Book Review – The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R Carey

Book Review – The Girl With all The Gifts by M.R Carey

If you are a regular reader (and thankyou ever so much for stopping by!) you’ll know that I recently  joined a post-apocalyptic book club. Well I went to the second meet-up this week and we discussed The Girl With All The Gifts by M.R Carey. The overall consensus was that we really enjoyed the book, thinking that it started off extremely strong and whilst some of the plot developments might employ a few too many zombie-story tropes the characters, for us, redeemed it.

The novel starts by introducing us to Melanie, who just like any other little girl loves stories, enjoys going to school and dreams of growing up and becoming a beautiful princess. However Melanie is not like other children. Along with her classmates she is infected with  Ophiocordyceps unilateralis a parasitic fungus which turns its host into a zombie-like creature with a craving for human flesh. The rest of Britain has been virtually wiped out by the spread of this virus; however some infected by the fungus – all of them children – maintain their mental functions, existing in a state somewhere between the ‘hungries’ and the humans. The classroom Melanie is in is on an Army base where an array of teachers aim to see how much cognitive function the children retain.

Miss Justineau is the children’s favourite teacher. With them secured into wheelchairs and Miss Justineau covered up with an e-blocker that prevents her scent from reaching the children, she teaches them about Greek Mythology as well as countries and cities of a civilisation that once was. When the bases resident scientist, Caroline Candwell decides that the only way to discover the root of the fungal infection is to kill and dissect all of the children – Miss Justineau steps in to save Melanie. As she confront Caldwell the base is attacked by junkers (other survivors, who are not part of the Army) . They have driven vast herds of hungries into the base – destroying their defences as well as wiping out the majority of surviving humans. Melanie, Miss Justineau and Caldwell are unexpectedly thrown together and as they escape are joined by two military men. Because of what Melanie is – the two men want to kill/abandon her; however (albeit due to different motives) Miss justineau and Caldwell convince them to keep her with them. They reach a compromise and muzzle her – setting off on an attempt to reach a place where they believe there to be survivors – the Beacon.

What I really liked about this book was the character of Melanie; she develops so much throughout the story. Initially we meet an exceptionally bright young girl who has no memory of the world outside of the space she occupies – instead she gains her information from old textbooks and pieces together mythology to make sense of her world. When she realises what she is – a hungry – she soon begins to notice what separates them and her, and even manages to control her hunger. By the end of the novel we realise how important these hybrid children are to man’s continuation, and more specifically how important Melanie is – as she has learnt about the past and is thus able to inform the future.

As a book club we also enjoyed how well thought out the fungal parasite was – having all seen the articles about how a similar parasite exists within ants. The parasite explained why the hungries would congregate together – something which always I have always queried in zombie movies. Drawing ideas from nature, animals often congregate to reproduce and that is what this parasite motivates within the hungries, when mature they congregate in order that the fungi might grow together and thus release the spores needed to infect more victims.

Have any of you read this novel? Who was your favourite character? I have to admit that I had a soft spot for Caldwell – even though she was totally inhumane she was so so dedicated and determined to do what she believed was right that I couldn’t help but grudgingly like her.

Becqui

Book Review: The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite writers, there is something about the dystopian worlds she creates that draw me in and her description is so uncannily precise yet strange enough to create a slightly off-kilter image. I have read The Handmaid’s Tale several time, and decided that as I enjoy it so much I should give it a re-read and review it. It’s a sign of a good book when you can re-read it and enjoy it just as much as the first time – and The Handmaid’s Tale did just that for me! I think this time small details stood out to me, such as Atwood’s descriptions, and I took pleasure in these more than the story.

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The Handmaid’s Tale is a dystopian novel, set in a future where due to excessive levels of pollution as well as a virulent sexually transmitted disease fertility levels have dropped, and the women that do fall pregnant often miscarry or deliver ‘unbabies’ – so deformed they won’t live. In addition to this a movement called ‘The Sons of Jacob’ has overthrown the United States Constitution and instituted a patriarchal, compulsory Christian regime – with the pretext of a focus on society multiplying.  Society is segregated by class, and within the classes by gender – with each person’s role being visibly shown by their clothing. Military men  and their wives have the highest standing; they are given concubines /handmaids (women who have been proven fertile) and are also served by Marthas (women too old to bear children) as well as men who are of such low standing that they are not given a women. If a handmaid fails to bear children in a designated time, or commits any other crimes – such as having any kind of relationship or doing a prohibited activity such as reading – then she is shipped off to the ‘Colonies’ where felons undertake dangerous work such as clearing up radioactive waste.

Offred is the protagonist in this tale, a handmaid old enough to remember the time before when she lived with her husband and her daughter. The narrative flits between the present day and he past – so we catch glimpses of the situation and how it builds up to the regime in which she is living. Through her we learn how women’s rights are slowly stripped away, their bank accounts are closed down and they are made redundant – so that when the overthrow happens they are virtually powerless.  In her current position Offred is a handmaid; proven fertile she has intercourse with the Commander at designated times – in a strange ritual which involves her lying in between him and his wife. This is her only role, the rest of the time she exists in a kind of limbo – unable to have friendships, or any entertainment such as reading.

As the book progresses the relationships within the household change. Offred’s Commander begins to invite her into his study on an evening, offering her forbidden luxuries such as hand cream and magazines. At the same time The Commander’s wife – worried that her husband is sterile has Offred sleep with their driver in the hopes of them conceiving a child. Offred’s anxieties about being caught doing something illicit (as any relations outside of the prescribed copulation with the Commander are forbidden) are compounded when her waking partner confides in her that she is part of an underground movement.

I remember my first read of the book and I  galloped through it,  so caught up with the world Atwood had created. One aspect which really interested me was how the society recognises the frustrations the women must feel – being banned from so many things – and thus provides safe outlets for this energy. At births, which are such a rare occasion, all the handmaids and wives in the neighbourhood gather – there is illicit alcohol, and because it is a celebration they have respite from their chores. The second occurs during a public hanging that all the handmaids must attend. In it a man is accused of a brutal rape as a result of which the victim miscarried – and his punishment is a Particicution; which means that the handmaids bludgeon him to death.

On this re-read Atwood’s description stood out to me and kept me thinking about what they impart to the meaning of novel . For example Offred describes a young man’s face as being like the pale skin underneath a scab. Similarly when looking at the colours of tulips, she sees the darker pink as if it was a wound. These images are unsettling, because of the juxtaposition we get the sense that the everyday objects she describes have become disturbing due the context they are in.

If you are interested in dystopian fiction – then this book is a must for you! Have you read any of Atwood’s books? I think I might have to have a re-read of Oryx and Crake!

Becqui

Book Review: Hater by David Moody

Book Review: Hater by David Moody

As those of you who follow me on Twitter will already know this week I went to my first ever book club. I was browsing this site – just really to see what was going on in Manchester really – but as soon as I saw “Post-apocalyptic book club” I was hooked. I absolutely loved the evening, discussing and debating literature with like-minded people is something I really enjoy – and of course, I came away from it with loads of book (and film) recommendations! The first book we discussed was Hater by David Moody, so today I am going to share my review of it; which has definitely been aided by the discussion in the book club. I will warn you that this review is full of spoilers, so if you don’t want to know what happens then stop reading now!!

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When I read the description of Hater posted on the book-club’s page it immediately stood out to me – the premise being that seemingly unmotivated individuals begin violently attacking other people, and this escalates throughout the entire population. These people are dubbed ‘Haters’ and the fear of them deepens as anyone could be the next to turn – your child, your husband, your best friend. As society breaks down one man and his family struggle to survive. To me it seemed like a twist on your typical zombie story, the spread of attacks isn’t described as a ‘virus’ and I always love a good survivor driven plot. However I felt let down with this novel as a whole, there were aspects that I enjoyed but at the same time there were elements which really spoilt it for me.

The novel begins with a random, aggressive attack orchestrated by ‘Simmons, regional manager for a chain of high street discount stores’ who – in the middle of a busy shopping street – suddenly feels an overwhelming sense of terror, and this threat makes him turn on his supposed aggressor an old lady ‘eighty if she was a day’. He bludgeons her to death with his own umbrella and then begins to attack the crowd around him. The narrative then switches to an observers point of view – Danny McCoyne – who becomes our protagonist. He proclaims to be sickened by the outburst but then switches to moaning about how the crowd have made him late for work.  This is a feature of Danny that we come to recognise. He represents the “every-man”, he hates his job with the council, hates his supervisor, struggles with money and when he gets home from work argues with his wife and is annoyed by his children.

The first three-quarters of this text follow roughly the same structure: vignettes of random violent attacks by these “Haters” break up the day to day life of Danny. At first these attacks seem like entirely unrelated incidents, Danny reports that the newscasters announce unusual amounts of violence in city-centres over one weekend. However as the text progresses it becomes clear that the attacks are escalating and he witnesses them happening himself, as well as being widely reported on the television.  An atmosphere of fear begins to pervade the general public; there was a scene I really thought worked at this point which highlighted the fear and tension that would arise in such a situation. Danny is at work on the reception desk when a man comes in to complain about his car being clamped. The man is in a high temper – but Danny and the other receptionist, instead of proceeding as normal, proceed to put as much space between themselves and the man as possible because they think he is a “Hater”. The moment of realisation when the man (who is not a “Hater”, just a man pissed off with the council) comprehends the fear in the pair’s eyes, and understands what they take him for was executed well. It made me think about the fear that would spread through the general population – and how it would break down normal interactions far quicker than the actual Haters.

However, for the most part – this section of the book was tedious. Danny is a character incapable of action; he constantly complains about his job yet carries on going to work after most of the city has been abandoned. When the family do decide to hole up, and stay in their house their lack of survival initiative irritated me. Danny has the chance to scope out houses and flats that have been abandoned yet he comes back empty handed. We see no evidence of the family working as a team, or of any love or connection between them.

I thought the text was going to redeem itself when Danny became a Hater – it started with him killing his father-in-law and then going after the rest of the family; and I was expecting some pretty gory scenes. The family escape and Danny finds himself in the company of some other Haters, who have wholed-up in a construction site and are trying to come to terms with what has happened. The concept of the Haters is explained a little bit more here, around 30% of the overall population have something in their genetics which has been triggered and makes them fearful of the other 70% who they know will kill them if they discover their identity. So from the Haters point of view its kill or be killed. Also they have some kind of innate connection to other Haters – Danny knows that his daughter is one and longs to have her with him. This explanation was unsatisfactory though, what triggered this change? And how do they recognise each other? The ending of the book was that the military had divided into these two factions, Haters and non-Haters, and the Haters from the military swooped in to rescue all the other Haters who had been rounded up into a death camp. The Haters then decide to band together, form a sort of resistance and the last scene is of them taking over a town.

To conclude, I loved the premise of this novel and there were scenes which were quite clever – particularly those depicting the media’s influence on the general public, and the Hater propaganda which was subtly spread. However, for me personally (and for the rest of the book-club!) there was no emotional investment in this, as the characters were unpleasant and irritating. I think I would still recommend reading it – it is quite an easy read and there are ideas in there that have stuck with me, and that I keep teasing out more in my head.

Have any of you read this book? I would love to hear your thoughts!

Becqui

Book Review: The Twelve – Justin Cronin

The Twelve – Justin Cronin

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Why do you read a book twice? Because you enjoyed it so much, because you need to study it in further detail or because it completely threw you the first time around? Well for The Twelve I re-read it for a combination of all these reasons. Not only have I read it twice, but I literally read it back to back, cover to cover. I’ll explain why later, but first here’s a synopsis…

The Twelve (2012) is the second part of a trilogy that Cronin started with The Passage – a book that I found in equal parts compelling and terrifying.  In The Passage, a government research project into prolonging human life unleashes a virus which turns its hosts into immortal vampirical creatures who have a taste for human blood. Skipping forward one hundred years and following the adventures of a surviving human colony we learn that the original twelve research subjects are connected to a family of the virals (beings infected with the virus), and that the way to destroy them is by killing the head of the family. However these original Twelve are also extremely powerful – capable of telepathy which they can use to influence humans. These ‘Twelve’ lend their name to the second book and are central to its plot.

The beginning of this novel briefly revisits two of the characters from The Passage, Alicia and Amy – both of whom are infected with the virus but haven’t turned into virals. Amy has a mental connection with the virals and seemingly immortal is now working in a nunnery – raising the children of those who have survived. Alicia was infected at the end of the last book the effects of which made her keenly tuned to the activities of the virals, as well as gain their strength and speed; she uses these powers to track them down and kill them. The novel then skips backwards to the outbreak of the plague and we discover some other survivors’ stories.  There is Danny, an autistic bus-driver – who unsure of what to do after the milk for his Lucky Charms runs out decides to return to a routine he knows and feels confident with – driving the school bus route. He picks up some other survivors and the narrative follows them as they ultimately end up at a military refugee camp.  We then meet Lawrence Grey –who was a janitor at the original research facility – who is disorientated when he wakes up at a motel looking significantly more youthful and attractive.  Whilst looking for supplies he is accosted by Lila, a pregnant woman who is acting like nothing unusual is happening despite the downfall of society around her. We suspect this is so she doesn’t have to deal with reality. She persuades Grey to help her paint a nursery for the baby and they become friends. However Grey is being tracked by the military – lead by Guilder, who has learnt that he has a degenerative disease and is willing to do anything to stay alive. When Lila and Grey are captured they are taken to the same military camp as the other survivors.

This section of the book was really captivating; it was interesting to have lots of different survivor’s stories happening at once and then all tying together at the military camp. There was a lot of subtle humour, as well as intimate moments in this section which as a reader made me really empathise with some characters. However, just as in the first book Cronin is leading us towards a massive plot twist. The military “refugee” camp is actually being used by the military as human bait for an army of virals who are approaching. Some of the characters escape, whereas others are killed when the military bomb the camp.

Time then advances in lurches until the story continues from the first novel (so roughly 100 years later). Alicia discovers a city policed by Guilder and “Red Eyes”. Guilder has discovered that consuming viral’s blood results in immortality, so keeps Grey chained up as a food supply for himself and his army.  He also keeps Lila fed with the blood of Grey; she still exists in a delusional state – spending her days locked up in a luxurious apartment she pretends that nothing has changed, having lost the baby she was carrying Guilder provides her with a constant stream of children to mother until she tires of them. Lila also proves to have an almost motherly control over the virals, who behave like favoured pets towards her – something which Guilder uses to his advantage. A whole city of people are kept underneath Guilder’s power; he views them as mechanisms to keep the city running and as disposable fodder for himself and his virals. After Alicia’s discovery of the city, an insurgent faction who identify themselves with “Sergio” as well as the team from the last novel work together to strike at the heart of Guilder’s structure.

I apologise – that was a frightfully long synopsis! However I feel like it was necessary, it isn’t one of those texts where you can provide a short summary without being extremely vague. And this is why I ended up reading it twice. The first time around, whilst I loved the new characters introduced – I felt really out of sync; I even mentioned it to a couple of people whilst reading it that I felt so confused because I was missing the characters from the first novel. I’m not sure if this tainted the rest of the book for me. However the second read through I approached with a more open mind and whilst it was a good read (Cronin sure does know how to get you emotionally invested with characters) I think that the structure aped the first book too closely. Also I found the second half confusing even after two reads. Break the book up into small sections, or take each chapter as it stands and they are good. Really bloody dark as well – which I love! However as a whole, for me, this book wasn’t as enjoyable as The Passage – but I will still be reading the final part of the trilogy!

Have any of you read Justin Cronin’s books? What do you think of them and do you have a favourite? As always I would love to hear your opinions!

Becqui

Book Review: The Running Man – Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)

The Running Man – Stephen King (Richard Bachman)

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The Running Man was first published in 1982 by Stephen King – but writing under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. I have to admit, this is only the second Stephen King novel I have read – the first was 11/22/63 which was a massive, complicated yet enthralling text.  Naively I thought that all Stephen King novels would be similar so when I ordered this one off Amazon I was surprised to see what a slim volume it was.  When I got tucked up in bed one evening and prepared to read it, I wasn’t expecting a reading marathon – yet I was wholly engrossed in the story and it was so easy to read I finished it in two hours!

Set in a dystopian America, the scene this novel paints is bleak. The world’s economy is in free-fall, there is no job security or indeed employment rights– we see how workers in menial jobs work in dangerous conditions, which result in severe injuries or even death. These conditions have created a large population of people living in poverty – unable to afford even proper food they live off supplement pills, and we see the main character’s wife resort to prostitution in order to pay for basic medical care. Bizarrely the only things that seem to be cheap and available to everyone are television, cigarettes and marijuana.

Living in these slum conditions is Ben Richards, who is currently unemployed and black listed from his relevant trade. We discover that this is because he refused to carry on working without adequate protection from the radiation he worked with that left many workers infertile, he refused to continue taking that risk knowing that his wife desperately longed for children. Now, having been sacked from his job, his eighteen month old daughter is sick with pneumonia and Richards is unwilling for his wife to continue prostituting herself in order to pay for medical care. In desperation Richards enters The Game Centre – a television station which runs twenty-four hours a day. It specialises in violent, unethical reality television programmes. One example which Richards narrates is a programme in which people with a heart problem are put onto a treadmill and rewarded with cash sums; earning more money for the longer they stay on it – for their medical bills. Inevitably many of these contestants collapse and/or die.

After vigorous medical as well as psychological testing Richards discovers he has been chosen to take part in one of the Game Centre’s most extreme games. He is to be let loose in the city and given a head start before being tracked down by a group of savage Hunters, who aim to kill him. Richards is sent on his way with some cash in his pocket, a camera and videotapes, which he is to use to make twice daily recordings which are then televised. His family receive money for every hour that he lives and if he manages to evade his pursuers for thirty days he gets set free and a jackpot of $1 billion. The current record holder for the games lasted only eight days. Armed with this knowledge Richards is released and the hunt begins…

Ok, I won’t give away what happens; suffice to say that it is a fast paced chase with sufficient twists to keep it interesting. This book wasn’t what I was expecting at all – I was looking forward to some more of the Stephen King I had already experienced – a large knotty story to get your teeth into. Instead this was incredibly easy reading with just enough of a dystopian theme to satisfy me. I woke up the morning after feeling a bit cheated that the book had passed by so quickly (does anyone else get that feeling?) but sitting down to type up my thoughts made me realise just how much I enjoyed it. So if you are looking for a novel you can easily get caught up in for a few hours without having too much of a “fluffy” read, this is the one for you!

Becqui

Book Review: Derek Jarman – Modern Nature

Derek Jarman – Modern Nature

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Six years ago Derek Jarman, the brilliant and controversial film-maker, discovered he was HIV positive and decided to make a garden at his cottage on the bleak coast of Dungeness, where he also wrote these extraordinarily candid journals. Looking back over his childhood, coming out in the ‘60s and his career in films, MODERN NATURE is at once a volume of autobiography, a lament for a lost generation and a celebration of gay sexuality.

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I knew absolutely nothing of Derek Jarman before reading this book, and have to admit I was hesitant to start it. The blurb (above) sounded interesting, but I was worried it would focus a lot on his illness and the physical symptoms – I didn’t think I could face anything too bleak. Add this to my general uneasiness towards “diaries” and I wasn’t sure it was my cup of tea. However this is a beautifully written diary, packed with evocative natural imagery that at once manages to span the breath of Jarman’s life whilst keeping the reader aware of his worsening condition.

Jarman ‘s memoirs span eighteen months through 1989 to 1990. The entries start as long passages, sometimes several entered for the same day but towards the end when he is ill and struggling with severe medical problems (being the first in medical history to lose sight in both eyes due to toxoplasmosis) they become short terse entries detailing endless rounds of night sweats, weight loss and increasing physical fragility. Though this was the part of the text I feared reading, I think as I grew to like Jarman through his entries the emotional investment was bitter-sweet; I felt guilty at being so captivated by someone’s real pain. However I was immensely relieved to learn that he lived for three years after these were written – during which he continued to produce work.

I’m not familiar with his films, so I can’t pass comment on where he was with producing them or the impact his illness had. However through this you get a sense of the struggles he has had through coming out as gay, whilst being a film director; he refers to one actor who after appearing in one of his early films never including it on his resume and indeed ignoring Jarman himself.

The awareness that these diaries are going to be published and the potential that this affords shapes Jarman’s crafting of this text. Having embarked on the creation of a garden on the coast of Dungeness the earlier part of Jarman’s memoirs weaves together descriptions of the garden, and the forces wreaked upon it by the elements, with memories of his childhood – growing up and coming out to his friends and family. For me I felt that the garden was a way for him to almost work through his memories – as he does in this text; he sifts the beach for articles to put in his garden much as he sifts through his memories and orders them. It is this blend of description and memory that really captivated me, made me empathise with Jarman – I end up wanting to know more about him. This blend of memory and natural imagery is captured perfectly in the following passage –

Childhood flowers, dewbowed peonies, dark red, along the paths at Curry Malet. The ivy stencil veins of the crocus purple and white, stamens yellow for painting. The buddleia covered with tortoiseshell butterflies, peacock and humming-bird hawks. Purple mulberry – should you eat it? Scarlet geraniums, jasmine, scent of the night stock, Aloe variegata, the camellia – exotic in February; wisteria on old stone walls, wallflowers – wild and draught-defying – balsam poplars brown purple; celandine with yellow brimstone flashing across the lawn…

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Have any of you read this book? I found this review difficult to write, because there wasn’t a straightforward plot to explain! I’ve tried to put my feelings across as honestly and clearly as possible as this book really captivated me. The pictures included are just ones I found on the internet of Jarman’s garden – isn’t it an amazing thing?

 Becqui

Book Review: Gregory Maguire – Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

Gregory Maguire – Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West

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Wicked ‘hype’ is something that hit pretty hard amongst my friendship group, I know a great many girlies who absolutely loved the musical adaptation of this novel – however I was not amongst them. Not sure why, but it passed me by. Truth be told, I didn’t even know that there was a novel! When browsing a charity shop back in Yorkshire recently, I recognised this cover from the posters and advertising that I had seen splashed around various cities. Intrigued and curious as to what started this phenomenon I decided to give it a read. And I’m so incredibly glad I did.

This novel by Gregory Maguire revisits the world of Oz as depicted by Frank Baum in his stories The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and The Wonderful Oz amongst others. I read the originals about a year ago and was charmed by them; they sketch out a whimsical world inhabited by flying animals, a whole host of vivid creatures inhabiting different lands as well as witches (good and bad) and an all-powerful wizard. Maguire offers us a different perspective on this world, transforming idyllic scenery into an intensely political competition – full of religious zeal, sex, and superstition. The main political undercurrents that affect the protagonists are those concerning Animal rights. Animals are rational sentient beings with a voice capable of undertaking the same tasks as humans, and the difference between them and animals as we know them is marked by the capitalisation of the term (Animal vs animal, Goat as opposed to goat ect.). However this is not being recognised in Oz, and their rights are being stripped from them.

Following the Wicked Witch of the West’s life the novel begins with her birth. Elphaba as she is christened is born to a deeply religious father and superficial mother under a cloud of superstition. She is born green, an ailment which will afflict her for life. Painted as an unusual little ‘monster’ of a child, she arrives into the world with a mouthful of sharp teeth and spends much of her childhood mute. Desperate not to have another green child Elphaba’s mother takes potions throughout her second pregnancy intending to prevent such things; however her second child Nessarose is born as pink as a summer rose but without arms!

The novel skips forward sixteen years and introduces the character of Glinda (the good witch in Baum’s stories) who is travelling to the distinguished Shiz University. Separated from her chaperone due to a medical emergency upon arrival Glinda has no-one to represent her in room-mate arrangements. She thus ends up being room-mates with Elphaba who is ostracised from the other girls due to her skin colour. Although initially Glinda finds her strange the two end up becoming firm friends.

Through a Goat who tutors biology at Shiz, Doctor Dillamond, the two girls discover the injustice being done to Animals under the Wizard’s reign in Oz. Doctor Dillamond uses examples such as Animals are being forced to return back to jobs in fields, as well as travel separately (in pens) on public transport. The widespread nature of the attitudes towards Animals is discovered when the headmistress of Shiz uses university resources to further the propaganda. Elphaba becomes extremely close to Doctor Dillamond throughout her time at the university – he becomes a mentor and guiding figure for her.

However this all draws to an end with the murder of Doctor Dillamond whilst he is on the verge of proving the genetic links between Animals and humans. With Glinda’s help Elphaba discovers that it is the president of the university who has arranged for the murder to take place. Glinda and Elphaba travel to Oz in order to petition to the Wizard the importance of Animal rights. They are rebuffed by him, and it is with this that Elphaba decides never to return to the university.

I loved this explanation of Elphaba’s early life; for me it was the most interesting part of the book. From here on in she becomes increasingly drawn to political activism, which results in her attempting an assassination and then having to hide fearing discovery.  All the actions which lead to her being portrayed as a witch are a result of her becoming more and more confused and disorientated as events happen which are out of her control. I have to admit I found sections of this book a little complex as so much was happening, and it frequently took up storylines and characters from Elphaba’s childhood to explain the consequences in her adult life. This little touch made it a very clever read but I think as I was reading it whilst travelling it made it a bit tricky to follow.

The ending, with the introduction of Dorothy which results in her accidentally killing Elphaba is brilliant! The whole story of Oz as we know it; with Dorothy travelling with her companions to the Wizard, is wrapped up in a very short chapter. Dorothy is a perfectly nice, good country girl – if a little simple minded but not at all the main character in the story. Her appearing at the end only serves to underline the wit in this book; it questions the depiction of good and evil in fiction. What is true and real? Elphaba is portrayed as evil, but in this reading of a classic tale we see her passion, her righteousness and the unfortunate circumstances which lead her astray.

Have any of you seen the musical? I think I would really enjoy watching it now I have read the book; I’m so intrigued at how it would translate to stage!

Becqui

Book Review: Radclyffe Hall – The Well of Loneliness

Radclyffe Hall –The Well of Loneliness  (1928)

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Such a bargain on my Kindle!

Way back at the beginning of this year when I was writing my dissertation (in which I looked at the aesthetics and self-authorship of gay identity) Amazon began sneakily recommending a lot of gay fiction to me. Of course I am a sucker for those blinking little adverts, especially when they are for astonishingly cheap e-books. Thus, I bought The Well of Loneliness on my kindle where it has languished up until this past week. Published in 1928 this novel was seen as controversial due to its depiction of relationships between women, despite there being no explicitly sexual scenes (the most risqué mentions are those of kissing) it does specify that the bonds between the women are those of lovers.

The protagonist Stephen Gordon is christened Stephen because her parents were expecting a boy, and thus decided to stick with their already-chosen name. Almost as if this defines her growing up Stephen proves to be a child more interested in masculine physical pursuits such as riding and fencing, setting her apart from other girls who mimic their mothers in dress and play with dolls. She develops a crush on the housemaid – Collins, and her devotion to her borders on disturbing; Stephen kneels for hours on end in the hope that by damaging her own knees she might absolve some of the pain from Collins’ bad knee. This girlish crush is destroyed when Stephen finds Collins kissing a footman.

Her devastation over Collins, Stephen knows is somehow unspeakable – as many of her feelings are. However her father seems to understand her, he is close to her and supportive throughout her life. As she reaches her teenage years Radclyffe Hall portrays him as reading literature to do with homosexuality, or ‘inverts’ as they are called in the text. It is hinted that he suspects the nature of Stephen’s feelings however he never reveals this to her. Upon his death Stephen is left alone aged eighteen, with her mother whom she has never been close to.

Stephen’s first adult love affair is with a neighbour’s wife – Angela Crossby. We suspect this is more from boredom on Angela’s part however it is wholly devotional love that Stephen once again offers. When Stephen discovers Angela is having an affair with a man, Angela panics that her husband will also discover her infidelities and shows him letters that Stephen has sent her – claiming it is all lovesickness on Stephens part. These letters are then sent to Stephen’s mother who is furious with Stephen. Feeling increasingly alienated in her childhood home of Morton Stephen leaves and travels to London where she becomes a writer, producing a brilliantly received first novel. She then struggles with a second one, and it is suggested to her by an acquaintance that this is because she is denying herself of her true feelings – and that the only way to write good novels is through experiencing these feelings which will then translate to great writing. Thus emboldened she moves to Paris, and begins to experience the ‘invert’ culture.

I’ll leave the ending out of this recap, suffice to say that Stephen does find love but it does not end happily. I found this an interesting read for many reasons; firstly the depiction of Stephen – she is determinedly masculine, oft expressing her wish to be a man throughout her childhood and in later years adopts male dress, indulging in expensive tailoring instead of dresses. She struggles throughout with her identity, and it was intriguing to see how the war affected and enabled her. For the first time many women were able to take up male jobs and Stephen is one of these – she drives an ambulance and indeed finds herself working amidst the actual fighting. Historically this development was a landmark for women’s rights, but I had never considered its importance to the lesbian or transgender woman before.

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Loved the photographs of the author, even on Kindle they still looked great. 

Written a long time ago I think that this is still an incredibly relevant book; Stephen worries throughout the time spent with her partner about how society is going to react to them, how this will affect their relationship and how powerless she is to provide her partner with the children, home and family that she deserves. I think that this is reflected particularly in the ending of the book, as it is quite distressing and you really get a sense of how helpless Stephen feels. As a reader you feel helpless too – I personally had a deep sense of the injustice done to Stephen in that she wasn’t able to live openly with her feelings, and this sentiment was all the more real as I’m aware that homosexuality is still not tolerated globally.

Have any of you read this book? I think some might be put off by when it was published, and admittedly there are points that seem dated within the narrative – however overall the message is just as relevant today.

Becqui

Book Review: Lionel Shriver – We Need to Talk About Kevin

Lionel Shriver – We Need to Talk About Kevin

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I absolutely raced through this book, staying up late two nights in a row until I had finished it. It’s the first bit of reading I have done for my MA which starts this month so I am beginning to feel a little more prepared now. Not that that’s the reason why I read it so quickly, I genuinely couldn’t stop turning the pages!

The tale is told from Eva’s point of view, in a series of letters written to her husband Franklin. Initially this style (as in, it’s all letters) irked me, and the first few felt awkward to read however I quickly got into the flow of the writing and it was actually quite easy going. The letters detail the life of Eva and her family; from well before the birth of their first son Kevin, then their daughter Celia up until the present day. Eva is working through her thoughts about Thursday, the day that Kevin lured members of his school friends and teachers into the gymnasium then murdered them in a horrific school shooting.

She does this through tracing her relationship to Kevin as he grows and his personality develops.  From birth, he was a difficult baby – so difficult that they could never get nannies to stay for more than a couple of weeks. The assumed natural bond between child and mother never materializes, realising this and determined to forge that connection somehow, Eva gives up her job as a travel writer and instead stays home with Kevin. Despite her matyr-like behaviour Kevin’s sociopathic behaviour prevents Eva from loving him. She describes how he wasn’t toilet trained until he was six. He also ruins, albeit at an early age Eva’s study by spraying the walls with ink – the only place in their ultra-sleek modern home that she really feels comfortable in. Then when Ceilia is born, her pets go missing and there is an incident which results in her losing an eye due to an accident with drain cleaner. Both of these times Eva believes Kevin is responsible.

However she also describes how Kevin’s attitude would change around his father Franklin, he would ape his behaviour, being cheerful and hearty – involving himself in Franklin’s interests. As a result, Franklin believes the problem lies with Eva – she is too quick to blame Kevin, too neurotic. As a result their relationship deteriorates and we discover that shortly before Thursday they agree on a divorce. These alternate sides to Kevin’s personality can be read as either him displaying the habitual lying and deceitful nature expected, or as Eva being paranoid and comparing her inability to have a relationship with Kevin against the relationships he has with others.

These memories from the past are interspersed with the descriptions of the tense relationship that she and Kevin currently have – she dutifully visits him in prison however, these visits are strained and tense.

I don’t want to give everything away, as there were a couple of points in the plot that really shocked me. Eva’s letters are cleverly crafted, you think you can decipher what Kevin’s personality is leading to – there are small hints, but never quite what you expect.  What I found to be the main strength of this book is having Eva as a narrator; her relationship with Kevin is clearly strained, but I found myself wondering how central she was to Kevin’s behaviour. Through the letters she reveals her own secrets, such as how she once was so violent towards Kevin that she threw him across the room and broke his arm. The unreliability of the narrator made me even more interested in the story; I want to probe at it more and know different viewpoints but am prevented from doing so.

Overall I think this is a great, compelling read. It’s extremely dark, but that’s what makes it interesting. Watching how Kevin’s personality develops resulting in the eventual atrocity raises the age old question: nature vs nurture? Was Kevin born that detached from reality, or was it as a result of his surroundings. I think that the book wants you to believe that he is born that way, certainly Eva is absolved from all guilt, however I for one don’t think that his family life helped at all.

Has anyone seen the movie? I hear it’s equally good and pretty disturbing! Let me know what you thought…

Becqui

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ps. did anyone else find the way she signed her name really creepy?

 

Book Review (s) – Brian Jacques: Mariel of Redwall/Salamandastron

Hello everyone! If you saw my to-read post earlier this month you will know that I had these two lined up. I read and re-read these many times over my childhood and early teenage years, so these aren’t full reviews – more like quick refreshers! If you are new to the Redwall series then I highly recommend you give it a go – no matter what age you are. However, BE WARNED, during these re-reads I had a watch of the animated television series which I apparently missed whilst growing up. And it was pretty naff, the illustrations on the covers of these books are far more suited to these stories then cartoons – however that’s just my opinion. Let me know if you have read or watched this series!

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Mariel of Redwall – Brian Jacques

This book is the fourth in the Redwall series and has always been one of my favourites because of its feisty female protagonist. Mariel is a young mouse, and whilst travelling with her father Joseph the Bellmaker to deliver a bell he has made to the badger lord at Salamanastron their ship is captured by Gabool the Wild – a pirate searat. He makes them his slaves, and places the bell in his castle. However Mariel upsets him and he ties her to a stake before throwing her  into the sea She washes ashore barely alive, with no memory of who she is. Fighting seabirds with a knotted rope she christens herself Storm Gullwhacker. Storm is found by three hares of the Long Patrol from Salamandastron who decide to escort her to Redwall Abbey – a place of safety.  It is here she makes new friends – a young hedgehog called Durry Quinn, Dandin a young mouse, and Tarquin a hare of prodigious appetite who is madly in love with Rosemary of the Long Patrol. An old riddle read by the gatekeeper of the Abbey unlocks Storm’s memories, and with only the riddle as a guide the new friends set off to avenge Storm and her father. However in their absence the Abbey comes under threat from searats who have deserted Gabool’s horde, and the peaceful Abbey creatures are hard pressed to defend themselves…

That was quite the synopsis ey?! I’m impressed with myself; I always find them hard to do. Anyway, this book was a cracker. The riddle from Redwall that ties the whole adventure together is intriguing, and definitely fun to try and puzzle out. What makes the book though are the hilarious characters – Mariel is so feisty and fierce, but grows up throughout the story. I think my favourite characters are the hares Tarquin and his lady love the Honourable Rosemary (Rosie). Rosie’s earsplitting laugh ruins secretive plans on more than one occasion and Tarquin constantly composes ditties about his two loves – Rosie and food.

Salamandastron – Brian Jacques

Fifth in the Redwall series this book tells the reader more about the badger lords who rule Salamandastron and their links with the Abbey. Mara a badgermaid, adopted by Urthstripe the ruling badger lord, is disgruntled at how Urthstripe treats her and along with her hare friend Pikkle leaves Salamandastron. Naively she becomes friends with a young weasel – who is the son of the leader of a great army of searats and vermin named the ‘Corpsemakers’. This army plan to trap the young pair, however the plan is foiled and Mara and Pikkle escape – only to be captured by a ferocious tribe of newts. Using the information gleaned from Mara and Pikkle the vermin horde begin to lay siege to Salamandastron. Whilst this is going on back at Redwall Abbey a young squirrel named Samkin and his mole friend Arula find themselves in trouble. Two stoats are preying on the hospitality of the Abbey folk and, after accidentally killing a member of the Abbey, flee with the famous sword of Martin the warrior. Framed for the death Samkin and Arula set off after the stoats, determined to prove their innocence and retrieve the sword. Another quest is underway as back at the Abbey Dryditch fever takes hold, and it is up to the otter Thrugg and a stowaway baby dormouse Dumble to bring back the cure from the distant mountains.

These three stories converge, and make for a great adventure! I really do love both of these books, and I think they make a great introduction into a fantasy world for children. They are filled with the most amazing descriptions of food – the Redwall feasts are legendary. And the different types of animal speak in various dialects – the hares are all ‘top notch old chap, I say! Wot’ wot’!’ whereas the moles speech is more rural. I have to admit, I did catch myself lying in bed acting out the different voices to a non-existent audience!

Did any of you read the Redwall books when you were younger? Have you been tempted to revisit them? For me the experience was just as enjoyable a good ten years after first reading them.

Becqui