sel and Charles Duquet, arrive in New France. Bound to a feudal lord, a “seigneur,” for three years in exchange for land, they become wood-cutters—barkskins. René suffers extraordinary hardship, oppressed by the forest he is charged with clearing. He is forced to marry a Mi’kmaw woman and their descendants live trapped between two inimical cultures. But Duquet, crafty and ruthless, runs away from the seigneur, becomes a fur trader, then sets up a timber business. Proulx tells the stories of the descendants of Sel and Duquet over three hundred years—their travels across North America, to Europe, China, and New Zealand, under stunningly brutal conditions—the revenge of rivals, accidents, pestilence, Indian attacks, and cultural annihilation. Over and over again, they seize what they can of a presumed infinite resource, leaving the modern-day characters face to face with possible ecological collapse.

This is an author I am very interested in reading for the first time due to one of her previous novels Brokeback Mountain. After reading the plot I believe this will be the heaviest of the selected novels thus far, and that also unintentionally speaks for the length of the books.

As with The Lesser Bohemians it took me a little longer to be immersed in this novel. I believe this is a result of the samples I have read and their various time settings. Thus far Tremain’s novel is a much easier read, and as previously mentioned, is a much safer choice meaning it took me a few pages to adjust. However I loved the descriptions of the woods and really enjoyed the theme of nature. There is mystery centred around the ‘sauvages’ and also, similarly to The Gustav Sonata the theme of poverty is clear from the outset. I would genuinely love to continue reading Proulx’s novel. I believe it to be the hardest plot to execute well of the three and therefore think that it is the most worthy winner so far. That being said I am obviously basing this judgement on samples of each book therefore my opinions are not fully backed up.

 

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Father and Son, Landyn and Vale Midwinter, are men of the land. Suffolk farmers. Times are hard and they struggle to sustain their property, their livelihood and their heritage in the face of competition from big business.

But an even bigger, more brutal fight is brewing: a fight between each other, about the horrible death of Cecelia, beloved wife and mother, in Zambia ten years earlier. A past they have both refused to confront until now.

Over the course of a particularly mauling Suffolk winter, Landyn and Vale grapple with their memories and their pain, raking over what remains of their fragile family unit, constantly at odds and under threat of falling apart forever. While Vale makes increasingly desperate decisions, Landyn retreats, finding solace in the land, his animals – and a fox who haunts the farm and seems to bring with her both comfort and protection.

Alive to language and nature, Midwinter is a novel about guilt, blame and lost opportunities. Ultimately it is a story about love and the lengths we will go to find our way home.

In contrast with the previous selections, this is the first novel and author I have no previous knowledge of. After reading the blurb I will say that I would not normally read this novel. I don’t believe I will enjoy this one although I would love to be proved wrong. I expect this novel will be depressing and slow-paced and also expect myself to get far too frustrated with the characters and their ‘even bigger, more brutal fight’ which I assume amounts to them not talking to each other.

Ok, I may be getting picky but even the dedication of this novel aggrivated me. I thought, as you might now, that I was overreacting until I read the prologue and found that I was already not enjoying this novel.  Foxes are mentioned in the prologue with the first line being “Think about a fox” this made me really worried about enjoying the novel as not only was this too early to be talking about the foxes in my opinion but I typically have a hard time when books feature animals purely for the purpose of metaphor. This may also be problematic for me when reviewing two of the other longlisted novels. I also believe that the prologue gives the plot away and wish I did not have to continue reading, but for the sake of this post I do.

The drama was already exaggerated and overdone a couple of pages in when Vale explains his frustrations as eloquently as “I felt this fuckin’ mad rage in me” and “It wasn’t slow like my walks usually are it was angry.” It was after this second quote that I stopped reading. My initial response is surprise that this novel was selected, perhaps if I read on I would learn why but for now I’m not willing to accept that risk. I am fully willing to admit that my dislike of this novel may be fully down to personal taste. Nevertheless Midwinter will not be making my personal shortlist.

 

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Hortensia James and Marion Agostino are neighbours. One is black, one white. Both are successful women with impressive careers. Both have recently been widowed. And both are sworn enemies, sharing hedge and hostility which they prune with a zeal that belies the fact that they are both over eighty.

But one day an unforeseen event forces the women together. And gradually the bickering and sniping softens into lively debate, and from there into memories shared. But could these sparks of connection ever transform into friendship? Or is it too late to expect these two to change?

Another novel and novelist I had not heard of prior to the Longlist. My first impressions from the plot is that the author has a lot of work to pull this off. Done well, this novel could be both heartbreaking and hilarious. I will also say that these characters have the potential to be memorable from what we know of them already, I particularly like the fact that both are ‘successful women with impressive careers’ which is mentioned before the fact that they are widows.

However if done badly then this novel will be yet another where the two main characters work solely to reflect each other and in doing so seem entirely two dimensional. I go into the sample with an open minded hoping for the best…

After reading the sample I would definitely continue reading Omotoso’s novel. Race is a key theme as is wealth which gives the novel the depth it needs. I enjoyed the writing style and the fierce protagonist Hortensia, who when the novel opens is a Black woman married to a White man facing prejudice from the local townspeople. The Woman Next Door grabbed my attention and feels as though it could be of a higher importance than it initially seems.

 

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With echoes of The Night Circus, a spellbinding story about two gifted orphans in love with each other since they can remember whose childhood talents allow them to rewrite their future.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel is a love story with the power of legend. An unparalleled tale of charismatic pianos, invisible dance partners, radicalized chorus girls, drug-addicted musicians, brooding clowns, and an underworld whose economy hinges on the price of a kiss. In a landscape like this, it takes great creative gifts to thwart one’s origins. It might also take true love.

Two babies are abandoned in a Montreal orphanage in the winter of 1910. Before long, their talents emerge: Pierrot is a piano prodigy; Rose lights up even the dreariest room with her dancing and comedy. As they travel around the city performing clown routines, the children fall in love with each other and dream up a plan for the most extraordinary and seductive circus show the world has ever seen.

Separated as teenagers, sent off to work as servants during the Great Depression, both descend into the city’s underworld, dabbling in sex, drugs and theft in order to survive. But when Rose and Pierrot finally reunite beneath the snowflakes after years of searching and desperate poverty the possibilities of their childhood dreams are renewed, and they’ll go to extreme lengths to make them come true. Soon, Rose, Pierrot and their troupe of clowns and chorus girls have hit New York, commanding the stage as well as the alleys, and neither the theater nor the underworld will ever look the same.

With her musical language and extravagantly realized world, Heather O’Neill enchants us with a novel so magical there is no escaping its spell.

I have never read The Night Circus although I am aware of its huge popularity. My first impression of this novel from the blurb is that it seems action packed! The Lonely Hearts Hotel already feels layered and the characters are already exciting and perhaps dynamic. I am hoping that this novel can pull all of these elements off while being realistically heartbreaking as the main characters are orphans as well as being fantastical in terms of the circus and New York setting.

Failing to disappoint after its dramatic blurb, the opening chapter is shocking. Pierrot’s birth is the theme of chapter one where it is revealed that his mother, aged 12 was raped by her cousin and sent away to an establishment for pregnant girls and given a horrific new name ‘Ignorance’ or ‘Iggy’ as some sort of supposed lesson. My concern is that similarly to Midwinter this novel has too much drama from the beginning. This may prove boring in the longrun and I expect will be very easily overdone. In the sample I read there was already a hanging. The children at the orphanage are also beaten for silly reasons some of which are listed and then the author writes ‘It was sad for all the children’ sad? they spend their lives doing slave labour and being beaten and they’re just sad?

Also the nuns believe “It was necessary to thwart all love afairs in the orphanage. If there was one thing responsibile for ruining lives, it was love. They were in their pathetic circumstances because of that most unreliable of feelings.” I had an issue with this part of the novel as it was not then explained how misled the nuns are, writing a rape scene in the first couple of pages and then referring it to love is dangerous. That being said, we as readers are not supposed to agree with the nuns, nevertheless I thought that this section was unnecessary. I did not finish reading this sample either and am not interested in finding out what happened to these characters that we were supposed to like purely because worse characters didn’t. I personally would be a little disappointed to see this one make the shortlist.

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From “one of Britain’s most original young writers” (The Observer), a blistering account of a marriage in crisis and a portrait of a woman caught between withdrawal and self-assertion, depression and rage.

Neve, the novel’s acutely intelligent narrator, is beset by financial anxiety and isolation, but can’t quite manage to extricate herself from her volatile partner, Edwyn. Told with emotional remove and bracing clarity, First Love is an account of the relationship between two catastrophically ill-suited people walking a precarious line between relative calm and explosive confrontation.

My first impression of this novel from the blurb was that the success of the novel depends entirely on its main character, Neve. An ‘acutely intelligent’ narrator could be instantly likeable or annoying. Also a tumultuous relationship could be frustrating to read about particularly if the characters are immature. I initially cannot see this novel becoming one of my all time favourites. Also, the blurb seems extremely short in comparison to the others on this list.

As the blurb suggests, after reading the e-book sample I can confirm the narrator of Riley’s novel and Edwyn, her partner are definitely a toxic pairing. I cannot say much about what I have read so far as it is mainly setting the scene of an unhappy relationship and the unhappy history that is Neve’s love life. In all honesty the writing style never blew me away and I definitely prefer other novels on the list from what I’ve read so far. Interestingly, I believe this is the shortest of all the longlisted novels and I would therefore continue reading this one as I am intrigued by this fact alone.

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The Second World War is over, a new decade is beginning but for an East End teenage brother and sister living on the edge of the law, life has been suspended. Sent away to a tuberculosis sanatorium in Kent to learn the way of the patient, they find themselves in the company of army and air force officers, a car salesman, a young university graduate, a mysterious German woman, a member of the aristocracy and an American merchant seaman. They discover that a cure is tantalisingly just out of reach and only by inciting wholesale rebellion can freedom be snatched.

Initially, from the blurb, I was excited to read the sample of Grant’s novel. I am interested in reading about the sanatorium. This is the second novel on the longlist set in 1949 and the second novel set in London, at least at the beginning.

The novel is fast paced and its characters are interesting, Lenny is trying to avoid being drafted when he discovers he has TB. I am unsure about the relationship between the twins as there seems to be a reference to incest. Although I’m not sure about this and would have to read more to pass a judgement. Either way the sample is difficult to read at times for example here…

“Plus, they were Hebrews, and that lot were only out for themselves, particularly the refugees. You had to keep an eye on them, they were swarming these days like bees “

The sample did capture my attention all the way through and I would continue reading this novel as I believe it to be a unique, easy read. Despite being set in the same time period this novel had a completely different feel and writing style to Tremain’s The Gustav Sonata. In comparison I liked Tremain’s characters more but believe this novel to be more original.

Madeleine Thien - Do Not Say We Have Nothing

 

“In a single year, my father left us twice. The first time, to end his marriage, and the second, when he took his own life. I was ten years old.”
Master storyteller Madeleine Thien takes us inside an extended family in China, showing us the lives of two successive generations—those who lived through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and their children, who became the students protesting in Tiananmen Square. At the center of this epic story are two young women, Marie and Ai-Ming. Through their relationship Marie strives to piece together the tale of her fractured family in present-day Vancouver, seeking answers in the fragile layers of their collective story. Her quest will unveil how Kai, her enigmatic father, a talented pianist, and Ai-Ming’s father, the shy and brilliant composer, Sparrow, along with the violin prodigy Zhuli were forced to reimagine their artistic and private selves during China’s political campaigns and how their fates reverberate through the years with lasting consequences.

With maturity and sophistication, humor and beauty, Thien has crafted a novel that is at once intimate and grandly political, rooted in the details of life inside China yet transcendent in its universality.

Wow. The first line of the blurb captivated me. That was unexpected. To a certain extent I did expect to enjoy this novel as not only is it long listed for this prize but was also long listed for the Man Booker Prize. I also tend to enjoy novels set in China. I am really looking forward to reading the sample of Thien’s critically acclaimed novel.

So upon reading further I have discovered that the first line of the blurb is also the first line of the novel. This has to go down as one of my favourite first lines in literature which I may do a blog post about soon, would anyone be interested in seeing that feature? And does anyone else have this post on their blog?

I immediately love the writing style and am moved from the first page which describes her diseased father in a really human way that does not seem robotic like first-page descriptions often are, “My father has a handsome, ageless face; He is a kind but melancholy man.”  It is the details I love “His eyes, dark brown, are guarded and unsure.” These descriptions are so vivid that I found myself immersed in the narrator’s life. The sample of this novel was heartbreaking and in a way not exclusive to its narrator “the truth was that I had loved my father more,” I felt for every member of Li-Ling’s family.

 I enjoyed reading the discussions between Li-Ling and Ai-ming but it was the relationship between Li-Ling and her mother that I was automatically invested in. I have a feeling this novel will make it onto my personal shortlist. In short, I have high hopes for this one.

Sophie

The Art of Being Normal – Mini Review

A Mini Review on where I am currently up to in The Art of Being Normal by Lisa Williamson. According to my Good Reads app I am 73% through the book. I would therefore like to reflect on what I have read so far.

I knew that this was going to be quite different to my usual read, but hey what are challenges for. I may drop spoilers in here so please tread carefully. The book comprises of 2 boys in High School. The first chapter is David Piper, it is only one page, well actually half of a page and it basically states that David is not quite happy with himself, in fact he states that he would like to be a girl as he believes that he was born the wrong gender. It then becomes about how now named and seen as David is coping with this and what society thinks of her and why she can only tell her 2 really close friends the full truth.

This is definitely an insight in to how, I can only imagine, a lot of people feel and is not recognised by society as acceptable and as a result ridicule and bullying ensues. The other character in the novel is Leo Denton who shares the limelight of the novel; he comes from the wrong side of the tracks and is expected to be a bit of a psycho as he came from a bad school into David’s nice (posh) school. His transfer is one that is on the lips of many students, how can anyone get expelled from that school and he must have been really bad etc.

Leo and David become friends after an incident in which Leo sticks up for David when her bully is abusing her. This lumps them both in detention and as a result they become friends. Leo is a lot more against the relationship than David is, keeping up his reclusive hard-man routine.

So far I am enjoying the book, I don’t think I am enjoying it as much as Sophie and Amy did however I feel like this is simply because it is just so different and isn’t something I would normally pick up.

I did however enjoy the twist and look forward to completing the book. I hope it continues down the same road and there are more twists to come. I also hope that everything works out for the characters as I have become quite invested in their wellbeing.

That’s it for today. I’ll let you know what I thought of it further when I’ve finished.

Danny

Review: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

This novella was written by Muriel Spark, an author who was born and raised in Edinburgh where the novel is set. It was such a pleasure reading about the streets of a city so central to my childhood. It was refreshing to read a (modern) classic novel that does not try to take itself too seriously or be too philosophical.  Everything about The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is ridiculous to me and yet I really enjoyed reading it.

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The elegantly styled classic story of a young, unorthodox teacher and her special – and ultimately dangerous – relationship with six of her students.

First of all I’m going to say it would be almost impossible for me to explain what this novel is about without giving spoilers so the plot may seem a little vague as a result. The novel basically centres around a group of young girls who are ‘taught’ by Jean Brodie albeit unconventionally as their lessons are mainly pretending to do lessons while listening to her stories and opinions.

I think what made this novel enjoyable was how real all of its characters seem, Miss Jean Brodie in particular. Miss Jean Brodie ‘claims’ the girls she teaches saying “Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.” She sculpts them, perhaps due to her love of art, to meet her needs. In this way the novella is very unsettling. This, at first, contrasts with the innocence of ‘The Brodie Set’ the collective name given to the girls that Miss Brodie takes under her broken wing.

 

Due to the various time settings of the novels we watch The Brodie Set grow and mature, first not fully understanding the world of sex and giggling at any sexual connotations, they want to please,”anxious to be of cultured and sexless antecedents.” We as readers, learn of their innocence due to a series of beautifully written and realistic discussions they have amongst themselves….

 

“Miss Brodie says prime is best” Sandy said.

“Yes but she never got married like our mothers and fathers.”

“They don’t have primes,” said Sandy

“They have sexual intercourse,” Jenny said

The little girls paused, because this was a stupendous thought, and one they had  only lately lit upon; the very phrase and its meaning were new. It was quite unbelievable. Sandy said, then, “Mr Lloyd had a baby last week. He must have committed sex with his wife”  

 

Committed! Honestly, I love this book so much. In my opinion it is very well written which may be a result of my love for literature of the 1960s or may mean I love Muriel Spark. I am more than willing to read more of her work and test the theory. I am also overjoyed I found a new Scottish novel I love so early on in the reading year.

Throughout the novel The Brodie Set mature and find their ‘fame.’ Similarly to the way they each wear their school hat, they all have their own reputations as well, despite the fact they are never seen as individuals. There is added drama and betrayal, Spark’s novella is much much more than it seems. Themes of the novella include innocence, power, religion, theology, education, war and cruelty, to name but a few. And yet its genius lies in its execution. Will I watch the Maggie Smith adaptation? probably not…I doubt it has aged as well.

 

Sophie