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

The Reasons I read…

I was not the most academically minded at primary and secondary school, in fact I didn’t get very good grades in English for a long time. It was my weak link, and I went to extra curriculum classes in primary to catch up. I felt bad about this and as a result shied away from reading or anything really school related. I managed to get good enough results to go to college where I met Sophie who quite honestly turned my ambitions around. I then started working harder and aspired to more than before. As a result I managed to get into university and then get my degree. I have lot to thank Sophie for. I also always wanted to read thanks to my parents who have always read a little here and there.

My Dad is very much into Jack Higgins and James Patterson or any Spy Thrillers really whilst my Mum has always been more likely to read Jodi Picoult or romance although she does like the odd mystery novel. Sam, my crazy sister, likes to read almost everything but her favourite is John Green (eugh) haha. Overall my family read more than average I would say and as a result I am a keen reader.

Finally, you all know how much Sophie reads (a crazy amount) her enthusiasm has definitely worn off on me. My favourite genre would probably be Thrillers, however I do enjoy the odd Classic too such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway.

Why do I read?

  1. Getting taken to a different world and seeing things from a different person’s perspective.
  2. Expanding my knowledge
  3. Help relating to others
  4. To get better at writing
  5. To share thoughts and have discussions with people, specifically those close to me
  6. Because Books, right?

That’s just a little insight into me.

 

Danny

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

 

March Wrap Up

In total last month I read seven novels and six graphic novels. I only read one classic which will hopefully never happen again for the remainder of 2017. My book of the month was Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie which is in fact the one classic of March. You can find a review of my book of the month here. My favourite graphic novel was Sex Criminals Volume One: One Weird Trick by Fraction and Zdarsky as it was the most original of the six. The Honourable mention of March goes to Cress by Marissa Meyer which I can’t say much about as it is the third book in a series.

 

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Since its publication in 2003, nearly 7 million readers have discovered “The Kite Runner.” Through Khaled Hosseini’s brilliant writing, a previously unknown part of the world was brought to vivid life for readers. Now, in this beautifully illustrated graphic novel adaptation, Hosseini brings his compelling story to a new generation of readers 

The Kite Runner Graphic Novel by Hosseini, Andolfo, Valsecchi and Celoni. I have previously read the original novel which is one of my all time favourites so this was a reread for me. It was adapted well although it took a while to get into as I felt that in the beginning too much of the story was missed and it felt patchy. This is of course not a problem readers who haven’t previously read the novel would have. I really enjoyed the artist’s interpretation of the characters and liked the colour palette.

 

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“Y” is none other than unemployed escape artist Yorick Brown (his father was a Shakespeare buff), and he’s seemingly the only male human left alive after a mysterious plague kills all Y-chromosome carriers on earth. But why are he and his faithful companion, the often testy male monkey Ampersand, still alive? He sets out to find the answer (and his girlfriend), while running from angry female Republicans (now running the government), Amazon wannabes that include his own sister (seemingly brainwashed), and other threats.

Y: The Last Man by Vaughan, Guerra and Marzán Jr. This was my first Vaughan graphic novel and while I know it won’t be my last I don’t think this one is outstanding. Nevertheless it was entertaining and I enjoyed the art therefore I will be continuing with the series. That being said, having only read this volume I cannot see myself buying the series, I will try and request Volume Two from my local library.

 

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‘Elizabeth is missing.’ Maud keeps finding notes in her pockets with this message scrawled on it, but she can’t remember writing it. That said, she can’t remember much these days: the time of day, whether she’s eaten lunch, if her daughter’s come to visit, how much toast she’s eaten. Still, the notes about Elizabeth nag at her. When was the last time she spoke with her best friend? It feels like ages ago…

Frustratingly, no one seems willing to help Maud find her: not the police nor Elizabeth’s son – not even Maud’s own daughter or granddaughter. It’s like they’re hiding something.

Maud resolves to take matters into her own hands, and begins digging for the truth. There are many clues, but unhelpfully, they all seem to point to another unsolved disappearance: that of Maud’s sister Sukey just after the war.

Could the mystery of Sukey’s disappearance lead Maud to the truth about Elizabeth? As Maud’s mind retreats into the past at a frightening pace, alienating her from her family and carers, vivid memories of what happened over fifty years ago come flooding back to give her quest new momentum.

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey. This is a book that had lots of hype. I enjoyed the novel although perhaps enjoyed its sub-plot the most. The characters are memorable and while it will not be making my 2017 favourites I would recommend this book to others. Especially those who enjoy unreliable narrators. It was a fast and entertaining read.

 

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Carmel Wakeford becomes separated from her mother at a local children’s festival, and is found by a man who claims to be her estranged grandfather. He tells her that her mother has had an accident and that she is to live with him for now. As days become weeks with her new family, 8-year-old Carmel realises that this man believes she has a special gift…

While her mother desperately tries to find her, Carmel embarks on an extraordinary journey, one that will make her question who she is – and who she might become.

The Girl in the Red Coatby Kate Hamer. I didn’t enjoy this one as much as Healey’s crime novel. I found the characters less memorable and while Hamer’s novel was entertaining overall, I found myself getting bored about halfway through.

 

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The classic bestselling book the subject of a play, a movie, and a song that tells the darkly fascinating story of a young, unorthodox teacher and her special, and ultimately dangerous, relationship with six of her students.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark. Read more here!

 

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Charlie is a freshman.

And while he’s not the biggest geek in the school, he is by no means popular. Shy, introspective, intelligent beyond his years yet socially awkward, he is a wallflower, caught between trying to live his life and trying to run from it.

Charlie is attempting to navigate his way through uncharted territory: the world of first dates and mix tapes, family dramas and new friends; the world of sex, drugs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show, when all one requires is that perfect song on that perfect drive to feel infinite. But he can’t stay on the sideline forever. Standing on the fringes of life offers a unique perspective. But there comes a time to see what it looks like from the dance floor.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. Another hyped novel, this book read like a classic and has some memorable characters, although in my opinion Chbosky’s novel has stronger male characters than female. Nevertheless The Perks of Being a Wallflower made my list of Top 10 YA novels.  You can read more about my thoughts of the novel by clicking the title link. I also watched the movie adaptation this month which I also really enjoyed, especially the dance floor scene.

 

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From the author of The Sky Is Every­where, a radiant novel that will leave you laughing and crying – all at once. For fans of John Green, Gayle Forman and Lauren Oliver. Jude and her twin Noah were incredibly close – until a tragedy drove them apart, and now they are barely speaking. Then Jude meets a cocky, broken, beautiful boy as well as a captivating new mentor, both of whom may just need her as much as she needs them. What the twins don’t realize is that each of them has only half the story and if they can just find their way back to one another, they have a chance to remake their world.

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson. If only I’d read that Goodreads blurb before reading, “For fans of John Green” I agree with this comparison. This was a hyped novel that I honestly found underwhelming, I found it full of clichés, I did not like the relationship between the two main characters or even the characters themselves. While I did enjoy Noah’s narrative more I still did not particularly enjoy Nelson’s YA novel. It is also really long so overall an unfortunately disappointing read.

 

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Though they have the vote and the Pill and haven’t been burned as witches since 1727, life isn’t exactly a stroll down the catwalk for modern women. They are beset by uncertainties and questions: Why are they supposed to get Brazilians? Why do bras hurt? Why the incessant talk about babies? And do men secretly hate them? Caitlin Moran interweaves provocative observations on women’s lives with laugh-out-loud funny scenes from her own, from adolescence to her development as a writer, wife, and mother.

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran, another book I did not enjoy this month which I’m deeply disappointed by as it is one of my reading goals to read more non-fiction, memoirs included. However I will not be reading any of Moran’s other works, the humour was not for me.

 

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The Definitive Deadpool by  Fabian NiciezaJoe MadureiraJoe KellyTony MooreDaniel WayRob LiefeldPaco MedinaAlé Garza , Brian PosehnGerry Duggan

This was as I expected it to be, some of it was entertaining and witty and other parts I found boring. The problem probably stemmed from the fact that while I enjoy certain superheroes I am more a fan of X-Men and Batman than other Marvel characters or in this case individual Marvel characters. I am not an Avengers fan for instance as I think they always try too hard to be funny. Therefore I guess I’m trying to say take my words with a pinch of salt.

 

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Callum is a nought – an inferior white citizen in a society controlled by the black Crosses.
Sephy is a Cross – and the daughter of one of the most powerful, ruthless men in the country.
In their hostile, violent world, noughts and Crosses simply don’t mix. But when Sephy and Callum’s childhood friendship grows into love, they’re determined to find a way to be together.
And then the bomb explodes . . .

The long-awaited graphic novel adaptation of one of the most influential, critically acclaimed and original novels of all time, from multi-award-winning Malorie Blackman

Noughts and Crosses Graphic Novel by Blackman and John Aggs, another reread for me. I enjoyed the graphic novel and found that the story flowed better in this adaptation than it did in The Kite Runner: A Graphic Novel however I liked the art less. I would recommend the novel over the graphic novel. 

 

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Suzie’s just a regular gal with an irregular gift: when she has sex, she stops time. One day she meets Jon and it turns out he has the same ability. And sooner or later they get around to using their gifts to do what we’d ALL do: rob a couple banks. A bawdy and brazen sex comedy for comics begins here!

Sex Criminals Volume One: One Weird Trick by Fraction and Zdarsky, a highly original and funny graphic novel. I can’t go into it without spoilers but I will vaguely say that I had an issue with the characters introduced at the end of the novel and what they were there for. I will also try to request Volume Two from my local library.

 

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Cress by Marissa Meyer. I can’t insert a blurb for this one as it is the third in a series. However, I will be doing a spoiler review of The Lunar Chronicles once I have read the final novel Winter.

 

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Combined for the first time here are Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale and Maus II – the complete story of Vladek Spiegelman and his wife, living and surviving in Hitler’s Europe. By addressing the horror of the Holocaust through cartoons, the author captures the everyday reality of fear and is able to explore the guilt, relief and extraordinary sensation of survival – and how the children of survivors are in their own way affected by the trials of their parents. A contemporary classic of immeasurable significance.

The Complete Maus by Art Spiegelman, a family history of the holocaust. This graphic novel is deeply effecting and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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