Category Archives: Books

WBN 60: Watership Down

I’m steadily working my way through the nation’s 100 favourite books according to World Book Night’s poll in 2011. Find out more about this challenge and check my progress here.

I don’t feel like I have that much to say about Watership Down, and actually I’m quite surprised it’s on this list, and by so comfortable a margin, too. It’s definitely a brilliant children’s book, but it seems quite old fashioned in a very dated way. It didn’t seem to me like the kind of book a child could fall in love with, then keep reading again and again as they grew up. Obviously, though, I’m wrong!

If you don’t know, Watership Down is the story of a group of rabbits that flee their warren after young rabbit Fiver has a vision that something bad will happen there. He can only persuade his brother, Hazel and a few other rabbits to go with him on a journey toward a distant, possibly imaginary meadow that Fiver insists will be their future home.

Despite their lapine status, the characters are all classic for children’s literature of that era: the small, clever one, the plucky, adventurous one, the strong but dim one. They certainly have their appeal, but I don’t think Anne of Green Gables, the March girls or the Famous Five will be moving over to make room on my shelf for this.

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WBN 11: American Gods

I’m steadily working my way through the nation’s 100 favourite books according to World Book Night’s poll in 2011. Find out more about this challenge and check my progress here.

It’s a really good job I love Neil Gaiman’s writing – if it wasn’t my cup of tea, this challenge would be a complete nightmare. This is the third of the five on this list, and it’s by far the most ambitious and impressive so far. It’s an absolutely massive book, almost the American equivalent of Neverwhere in the way that it takes an average person and plunges them into an underworld they never knew existed.

Gaiman has written the story of the gods that followed their pilgrims to America, and then languished, forgotten and unworshipped. The Norse gods are the stars of the show, but some of the obscure Russian gods are by turns hilariously or ethereally diverting. The main character, Shadow, is unapologetically severe and aloof, but all the same he proves himself to be a man worthy of our attention. Despite the daunting length of the book, and the epic journey that Shadow takes, I remained engaged and interested in the sprawling narrative.

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WBN 34: The Island

I’m steadily working my way through the nation’s 100 favourite books according to World Book Night’s poll in 2011. Find out more about this challenge and check my progress here.

I found The Island to be an unexpectedly sweet novel. Although it’s essentially a beach read, the story of a young woman bent on discovering more about her secretive mother’s past, and the parallel story of said mother’s great grandmother’s tragic life, I found it quite absorbing and deeper than I expected. The titular island is not the blissful desert island you might expect, but instead the site of a colony, where lepers are sent to die. This brings with it a whole new set of expectations – a miserable pit of a place with depressed, dying inhabitants – but Hislop gently introduces us to a vibrant, democratic community packed with residents trying to better their lives and fighting for respect from the mainland community.

I lacked much empathy with the main present day character, Alexis – she struck me as a little self-centred – but once her journey took her to the site of the island and the story of her family, I became much more engaged. As with most of these Mediterranean love stories, there is a myriad of outlandish characters with similar, unfamiliar names, and the story spans several decades, which at times had me scanning back through the pages to remind myself who was who. However, I loved the way the narrative was hung around the women of the community, and the way each of them staked a firm claim on my attention.

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Things I didn’t say to Margaret Atwood

I’m in a queue. It’s a long queue, but a relaxed one. I’ve bumped into some old school friends, and we’re catching up. A kindly lady is handing out cake from Betty’s. I can’t really concentrate on any of this, though, because Margaret Atwood is at the front of said queue.

I never thought I would get a chance to meet this amazing woman, given that she lives 3400 miles away and seems a bit too busy to pop round for a cup of tea. But miraculously, she squeezes Ilkley Literature Festival into her timetable; miraculously, we get two of the gold dust tickets; miraculously, I don’t have to work.

As I get closer to the front of the queue, I find my hands shaking and my mouth becoming dry. Silly, really, because she’s just a person. Just a dazzlingly intelligent, slyly witty, fearlessly whole person.

In just a few sentences, how could I ever get across the impact that she has had on me?

How could I explain how I felt as a rather sheltered 17 year old catapulted into the vivid, seedy, unfamiliar world of Oryx and Crake?

How to help her see the 8 year old who read a children’s version of the Odyssey again and again, and wondered about careful, clever Penelope? And then the 19 year old discovering The Penelopiad in Borders on a drizzly Saturday, and feeling like it was written just for her?

The first time I read The Handmaid’s Tale, I felt broken. The first time I read Alias Grace, I read it right through the night and into a grey dawn. The first time I read Cat’s Eye, I started to untangle a decade’s worth of feelings about my teenage self. Could Margaret Atwood understand that? Was Margaret Atwood too close to Margaret Atwood’s work and too far from me to understand how intimately, how perfectly, how individually I related to her writing?

As a nervously feminist young woman, Atwood’s writing would alternatively nudge me down my path and call me, fiercely, from my hiding places. It pushed me and pulled me and nurtured me and challenged me.

And now here she is, not looking at me but at my well thumbed books, looking quite harried, actually, with a glint in her eye, and all the words are dying in my throat. We pose for a picture and she looks archly down the lens while I sport an expression my mum will later describe as the same one I used to wear when I realised Santa had been.

Too soon, it’s all over. All I’ve said is a hurried ‘thank you’. She has signed my books with the same message she wrote in everyone else’s books, and she has let me stand next to her despite the evident obsession in my eyes, and she still doesn’t know that she shaped the person I am today.

But, to my immense surprise, that feels okay. It was enough. It was wonderful. I’m happy.

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WBN 85: Wolf Hall

I’m steadily working my way through the nation’s 100 favourite books according to World Book Night’s poll in 2011. Find out more about this challenge and check my progress here.

Alias Grace, a couple of books ago, put me in the mood for more historical fiction, so I picked up Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel’s Booker winning novel chronicling the life and times of Thomas Cromwell as he goes from abused but hardy child languishing in poverty to advisor to King Henry VIII. Cromwell played a crucial role in the annulment of Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon, making Henry’s second marriage to Anne Boleyn possible, but later fell from favour when he arranged the disastrous third marriage to Anne of Cleves. This book covers Cromwell’s rise to success, and though it finishes with him at the peak of his influence, there’s also a sense of foreboding; those with any knowledge of English history will be aware that Cromwell’s success is short lived; just five years later his head will roll.

The scale of Wolf Hall is simply breathtaking. It takes on the politics of Tudor Britain and the domestics of life at that time, but hangs them all on the frame of a man who is so charismatic and magnetic that he carries it all with ease. Cromwell is for once painted quite sympathetically, as a smart and capable man; the underdog who has deservedly come out on top. This isn’t the easiest read in the world, and its heft can definitely be offputting, but I’d try to convince anyone to persevere. The sequel, Bring up the Bodies, is currently on my shelves, glinting at me in its tempting golden cover. I want to save it until I’ve finished this challenge, but at this stage I’m not promising anything!

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WBN 53: The Secret History

I’m steadily working my way through the nation’s 100 favourite books according to World Book Night’s poll in 2011. Find out more about this challenge and check my progress here.

This has been sat on my shelf for months – perhaps years – but for some reason I’ve never quite been in the mood to pick it up. I knew little about it, and have never had anyone recommend it to me, so it came as a surprise that it was so gripping and so readable. Tartt takes a basic thriller type plotline and deftly snips away at it, turning it completely on its head. In the opening pages we read of a murder: we know who is killed, by whom, and where. What we don’t know is why, or what happens next, which is what the novel addresses.

This is one of the most immersive books I’ve read in some time; even when at work or running errands I found the characters and the events running through my mind, trying to work out what was going to happen next. The elitist group of classics students at the centre of this scandal are intriguing characters, and despite the bizarre, dangerous path they travel, their actions remain believable and interesting.

Pick this up if you’d like to try a thriller with a healthy dose of intellect and a hard streak of psychological drama.

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WBN 36: The Poisonwood Bible

poisonwood

I’m steadily working my way through the nation’s 100 favourite books according to World Book Night’s poll in 2011. Find out more about this challenge and check my progress here.

This was a surprise hit for me. It’s a doorstop of a tome, with a few dense, thickly written opening pages that I found distracting. After I became accustomed to the pace, though, I found I couldn’t put it down. It’s about a missionary family who move from Georgia, America to a remote village in the Belgian Congo. The majority of the novel is narrated by the four daughters of the family, Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May, with a few chapters from their mother, Orleanna.

Nathan, the girls’ father, quickly reveals himself to be an unpleasant, emotionally abusive man, rigid in his belief and lacking the human side that made his predecessor in the village such a success. His ignorance of other viewpoints and cultures and his ‘unrighteous dominion’ over his family leads to the gradual breaking apart of the family, and their shunning by the villagers.

It seemed obvious to me that Leah was the centrepiece of the book, the sister that we were meant to identify with the most. Looking back, though, I suspect this might be one of those books where everyone has a different favourite, depending on their characters, in the same way that not everyone’s favourite March sister is Jo! Rachel is flippant, selfish and materialistic; Leah is steady, open minded and thoughtful; Adah is incredibly intelligent and observant; Ruth May is vibrant and adventurous, and lives in the moment. I loved the way we saw the villagers through the girls’ eyes, so at first they appeared outlandish and savage, but in time they developed into individuals with a rich and vibrant culture.

Right now this is my go to book for recommendations. Surprisingly not that many people have read it – I get the impression it was more popular in America than the UK, having featured in Oprah’s book club. If you’re looking for a new, challenging read, then you could definitely do a lot worse than this.

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WBN 12: A Thousand Splendid Suns

I’m steadily working my way through the nation’s 100 favourite books according to World Book Night’s poll in 2011. Find out more about this challenge and check my progress here.

I cleverly managed to get A Thousand Splendid Suns picked as my book club’s choice in July 2012 (I’m so behind with these blogs it is absolutely untrue), and I wrote a summary of our discussion for the book club’s website. Instead of writing about it again here, I’ll link you to my book club post which more or less sums up my opinions!

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WBN 98: Alias Grace

I’m steadily working my way through the nation’s 100 favourite books according to World Book Night’s poll in 2011. Find out more about this challenge and check my progress here.

One of my favourite Atwood novels, Alias Grace is based on the true story of one of Canada’s most infamous alleged murderers. I always used to think I didn’t like historical fiction, for some reason. I couldn’t imagine what value there would be in writing or reading a rehash of events, bound by the facts and restricted by history. This is one of the books that changed my mind. Yes, of course a writer of historical fiction has to stick to the facts, but how many facts are actually established? Atwood dances in and out of the testimony and the records, casting doubt on some, sticking to others and ripping a few to shreds. Of course, what Atwood has come up with may not be anything like what happened, but isn’t it tempting to believe it? Doesn’t it feel good to be presented with a convincing account of events, and be able to say: yes, yes that’s what happened?

As always with Atwood, there’s a fascinating character at the centre of everything in the form of Grace Marks. Imprisoned for the murder of her master and his mistress, Grace is being interviewed by a doctor to try to retrieve the memories, apparently lost, of the crucial day when the murder occurred. Grace is undeniably a relatable, sympathetic character, and her story made me just want to give her a hug, really. But, I regularly had to remind myself that I only had her word for anything that went on. After a couple of re-reads of Alias Grace, I can’t honestly say to what extent anything might have been true, but I want to believe everything.

In other news…

Do you compulsively check your phone? I do! Help yourself resist by heading to tap.unicefusa.org before you put down your mobile. For every ten minutes that you don’t touch your phone, UNICEF’s sponsors help them provide clean water for a child for one day. I popped it on whilst writing this blog post and now I’ve helped donate 3 days of clean water, as well as staying focussed on the job at hand!

I love the sound of the meat and spirit events that Rare Leeds are running. Here are Amy Elizabeth and The Awkward Magazine‘s writeups of the Beef and Bourbon night (check out the beef dessert!), and I’ll be hoping for a repeat of the gin and chicken night.

I’m working on a post about my experiences now I’m approaching the halfway point of the #100happydays challenge. See my happy pictures on instagram.

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WBN 9: Rebecca

I’m steadily working my way through the nation’s 100 favourite books according to World Book Night’s poll in 2011. Find out more about this challenge and check my progress here.

Rebecca is the story of a young servant girl named Rebecca, who is taken on at a large country home and travels there in a carriage. Once there she encounters a violent housekeeper and starts to uncover a secret… Oh no, wait, that’s just what I very confidently thought it was about before I read it. Where I get these ideas from I have no idea but somehow these preconceptions lodge themselves in my mind and stay there as vague impressions.

In actual fact, Rebecca is about a nameless young woman who is working as a lady’s companion until she meets and is wooed by Max de Winter, a wealthy bachelor. After a whirlwind romance, they are married and after their honeymoon, go to live in Max’s country home, Manderley. As soon as the new Mrs de Winter arrives, she feels out of her depth: the housekeeper Mrs Danvers is intimidating and unfriendly, and somehow Rebecca, Max’s first wife, is still making her presence felt.

I really loved the way du Maurier developed her characters. Although this storyline could have come off as melodramatic and unrealistic, it was believable and in fact felt almost inevitable. Whilst some women would have stalked into Manderley, sacked the housekeeper with the attitude and chased any lingering presences away, the Mrs de Winter-to-be that we meet over the first few chapters could never have done so, couldn’t have done anything other than what du Maurier writes. Whilst some women would have looked the other way faced with a slightly controlling man clearly not over his dead wife, the shy and socially gauche lady’s companion who has never been in love is completely thrown by his attentions.

This comes highly recommended from me – it’s definitely a book I’ll be re-reading. I’ve also picked up a sequel, Rebecca’s Tale, by another author that is high up on my to read list, now!

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