Tag Archives: tearjerkers

WBN 54: Small Island

Guess what – another quite popular book that I didn’t realise was about war!

SmallIsland alternates between four voices: Gilbert, Hortense, Queenie and Bernard. Gilbert signed up from Jamaica to fight alongside Britain in WWII, promised a new life after victory that never quite materialises. When his wife, Hortense, joins him in London, she finds a drab, hostile city that doesn’t welcome her as she had expected. Bernard, who never came home from the war when expected, is struggling to find a place for himself in post-war Britain – and in his own home, while his abandoned wife Queenie has been forced to take in Jamaican lodgers to scrape by, despite the chagrin she faces from the rest of the street.

I found this a rather refreshing change of pace after Birdsong and A Hundred Years of Solitude because despite some rather harrowing scenes where you cringe at a character’s ignorance or insensitivity, this is practically a comedy compared to those. There are several laugh out loud moments, and barely a page went by when I didn’t smile to myself because of a dry comment made by Gilbert, or a sharp judgement of some ill-bred Londoner from the haughty Hortense. The writing is sharp and observant: the characters come to life slowly but surely and in among the laughs are some truly heartbreaking moments as each of the characters is brought face to face with a reality that’s harshly different from the future they had imagined.


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WBN 17: Birdsong

It’s starting to strike me that by far the most common subject matters for books in this list are love and war. Birdsong begins as a love story, when Stephen Wraysford begins a passionate affair with Isabelle, the wife of his host and business associate, Azaire. When it all goes wrong, Stephen finds himself fighting in WWI, with only his memories of those times to cling on to.

I found Stephen a little pathetic, in the beginning; he seemed indecisive and weak, although perhaps that was just his youth. Once we reached the war years, I felt he could have made more of an impression on me, but by then I was distracted by the newly introduced characters of Jack Firebrace, a charismatic miner, and Elizabeth, who was Stephen’s granddaughter. Both provided a nice balance to Stephen’s detached, cynical air.

As always, the war scenes were completely harrowing. I always feel ashamed that I feel the strongest about things when I have a face to attach to the situation. I know the facts about WWI – the poor trench conditions, the face to face combat, the poor logistics – but it takes a story to bring it to life for me, to bring tears to my eyes and to really understand what happened. Perhaps this is why literature is so valuable to me, because of the way it flings me into other countries, other experiences, other lives, and coaxes me through them, no matter how difficult it may be.

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WBN 29: Room

Room is a beautiful Booker-nominated book narrated by a boy called Jack, who is five, and who was born in captivity. His mother was kidnapped before he was born, and kept in a steel lined garden shed where she is repeatedly raped by her captor. In order to protect him, Jack’s mother raises him to believe that only what is inside their windowless shed – which he calls Room – is real, and everything he sees on their tiny TV is just pretend.

I could just write, READ IT, and be done here, but I suppose that would be a rather shameful effort at a blog. So I’ll tell you why you should read it:

1. It will make you cry, like a little child, and that’s so therapeutic

2. It will make you think about how humans behave, and what we do because we want to, and what we do because we’re socialised that way

3. You will love the characters, like they are members of your own family, and it will almost hurt to close the book when it’s finished…

4. …Except, you’ll be feeling completely uplifted by the story, and you won’t stop thinking about it for days and says.

5. When you’re done, you can call me, and we can talk about it, because you’ll need to get your feelings out. But only if you know me already, else, that’s weird.

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WBN 31: We Need To Talk About Kevin

This might seem like an odd thing to say, but after reading Frankenstein I really felt I had to go back to an old favourite to kick myself back into action. And this is the one I picked. Yes, I know it’s about a high school massacre, yes, I know, it’s so depressing, yes, I know, it’s a bit pretentious, even. But I love it. I think I just find Eva, the main character, really identifiable. She over analyses things to a painful point, like me. She loves to travel, like me, and she’s a huge over achiever, just like I wish I was! It’s uncanny.

I think this book speaks about something really important. Despite the many, many people who are making a conscious decision not to have children now, it’s still considered to be the norm that a couple will fall in love, get married, and after a year, maybe two, pop out a couple of kids. And it will be wonderful, perfect, completely idyllic, really. You’ll probably just about die of happiness. I really like the way this book says, hang on, that’s not actually right for everyone.

The main thrust of the story is the nature vs nurture debate. Does Kevin kill his fellow students because he was born evil, or was he not raised right? But the interesting journey is not Kevin’s, from conception to birth through to the massacre, but Eva’s. Her narrative may not be reliable and she may be writing with good old 20/20 hindsight, but she tells a remarkable tale, and describes some chilling scenes that stay with you for good.

People are always telling me they wouldn’t recommend it to someone who is about to have/has just had a baby. Personally, I say that’s tosh, it’s fiction, but I suppose those baby hormones I hear so much about might be messing you up a bit. So, proceed with caution, babymakers.

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WBN 21: The Notebook

I know that I’m going to mortally offend whole swathes of the population here, mainly teenage girls, but, I’m sure, a few adults too, BUT… I thought this book was one of the worst written I have ever come across. I borrowed it from the library, and I actually took pictures of a couple of pages so I could still laugh at them after I returned it.

And I had to cringe when the almost 30 year old, engaged, female main character claims to have never slept with anyone, even her fiancée, because she didn’t want to sleep with anyone but her childhood sweetheart who she was only with for one summer and never saw again, then goes on to have a completely incredible transcendental experience with said childhood sweetheart, who of course, is a guy. So he’s slept with loads of girls. I’m not sure that any of this is quite what I would choose to teach the target market of 14 year old girls, exactly.

Having said that, I’m really *not* a book snob. Honestly. I’ve enjoyed a lot of Jodi Picoult and Sophie Kinsella, and I think that if this gets teenage girls interested in reading, then brilliant. Keep churnin’ em out, Mr Sparks. And even if you’re an adult and you enjoy this, then own it! Read whatever you want! I watch far too many cheesy American sitcoms to judge anyone for enjoying literature that isn’t ‘worthy’ or ‘highbrow’ or ‘literary’ enough. Those words don’t even mean very much.

And, the story. It wasn’t terribly believable, and it was a bit contrived, and there wasn’t really a lot in the way of twists and turns, but it is terribly romantic, and it does turn out very nicely in the end. I can’t say I’ll be flocking to pick moreSparksnovels up, and I definitely wouldn’t be letting this anywhere near my top 100, but more power to the massive internet campaign ofSparksfans that did get it in there. At TWENTY-ONE. ABOVE THE HANDMAID’S TALE. AND LITTLE WOMEN. AND TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES.

But, you know, whatever. Like I said. Totally don’t mind. Not a literary snob. No sirree.

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WBN 91: The Remains of the Day

Well, I’ve only just realised that I failed to blog Remains of the Day after reading it! It came just before The Color Purple, if anyone’s interested.

(Funny aside: until I looked at the back cover after my husband bought it last year, I actually thought this book was about zombies. Just a bit of a literary blind spot I was harbouring for awhile there!)

Anyway, I can’t believe I forgot about it because I love this book! It’s so precise, and well ordered, and there’s not a single word that’s unnecessary in the whole thing. The narrator is a butler called Stevens, and the prose reflects his personality perfectly: a little staid, very formal, lacking emotion. Despite his standoffish demeanour, I really warm to him throughout the book as I learn more of his back story and understand how desperately he is fighting change and clinging on to the past.

His past master, Lord Darlington has gone, and instead of staying in the family, Darlington Hall has been sold to an American who is obsessed with British culture. Although Stevens does his best to please his new master (primarily by trying to learn how to ‘banter’), he finds it difficult. When it is suggested that he take a short holiday to drive around the country, he seizes the opportunity to visit the ex-housekeeper from Darlington Hall, with a view to persuading her to return to her post. Or, at least, that’s the motive he’s giving us.

There are some scenes in this book that are heartbreakingly touching, and I definitely felt a little pricking behind my eyelids more than once. The sense of place is outstanding, and despite never having set foot in a genuinely functional country house, I felt completely transported there, and I could see every scene in my minds’ eye.

I haven’t seen the film, but I know it stars Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins. I easily pictured Emma Thompson as the housekeeper, I’m sure she’s perfect in the role, but somehow I pictured Michael Caine as Stevens; I think he would have portrayed his aloof nature and formal manner perfectly. And that’s nothing to do with Batman. I hate Batman!

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WBN 65: The Color Purple

The Color Purple is what you might call a difficult book to read. It doesn’t hold back with its descriptions or language or story or anything. It is dark, harsh and unforgiving, but there are regular flashes of warm, gentle beauty. Our heroine is anything but: Celie is a shy, beaten down teenager, married off to a man in love with someone else, who over the years will continue to repress and abuse her until she’s little more than a shell. The narrative explores racism, female friendship, religion, lesbianism and unrequited love; it’s anything but a light read.

It’s also one of those books that throws its worst at you with the first few pages, as if it’s testing the reader to see if they can handle it. If you can get past the first ten pages or so, you’ll manage the book. It’s hard going, but really rewarding. There will be those who don’t enjoy it, who don’t want to expose themselves to the negativity and the cruelty and the abuse and the coarse language, and I can definitely see why, but I was glad that I pushed through. The journey that Celie goes on is incredibly inspiring and beautiful, and when you start to see her personality and her strength come through, it brings a whole new dimension to what you’re reading. It stops being a fictional misery memoir and becomes a story about a beautiful woman with a spark inside her that just won’t go out.

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WBN 50: The Road

On Sunday evening, when most people were to be found slouched on the couch or getting one last pint in the pub before having to go back to work, where was I? I was curled up in a corner reading The Road, with tears literally rolling down my cheeks. This is another book I have read before, so I was sort of prepared for the emotional onslaught, and I’d decided to dedicate a few hours over a couple of days to reading it instead of snatching pages here and there and losing some of the effect.

The language is sparse and bleak; the dialogue is minimal but incredibly touching. The premise – a man and his only son, in a post-apocalyptic future where every day brings new horrors, travel South, hoping to find some form of hope – is endlessly depressing, but in a really amazing way.

When I read The Wasp Factory, it was depressing, sure. But I didn’t feel like it was beneficial to me in any way. The Road, on the other hand, left me feeling hopeful, and optimistic, and ready to leap up and stop climate change in its tracks!

Fancy joining me in that?

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WBN 63: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time

I think it’s safe to say that after The Wasp Factory, I wanted something a bit more chilled out, maybe something that wouldn’t make me fear humanity and doubt the existence of happiness in the world. So, I turned to my copy of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, the story of a 15 year old boy, Christopher, who has an unspecified behavioural condition: there are references to his inability to understand jokes or recognise emotions in others, but no diagnosis, as such, is given. When his neighbour’s dog is killed, Christopher launches an investigation to find the murderer, and his mentor Siobhan helps him write a murder mystery story about his experiences. The investigation forces Christopher well out of his comfort zone, as he uncovers secrets that will change his life and help him find courage he didn’t know he had.

I know there are mixed feelings about the authenticity of Christopher’s voice, and Haddon himself states that he is no expert on the kind of behavioural problems Christopher appears to have, but I have to admit that I love this book. I get completely absorbed in Christopher’s story every time, and I love the way the story lets us see the weird, mixed up adult world from his point of view. To be honest I think I personally can quite easily overlook any supposed inaccuracy because I know very little about the autistic spectrum, which means that not only am I extremely unlikely to notice any anomalies, but also it makes it easier for me to see Christopher as an individual with his own peculiarities, rather than someone who has condition a, and should be displaying traits x, y and z.

The character of Siobhan really stood out to me. During the book, Christopher interacts with a lot of adults and those who don’t know him tend to act in a very impatient or confrontational way. Even Christopher’s parents struggle with his condition, and regularly lose their temper with him. Siobhan, however, seems to understand Christopher’s mind in a way others don’t. She diffuses difficult situations rapidly, explains things in a way that he can easily understand, and helps him to learn in a way that is comfortable for him. To me she represents the thousands of people who work with the elderly and disabled every day, displaying endless patience and kindness, for low wages and little recognition. It does make you wonder why parents don’t get the training that Siobhan has had!

I think if you want to read this book, you need to forget anything about autism or learning difficulties or behavioural problems and just enjoy it as a book about a teenage boy with a unique world view and a beautiful story to tell. The emotion will just pull you through, and if you don’t need tissues at any point, you’re completely soulless.

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WBN 25: Little Women

For a book that’s essentially about four painfully pious girls trying to be good, Little Women is having a hell of a run. It’s a book I must have read upward of twenty times, but I enjoy it every time. When you look at it objectively, it should be a terrible, terrible book, but the characterisation is just incredible. The four main characters – the March girls – are so intricately drawn that I can’t help myself, I get pulled in every time and I laugh and cry along with them.

The thing is, it seems obvious to me that Jo is by far the best character, and the one you’re meant to identify with (and allegedly the one that Alcott based on herself), but if you ask someone else they’re just as likely to name Amy, or Meg, or Beth as their favourites.

This is one of several children/young adult novels in the top 100, which also includes Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, I Capture the Castle and The Secret Garden. There’s just something about the best of the books I read when I was eleven and twelve that carries me along, and whilst I’m engrossed in the story in a very similar way to when I was younger, I enjoy it in such a different way. I was brought up in a religious environment, and exposed to quite conservative values, and back then reading about girls who were essentially confined to marriage and babies didn’t really seem odd. Now, as a twenty five year old feminist, I can absolutely pine for Jo as she struggles to be more than society wants her to be, and cheer for her when she rejects rich, handsome Laurie’s proposal because she doesn’t love him.

If you like Little Women, and you ever get ten minutes free, read Louisa May Alcott’s Wikipedia entry, and challenge yourself not to immediately buy all her biographies on Amazon. She sounds like a pretty awesome woman…

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