Saturday, April 17, 2021

Gone With the Wind

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Living in a very fast-paced society that barrels hazardously forward at an alarming speed, sometimes it’s easy to forget that true epics and masterworks take time, and lots of it. I see this most in literature with modern fantasy writers, many of which believe that they can created another Lord of the Rings without putting in the literal years. 

True, ambitious, and timeless masterworks are not the creative result of a muse’s spark of inspiration and then 6 months to a year of feverish clacking away at a keyboard. They take time and they are all the more transcendental because of the love, effort, and time that has been put into them. While Lord of the Rings is the classic go-to example, another stands just as tall and magnificent: Gone With the Wind.

The story follows southern belle Scarlet O’Hara and a taunting love triangle that progressively gets complicated due to the Civil War and later the Reconstruction of the South. 

One thousand pages of romance, drama, and history, Margaret Mitchell’s only published work is a breathtaking exploration into a bygone era whilst also being an epic love story, a captivating retelling of a dramatic and significant time in American history, and a startling revelation at the swift and merciless effects of time and circumstance. 

A love-letter to her hometown of Atlanta, a scene of defiance and determination in a violently changing world, the book is the fruit of a decade of research, character building, and careful sentence crafting. It is also (in my opinion) one of the best examples of character building in existence. The fiery and determined heroine in Scarlet is one that the world did not ask for, but really needed. Scarlet’s story, in which she is both villain and victim, is truly incredible. Even though one spends the majority of the book looking forward to her getting her comeuppance. As a heroine, Scarlet is not someone to aspire to be; she’s self-confident to the point of narcissistic, stubborn to the point of complete idiocy, and quite possibly the biggest perpetrator of girl-on-girl crime ever. She’s the original Mean Girl. Having said that, her story is one that is beautiful and inspiring despite her vanity and self-interest, and the end of her arc is so satisfying because it’s a mixture of comeuppance as well as enlightenment and redemption. 

Image credit: Britannica

While it is first and foremost a love story, Gone With the Wind is also an incredible exploration into the dynamic nature of society and culture. It’s just as much a story about evolution as love, and it’s truly fascinating to see how changing governments, changing cultural attitudes, changing social ethics and class systems affect a society. The consistent wind motif that Mitchell uses to depict how easily entire world attitudes and codes of behaviour can disappear is both compelling and frightening. 

I would have to say that Gone With the Wind is officially one of my favourite books ever! From beginning to end, I was completely enveloped in the world and enraptured by the characters, and at no point in the thousand plus pages did I want to put it down! A true epic, a true classic!

Author: Margaret Mitchell, 1936

Published: Macmillan & Co (London)

Longevity: Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1937 and made into a celebrated film starring Clark Gable & Vivien Leigh 

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

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It sometimes proves for an interesting reading experience when you finally settle into a book that is constantly referenced in popular culture, and then struggle through the pages because all that’s going through your head is scenes from films and TV shows in which the work is referenced. This is an experience I just closed the cover on with Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.

This classic ‘science-fiction’ novel tells the unusual yet fascinating adventure of Professor Aronnax, his faithful servant Conseil, and harpooner Ned Land who, whilst on an expedition to hunt a mysterious sea monster, find themselves in the belly of the beast. The ‘beast’ being an incredible submarine that is making a remarkable underwater journey from one end of the globe to the other. After being separated from their expedition, the three find themselves aboard the Nautilus and captives of its eccentric and mysterious captain, Nemo. 

Jules Verne is often noted as the ‘father of science-fiction’, an apt title as his works of fiction are often celebrating science. Whilst it’s certainly not what we think of as ‘sci-fi’ today, one can certainly see the building blocks upon which the genre was founded and has grown. I guess a more modern example would be Michael Chrichton. 

While Twenty Thousand Leagues does feel a bit dated and proved a little bit of a struggle for me -a) because there's a lot of scientific jargon and b) I had Doc Brown raving about it in Back to the Future III constantly going through my head- I can still see and appreciate why it’s considered such a classic. A scientist being help captive by another scientist and forced into a truly amazing cross-globe marine adventure is a weird story in itself, especially as Captain Nemo is never really established as a villain. Alongside the biological and geographical exposition that makes up a large chunk of the novel, there is an underlying experiment in character arcs going on, with Verne being the genius mind poking and prodding narrative tools to see what will happen.

Image credit: Wikipedia

The way Verne ensures to keep readers’ eyes flying across the pages is with a nonchalant adventure and a seeming lack of drama, which makes the reading experience itself feel a little like a school excursion to the aquarium, whilst at the same time sparking interest when the lectures about ancient legends like Atlantis and giant sea monsters pop up. It’s the presence of cold facts amidst a unique fictional setting that makes Twenty Thousand Leagues so fascinating. 

Author: Jules Verne, 1870

Published: Originally the story was serialised from March 1869 to June 1870 in the periodical Magasin d’education et de recreation. First published in English in 1872.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Atonement

 

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There is nothing I love more than beginning a book completely on a whim and then being completely enveloped in it. To have that book then completely cast your rational thoughts about the narrative and the prose into disarray is the glistening cherry that sits atop an immaculate sundae. Such is Ian McEwan’s novel, Atonement, which I literally just closed the cover on.

Told in three parts, Atonement tells the story 13-year-old Briony Tallis who witnesses a moment of sexual tension between her older sister Cecelia and the housekeeper’s son, Robbie. Briony’s feverish imagination and childish naivety causes her to misinterpret Robbie’s behaviour as villainous and when a horrifying attack befalls her cousin Lola, she is quick to blame Robbie, causing his arrest and incarceration. Years later, as Robbie desperately tries to survive the Dunkirk evacuations and Cecelia severs all ties with her family for falsely accusing her love, Briony comes to realise the severity of her mistake and tries to atone for her childhood crime. 

I absolutely adored this book. There is something so strangely and unidentifiably compelling about McEwan’s lengthy, wordy prose. The story itself ticks all the boxes for a thrilling afternoon read: drama, a love that overcomes adversity, guilt, betrayal, and suspense, but more than that it’s a self-indulgent story of the pleasures (and pains) of writing as well as the dangers of misinterpretation and the strain of changing gears from child to young adult. 

McEwan has a somewhat signature style in his narratives that explores and describes the unfolding events –as well as the elongated moments in between- in a stream of consciousness from the various perspectives of his characters. Atonement has this in spades, with even something of a metafictional critique on the narrative style itself, which is not only compelling, but very amusing (as well as relatable to any writers in the readership). 

Image credit: Penguin Books Australia
Set in the mid-1930s, and then during the War, the story delightfully shape-shifts between genres: at first appearing as a mystery, then an epic romance, then a war story, and finally a memoir. This constant, yet rhythmic shifting of genre is yet another reason why it’s so hard to put the book down, as you’re increasingly trying to decide what type of story you’re reading. 


And then there is the epilogue, which is both satisfying and maddening, as many loose ends are tied up in terms of where various characters end up, but a wider avenue of mystery is opened as to the truth of the preceding events. A tongue-in-cheek epilogue with some sadly ironic conclusions, it’s a perfect ending. 

Author: Ian McEwan, 2001

Published: Jonathan Cape (London).

Achievements: Winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award in 2001. Adapted into a film starring Keira Knightly and Saoirse Ronan in 2007.


Monday, March 29, 2021

A Deadly Education

 

Image credit: Penguin Books Australia

Right now we are living in such crazy times and it can very hard to find pockets of joy. But believe me, they are still out there. Like the unexpected joy that comes from finding a new author name that cements itself amidst your group of favourites. When I read Uprooted, I was impressed and enjoyed the book, but hadn’t considered Naomi Novik a favourite author. And then, randomly one day while I was in a bookshop, I saw a new one from her and was compelled to get it. Having just closed the cover on it, I can now say that I have experienced that surprising and enjoyable realisation that I have a new favourite author. 

A Deadly Education is the first book in Novik’s planned Scholomance series and introduces readers to the character of Galadriel (El) Higgins, an antisocial loner trying to make her way through magic school. While school is hard for everyone, for the young wizards attending the Scholomance, it’s worse as there are no teachers, no holidays, just a semi-sentient school that’s designed to cull its inhabitants. There are mals and monsters around ever corner, and only the strongest, smartest, or luckiest come out alive. But while El has no friends on her side, she does have the advantage of having a power so intense that she can level mountains and wipe out millions. As she could easily accidentally kill all her fellow students, El tries her hardest to play by the book, avoiding her natural affinity for destruction, and not showing off her power unless she absolutely must.

It’s a little bit like Harry Potter meets The Hunger Games, with the school being the big bad that is out to kill everyone. A great coming-of-age narrative about the social educations of school rather than just the academic, A Deadly Education takes the middle-school magic subgenre and completely flips it on its head. Our protagonist is an anti-heroine whose brash and unfriendly attitudes keep her segregated from any cliques, but brandish her with the courage to point out the social injustices and toxic social attitudes that work within the school and the wider world. Bitter by nature, but certainly not evil (at least actively trying not to be) El is a fresh and intriguing heroine that beautifully dissects the traditional dichotomy of good and evil and reveals it to be much more grey than black and white. 

In fact Novik takes many of the traditional genre tropes and character templates and completely turns them inside out (sometimes literally), making for an engaging and fascinating read experience, as it derails the reading route that the genre comes with pre-mapped. 

Image credit: Goodreads

There is action, drama, and suspense around every corner and Novik’s prose reads with a great sense of nonchalance and a sauntering pace: even the more dramatic moments of characters being basically eaten alive are written in a way that perfectly describes what’s happening without embellishing or creating an adrenalin rush within the reader. The narrative is constantly in a state of excitement flux and cool-down, a perfect balance that makes the reading experience consistent whilst allowing the reader to see the bigger story.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and am most certainly intrigued to see what will happen next!

Author: Naomi Novik, 2020

Published: Del Rey, a part of Penguin Random House UK.

Chronicle: A Deadly Education is the first book in Naomi Novik’s Scholomance series.

Saturday, March 20, 2021

Troy

 

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After going as far as I could down the rabbit hole of Delaney’s Wardstone Chronicles, I felt that a different tone of adventure was much needed this week. Enter Stephen Fry’s latest instalment in his Greek mythology series: Troy. Having absolutely adored Mythos and Heroes, when I saw this on the New Release table of my local bookshop, it was a pocket of sparkling joy in a grey end of the year. 

The narrative of Troy is self-explanatory. Fry, with his signature eloquence and sharp wit, excitingly details every aspect of the Trojan War, from its humble beginnings to its central players, and the eventual bloody conclusion. Various tales of romance, prophesy, betrayal, trickery, war, and heroism fill the pages, complete with delightful footnotes that both refresh our memories as to the cast of players as well as provide various splashes of humour, as Fry veers off on a tangent and inserts some personal opinions. 

More than an exciting and intelligent retelling of the one of the most famous/infamous battles in ‘history’, Troy explores the story and backstories of the battle with an artistic interpretation. What I mean by that is, Fry goes on a sort of speculative and somewhat provocative exploration into the artistic and legendary meanings and messages that come from the story and how/why certain parts of it have transcended generations to take up root in our modern language, education, entertainment, and even narrative genres. So much of the Trojan War remains in words and phrases that we use day-to-day and this is what Fry explores as he describes the various rapes, pillages, and battles that pad out the story.

Image credit: AXSChat

While Fry writes with a succinct and fiercely intelligent prose, there is also a slightly mournful tone that gets dropped into the mix as the dark side of mankind begins to take over the story, strong enough to make the gods themselves turn away. There’s a lot happening in this book that causes the reader to really go on a rollercoaster of feels and that it what I loved about it!


Author: Stephen Fry, 2020

Published: Michael Joseph, Penguin Random House

Saturday, March 13, 2021

The Spook's Sacrifice

 

Image credit: Penguin Books Aus.

So I’m in an interesting place right now, as I read the sixth instalment in The Wardstone Chronicles this week and, sadly, this is the last book that is in our library. For those interested, there are thirteen books in the series, but sadly this is where the adventure stops for me… at least for a while…

After facing the wrath of one of the Devil’s daughters, the water witch Morwena, and saving fellow spook, Bill Arkwright’s life, Thomas Ward has gone back to life in Chipenden and back to his studies with the Spook. But that quiet life is short-lived when his Mam returns to the County and asks that he and the Spook come back with her to her homeland of Greece to help her fight against the dark. With a plan to deal the Fiend a weakening blow by going after another of the Old Gods, the Ordeen, Mrs. Ward rallies a force of light and dark together to end the Ordeen’s ravaging of Greece once and for all. Can Tom and the Spook really trust their enemies for the greater good? And what else does Tom not know about his Mam?

The Spook’s Sacrifice is a refreshing change of scenery and a very exciting book. While not all of its potential is brought to the foreground (e.g. more mythical monsters from Ancient Greek legends) it successfully makes the world bigger, richer, and it widens the character journeys even further. There is much drama lingering within its pages, as new enemies are fought, new alliances are made, and new (different) wars break out. 

Image credit: Goodreads

Delaney’s simple prose quickly captivates and excites, creating clear images of the world and its inhabitants as well as moving along at a perfect narrative pace. However, this is also the book where a new level of desperation and despair comes into the mix. Events take place and truths are uncovered that completely change the tone, as well as the readers’ opinions of characters and how they perceive the world of the novel: a bit like the tagline for the latest Skullduggery Pleasant book: “everything you know is wrong”. While not as blunt as that, there’s certainly a bit of a spanner thrown into the works of this book that changes the direction of the story and turns it away from what we predict. It’s very well done.

The Spook’s Sacrifice is another great novel in a fun and exciting children’s series that I have really enjoyed reading. 

Author: Joseph Delaney, 2008

Published: The Bodley Head, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books (Great Britain)

Chronicle: The Spook’s Sacrifice is the 6th book in Delaney’s The Wardstone Chronicles series


Tuesday, March 9, 2021

The Spook's Mistake

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 One thing that I really enjoy about reading and, in particular, reading different types of books and genres is recognising signature patterns that emerge within the narrative structure. For example, in series, particularly children’s series, is usually around book 4 and then 5 where the overreaching arc of the story comes into play, fleshing out the world, providing trials for the characters, and generally making the story bigger, longer, and more exciting (hopefully). Such has been the case with the book 5 of The Wardstone Chronicles, which I read this week.

With the war, the ever-present threat of the dark, and now the Devil Himself ravaging the County, no one is safe; least of all Tom Ward, a spook’s apprentice, who happens to be of particular interest to the Old Nick. With the Devil’s threat to kill him or turn him looming over his head, Tom’s apprenticeship takes a turn when his master sends him to the north to train with another spook for a time, in the hope that a change in teacher will help to toughen him up fast. But Bill Arkwright proves to be as big a trial as that threatens Tom. Could the Spook have made a mistake?

Just like Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire, the ‘Big Bad’ has entered the narrative world and is here to stay, at lest for a while. The Spook’s Mistake is that book that’s set after the unthinkable has happened and now everyone is living in a world changed and threatened. For the heroes, this opens up a whole plethora of avenues in which they’ll have many smaller adventures and learn valuable lessons before the ultimate battle at the end. Never fight the ‘Big Bad’ head on, come up with a side quest that will somehow work to your advantage in the end: that’s the key rule that drives the books in a series that harbours one major villain, and you don’t get more villainous than the Devil Himself!

Image credit: Goodreads

The Spook’s Mistake
not only allows the fictional world to get bigger with Tom travelling north and getting to see and learn new geographies as well as new breeds of witches and creatures of the dark, it’s the book where some of the character roles are reversed, enriching their own narrative journeys. 

This is also the book where some gasp-inducing truths are revealed and real, juicy plot twists come to light. Filled with action, adventure, and plenty of exciting horror, it’s another compelling chapter in an epic adventure series!

Author: Joseph Delaney, 2008

Published: Bodley Head, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, Great Britain. 

Chronicle: The Spook’s Mistake is the 5th book in Delaney’s The Wardstone Chronicles series.