Tuesday, 27 December 2011

Uglies - Scott Westerfield

ISBN: 1416911049

Welcome to the world of uglies and pretties. Set in the future, Westerfield presents us with a society of perfection: on your sixteenth birthday, you receive an operation to change you from an ugly to a pretty. Seen through the eyes of Tally, a very-almost-sixteen-year-old, Westerfield shows us humanity without flaws, without disease, without prejudice and without difference.

Very quickly this is revealed to be a dystopia, as the same-ness which is immediately apparent goes deeper than anybody would have thought. Tally is faced with a decision and more horrific secrets are revealed to her as she progresses. This is a coming-of-age story pushed to the extreme.

This novel is fast-paced and intriguing, with hugely likeable characters. It is a tale that causes us to ask 'what if?' of our own world every time we put it down, which, I have to say, I found hard to do. It raises questions about beauty, about identity and about love. Aimed at teenagers, it is a refreshing look at how beauty is only skin deep, but shows us what could happen if it wasn't...

Rating: 8/10

Saturday, 12 November 2011

The Bell Jar - Sylvia Plath

ISBN: 9780571226160

This is the most real book I have ever read. It is alive and painfully honest. In this semi-autobiographical novel, Plath portrays what it is to be on the verge of entering into the world, through the eyes of 19-year-old Esther Greenwood, who is working in New York for the summer.

The plot oozes with the sense of needing to find a place in the world, of carving out a niche for oneself in a society that is increasingly success-oriented. Which 'fig' should Esther strive for: business woman or wife, mother or linguist, typist or writer? Or pleasing her mother? Each holds promise, but each option seems to close the door to all other possibilities. And each looks so tempting.

This is a work about first times, about putting one's toe in the water, about self-discovery. It is not a cheery read, especially given Plath's biography, but the true depiction of emotion and despair is so intricate that it grabs at you like the tendrils of a lonely octopus.

Rating: 9/10

Monday, 7 November 2011

Selected Poems - Christian Rossetti

ISBN (Everyman's Poetry edition): 0460878204

Christina Rossetti is not a household name among poets, and I don't understand why. Her poetry is alive with the pain of a broken heart. Not that it's whiny or depressing; far from it. This is a collection that is full of hope even in the most desolate of internal landscapes.

Born in 1830, Rossetti is best known for writing 'In the Bleak Midwinter', which happens to be my favourite Christmas carol. This is clearly a lady who knew great pain and loneliness; this is only too evident as you read her verse, and yet her deep faith saturates every line. Rossetti is clearly in love with Jesus, and this brings her great hope as she chooses him above "looking earthward". This is perhaps most evident in 'The Convent Threshold'.

Her language is polished to the point of sparkling with the emotion she pours out. Though she uses clipped phrases and the sentiments are subdued, they are veiled only thinly, so that the true feelings in this repressed life glow through the lines like a blush.

Rating: 8/10

Sunday, 9 October 2011

A Little Princess - Frances Hodgson Burnett

ISBN: 0140366881

This is one of my all-time favourite books. It is mostly set in a boarding school, which bodes well to start with, and it has the word 'princess' in the title, and yet it is so much more than a heart-warming children's tale. But warm the heart, it certainly does.

Sara is a little girl, left in a boarding school under the tutelage of strict Miss Minchin, after her rich upbringing in India. Things naturally turn for the worst, but even in the most tragic of circumstances, Sara shows an immense resolve to be optimistic. It is her beautiful imagination that saves her.

This is a novel that I grew up with and it inspired me to not become dragged down by circumstances; things could always be worse. This book is powerful. Burnett's characters are charming and their sparkling interactions leap from the page like confetti. Sara's stories, in particular, bring light.

If anybody has dampened spirits, let them read this book, for they will be cheered.

Rating: 9/10

Lady Oracle - Margaret Atwood

ISBN: 0860683036

In true Atwood style, this novel is both intelligent and highly readable. Atwood's prose is addictive and so real that I wanted to write 'YES!' all over the margins of this book. This tale is spun around yet another absorbing protagonist, this time a red-headed writer, Joan, who used to be fat.

This heroine is honest and tells us what she thinks, even when she isn't sure what this is herself. Self-discovery seems to be a recurring theme for Atwood (at least among the ones I have read so far), and Joan strives to find her identity through her relationships with others. First through a difficult relationship with her mother, then girls at school, and then through a series of relationships with men.

And yet, Joan hides huge parts of herself in each relationship, which makes this, perhaps, more a novel about perception than identity. This book is entirely relevant, frequently funny, and often bizarre. It gets a hold on you and grips you by the shoulders until you reach the last page, when you will be begging for more.

Rating: 8/10

Saturday, 1 October 2011

Rapture - Carol Ann Duffy

ISBN: 9780330433914

This collection of poems is heartbreakingly accurate. Duffy writes about the rapture of being in love as something that is to be revelled in, something that is all-encompassing and something that is inescapable, for good or for bad.

Duffy performs the impossible feat of writing new love poetry with poise, skimming past cliché like a dragonfly on water. How she did it, I don't know, but I'm mighty glad she did. This collection is modern without being twee, it is sensual without being crass, it is universal without being vague.

These poems are like her earlier collection The World's Wife has had its juices squeezed out and crystallised into a single glass heart. Anybody who has ever been in love, out of love, or looking for love should read this. It will resonate.

Rating: 9/10

Wide Sargasso Sea - Jean Rhys

ISBN: 9780140274219

This slim volume is wrought with life clamouring to get out. Rhys's novel is a prequel to Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre, and is set oceans away in 1930s Jamaica. Centring on Mr. Rochester's first wife, Antoinette, we get a while new perspective on Bronte's novel, like switching on a light in the attic.

I can only describe this book as colourful; the garish colours of the backdrop drip from the page and stick us to the prose. The atmosphere Rhys evokes in this setting is sultry as the hot, thick Jamaican air; the tone is like a silent scream.

And yet it is so very real; the details are intricate and personal, so that we cannot help feeling empathy for this character we have locked away for so long. The very lines of this book act as prison bars that Antoinette is fighting to break out of; and she does. Rhys's character escapes from this novella and stays with us, haunting our reading of Jane Eyre in the future.

Rating: 8/10

Sunday, 28 August 2011

The Magic Toyshop - Angela Carter

ISBN: 0860681904

This novel is dripping with barely repressed sensuality. Melanie, aged fifteen, longs to be a woman, and also longs to be a child again; this much is clear through Carter's evocative prose. A surreal night time wander, swiftly followed by a family tragedy leads Melanie to find herself living in her Uncle's toyshop with her brother and sister and two unconventional cousins.

This is a novel about between places. Melanie is between childhood and adulthood, between happy and sad, between one family and another. As always, Carter uses vivid images that at once inspire and startle. Here, images synonymous with childhood clash with those of adulthood in a way that is disturbing and, also, realistic particularly with her allusions to the literature of childhood. This reaches its peak at the end, when Melanie loses her childhood teddy bear forever.

Though not as plot-driven as some of her other work, this novel abounds with Magical Realism, and at times the Carnivalesque too. Carter weaves these elements together in a way that is spellbinding and captures the imagination, evoking memories from when we, too, were in those in-between places. She comments on human relationships and the solidarity and comfort that can be gleaned in the most peculiar of situations.

Rating: 8/10

Friday, 26 August 2011

Junk - Melvin Burgess

ISBN: 0140380191

This book is as addictive as its subject matter. Somewhat controversial, Junk is a novel aimed at teenagers that tells the truth about drugs, particularly heroin, the highs, the lows, the good, the bad, and the devastating, without being patronising or glib. As with most teen fiction, this is more than capable of speaking deeply to adults.

The split-viewpoint prose is canny, and we slip seamlessly behind the eyes of almost each character we come across. Burgess achieves this with poise, if not with subtlety, and the pace trots along with the speed of the young peoples' lives.

At times, however, I found the teenage language a little forced and a little anachronistic with the time period (the mid 80s). Also, the varying characters increasingly address the reader directly, which is confusing and irritating.

This work speaks of freedom; its strengths and its limits. Burgess explores addiction in many forms and the weakness of human beings. What holds this novel together is love; its ability to liberate, to capture, to intoxicate and to heal.

Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

The Bloody Chamber - Angela Carter

ISBN: 0099588110

Cater's prose in this selection is dark and heady like a large glass of red wine. Dense with sensuous imagery, this is a rich collection of stories that we want to go on and on. These are clever updates of classic fairy tales, which Carter, arguably, puts a feminist spin on.

Wrought with suspense, sometimes gore, and often terror, these stories are to be revelled in, they are so drenched in life. Though at first we wonder at the horror and sexuality that she adds to these tales, I think they highlight to us just how complex the stories of Grimm and Perrault truly are.

Perhaps, though, the 'women coming out on top' is a bit overdone. Moreover, for a collection of stories that are supposed to be new, Carter sticks surprisingly rigidly to Gothic convention.

Rating: 8/10

Saturday, 20 August 2011

The Bonesetter's Daughter - Amy Tan

ISBN: 0006550436

This is a powerful novel that speaks to us about family, memory and words themselves. Ruth's mother, LuLing is getting old and Tan shows us how she copes with this as well as day-to-day family drama and her own somewhat dysfunctional relationship.

Yet the story is not as simple as that. As LuLing plunges into further confusion do to Alzheimers she begins to make strange claims about her family. But as Ruth has her mother's memoirs translated from Chinese to English, she discovers much about her mother's past and she begins to question many things.

The frame narrative of this book is beautiful, and with each layer we care more and more about the various characters. Tan writes with a lot of poise and charm that wraps us under its spell. I did find some passages a little slow, though, and I would have loved some descriptions of China in terms of the landscape and atmosphere.

Above all, this is a novel which explores the meanings of words, the spoken word, the written word, the individual word and collective words. Tan shows us that they have power, mystery and contain lost knowledge.

Rating: 7/10

Friday, 19 August 2011

Belinda - Maria Edgeworth

ISBN: 0199554684

Maria Edgeworth is an author who escaped my notice until quite recently. Reading her was like tasting chocolate for the first time! Naturally, I compared her to other Regency women writers: Edgeworth writes with all of the satire of Jane Austen and the darkness of Emily Bronte.

This novel follows Belinda through her first interactions with society as those around her try to steer her towards a husband. The most dominant character, though, is Lady Delacour, who is deliciously beastly --think Mrs. Bennet meets Mr. Woodhouse, through whom we encounter much of the medicine of the day.

Funny and plot-driven, this book tells us much of the contemporary society, not only in terms of medical practices, but also social experiments, trickery and the role and constraints of women, and how these were fought against.

This novel is satisfying and ahead of its time in both its style and its content. It really is a work of art.

Rating: 8/10

The Screwtape Letters - C. S. Lewis

ISBN: 0006280609

I found this book fascinating. Lewis delves into hell for his characters Screwtape, one of the Devil's assistants, whose job is to stop people becoming Christians. The novel (for I would classify it as such) is presented as a succession of letters from Screwtape to his nephew, a younger, newer 'demon'.

This is a really entertaining read, and immensely funny. It challenges preconceptions of how we view Christians and it makes us think about how our daily actions have much larger repercussions. Lewis presents each of our lives as a battleground between good and evil.

Despite the depth of this book, it is a lighter read than you would imagine. Lewis offers us a lot of hope and encouragement in a world that seems to be influenced by the Devil at every turn. Lewis highlights the futility of evil where a benevolent God is truly in control. A must-read no matter what your beliefs.

Rating: 9/10

Monday, 15 August 2011

The Eyre Affair - Jasper Fforde

ISBN: 034073356X

Literary humour sparkles through this novel that will make any book lover smile knowingly and feel proud that they have spotted the jokes. For me, this was the main attraction of the book, the constant allusions to other literature made me feel at home; reading this felt like browsing my own bookshelf on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

The eccentric characters are immensely likeable, if not entirely true to life. The bizarre happenings of the plot will keep you tripping through the pages even though you determined to stop for a cup of tea half an hour ago.

I felt that the voice of the narrator was overpoweringly male, though, considering the main character is a woman. I also felt that the tone suited that of an American detective novel, which I found slightly irritating. Also, considering the title directly mentions Jane Eyre, that novel doesn't really come into the plot until near the end, which I was disappointed with.

This is a very clever book, though, and highly readable.

Rating: 7/10

The Castle of Otranto - Horace Walpole

ISBN: 0140437673

This is credited to being the first Gothic novel. I enjoyed the book, I found it immensely entertaining. Princes and princesses, knights, a castle with secret corridors and trapdoors galore, not to mention a creepy portrait and a more than slightly unusual family, this is the kind of thing that fantasy is made of. I can see why it sparked such a huge and successful genre.

However, I can't help but feel that this is a caricature of a novel, a cardboard cut-out stage with two-dimensional characters. Walpole's characters are stereotypes that don't seem to show any emotion or even surprise. Realism is hardly the author's aim, though, so perhaps this can be forgiven.

This is a novel that is to be laughed at rather than with, I'm afraid, despite its profound effect on literature as a whole. If you're happy to do that, though, or to overlook the gaping plot flaws, it is a really enjoyable read. It is a must for any lover of fantasy or Gothic.

Rating: 5/10

Saturday, 13 August 2011

The Host - Stephenie Meyer

ISBN: 9780751540642

I found this novel entertaining and challenging. I was surprised by the depth of this book; Meyer questions what it is to be human. This seems to be an increasingly common theme among novels, especially in fantasy and science fiction, but Meyer has an original take on it here.

Earth has been taken over by 'souls' and humans have almost been wiped out, being used as hosts for the 'souls'. But Meyer explores what happens what part of the human host remains. She changes our perceptions of aliens and of our own behaviour, particularly in a colony-type setting.

I found this really thought provoking and very moving. Though this is science fiction above all else, there is still the swoon-rendering romance we've come to expect from Meyer. We become so attached to the characters in here that it becomes quite heartbreaking at times.

If you're a Meyer sceptic, I would suggest reading this. She writes with poise and sincerity, and there isn't a vampire in sight.

Rating: 7/10

Friday, 12 August 2011

Perfume: The Story of a Murderer - Patrick Suskind

ISBN: 0141041153

This is a fascinating novel that focuses on viewing the world through one's nose. Where novels usually focus on what things look like, Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, the protagonist, has an unusually sharp sense of smell, and so experiences the world in this way. Suskind brings to life 18th century Paris through how it smells. I found this totally absorbing as well as (sometimes gruesomely) entertaining.

It's a dark novel, to say the least, but the fleshiness of it is what gives it its spark. We get into the mind of a killer and we know what makes him tick. Somehow the murders don't seem as important, to us the readers, as this smell that is at the forefront of Grenouille's quest.

Suskind shows us how this world is to an outsider, and Grenouille is an outsider in every sense of the word. This is what makes him so good at what he does. How can a human with no smell fit in with humanity? How can one cling to one's humaneness with that sense ever pervading your nostrils?

This is also a novel about power, in its different forms, and how far we will go to get it.

Rating: 8/10

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society - Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows

ISBN: 9781408810262

The only way to describe this book is delightful. Initially I was put off by the epistolary style of this novel, however it is easy to follow despite the many (charming) characters. I was captivated by the personality of Juliet Ashton straight away, through the witty way her letters are written, but mainly through what the other characters write about (and to) her.

Set just after the First World War, Shaffer and Barrows offer a lot of hope in this novel, and through the lives of everyday folk explore how Britain got on its feet again and how people cope with the emotional trauma of the war. However, this is never at the forefront of what is being said, and it doesn't feel like 'a book about the War'.

When it does talk about the War (directly or indirectly) it focuses on the home front, so to speak, the lives of those not fighting. It is mainly concerned with the occupation of Guernsey, which I found hugely interesting.

What makes this novel so great, though, is that we get to know the characters at exactly the right pace, and we learn to love them all. Shaffer and Barrows have a unique gift to make their readers feel that they are friends with their characters. I wanted this book to go on for much longer.

And yes, we do get to find out what potato peel pie is!

Rating: 9/10

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Accidental -- Ali Smith

ISBN: 9780141049748

Smith took the term 'free indirect discourse' and lit a firework under it so that it shoots its way through this novel. I found the pungency of these voices captivating and I found myself wondering what Astrid would think about things I come across. I even had a conversation with myself about why people don't keep maggots as pets. I'm sure this book is to blame for that.

A deliciously strange woman, Amber, invites herself into the life of an ordinary family whilst on holiday. Amber becomes exactly what each character needs, even if they don't see it themselves. It makes us wonder whether anything can be a coincidence and we look about us in a new way after having read this book. However, I found Astrid's and Magnus' stories far more engaging than their parents', I wonder if this is my age. Has anybody else found this to be the case?

Smith makes us think about the nature and power of language, how it affects us and changes us, and how we can affect and change it, in turn.

Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies -- Seth Grahame Smith

ISBN: 9781594743344

I was intrigued by this book and, I have to say, I quite liked the idea of Elizabeth Bennet fighting zombies. Let's face it, if she can slay Mr. Darcy with her sharp wit, what zombie stands a chance? I was expecting an intelligent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice that humorously showed the characters we love more vividly whilst under this kind of duress.

However, this was entirely not the case. I felt that Grahame-Smith held Austen in contempt while he was writing this. It is clear that he was simply trying to make the original text more exciting by including a gory fight with zombies whenever a few characters go anywhere. He has no regard for the manners and customs of Regency England, with huge anachronisms which, though I didn't expect this to be a realistic novel, don't make sense within the plot. Particularly when the Bennet girls casually go to Japan for martial arts training.

As for humour, the pictures in my head of the scenes I was imagining before having cracked the cover were far more entertaining than the actual book. And not even the first pun of 'balls' was funny, let alone one every three pages.

I thought the drawings throughout were quite skilful, though.

Rating: 2/10

The Edible Woman -- Margaret Atwood

ISBN: 9780860681298

Atwood's ability to embody her characters astounds me; in this novel we not only know what Clara, our narrator, is thinking and feeling, but what fabric feels like against her skin, what food tastes like against her tongue and, crucially, to her stomach. Atwood is a chameleon of a writer.

This novel sums up an era, I believe, for women everywhere, and perhaps is a precursor to Desperate Housewives. As always, I've found, with Atwood, it's the relationships which shine through the pages of this novel like a lighthouse to guide you through the uncertain waters of the plot.

She highlights the difference with perspicacity between male-female relationships and female-female relationships, portraying genuine friendship and solidarity between women even of the most unlikely pairings.

Rating: 8/10

Monday, 1 August 2011

The Princess Bride - William Goldman

ISBN: 9780747545187

Goldman intelligently entwines meta fiction into this seemingly traditional adventure story. The narrative hops from romance to danger to camaraderie to sword fights to explorations to palaces with no more difficulty or jarring than a dragonfly flitting in and out of a pond. Whilst juggling with this in one hand, Goldman balances a critique of the genre in the other.

However, I found the constant interruption of the author's voice irritating because of its frequency, and I felt that he was being disparaging to similar tales. Perhaps I was longing for a traditional adventure, but I felt that there was too much jumping up and down of the author so that the characters became just that--characters.

It was all too clear that this what was happening was only a story. Other instances where this is far more successful is the subtlety of Edgeworth's Belinda, and the jumping-in-with-both-feet approach of Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveller. I suppose I wanted Goldman to either tone it down or crank it up.

Nevertheless, I did enjoy the story and one cannot deny that it is well written, with originality of expression in a traditional genre that could easily become jaded. I would have been happier if the book had finished off without the additional 'Buttercup's Baby' section, which I felt dampened the rest.

Rating: 6/10

Neverwhere - Neil Gaiman

ISBN: 9780755322800

I think of this book as a grimy fairytale and the panorama of the story seems to be in sepia. This novel is about the "other London", a fantasy world of heroes and villains, in unusual and often grotesque packages. Brimming with small details that make you laugh out loud or cringe in disgust, Gaiman brings us the equivalent of 'those little extras' that make our journey through this novel so enchanting.

Richard Mayhew, our protagonist is so very authentic that we forget that this isn't something we encounter everyday. We do not so much suspend our disbelief as throw it out of the window and dance in its wake. It takes quite a writer to take a world lousy with rats and make it beautiful.

Despite their unusual shells, the characters display vividly human emotions so that we connect with them instantly and feel that we should be inviting them to tea with our favourite aunt. Door, especially, sparkles with vivacity in the way only Gaiman can achieve. However, I was a little disappointing with the ending, which I felt was an anticlimax.

Rating: 8/10

Sunday, 31 July 2011

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro

ISBN: 9780571258093

This novel is quite unlike anything I've read. At first it seems to be the simple story of an English boarding school, and students growing up. The characters are full of promise and blossoming with life, which is ironic as their true identities are slowly revealed.

This book is darker than it first seems, like the tendrils of shadows that appear when you're reading by lamplight. And yet there is so much humanness about it that we question our own reality and what it is to be completely alive.

Set in a fictional England, Ishiguro's observations of our own world, through his narrator Kathy, are pithy and hauntingly accurate. Yet there is a disjointedness that is apparent from the very start, something that is distinctly but clandestinely wrong about this world.

The exchanges between characters are exactly right and sometimes startlingly funny, but always incredibly moving, especially as the novel progresses. This book blurs the lines of genre, stepping on the toes of science fiction, horror and the Gothic novel, whilst simultaneously being entirely contemporary.

Rating: 8/10

I Capture The Castle - Dodie Smith

ISBN: 9780099460879

I drank down this book like a sweet glass of iced tea. The backdrop of the castle is charming in every sense in this book that sparks magic, mostly in the personality of the characters. Each character glows with life so that they're almost four-dimensional.

The opening image of a young woman writing in the kitchen sink for the sake of somewhere to be struck a chord with me. This story, while not fast-paced or action packed, is told through the narrator Cassandra Mortmain, Smith's prose dripping with life and promise, as this young woman is on the cusp of becoming an adult.

Concentrating on relationships of every nature, this novel shows us what it is to truly feel emotion, to feel them potently and for the first time. It feels so very real and so very English that it will stay with a reader for a long time after being put back amidst the dust of other paperbacks. It particularly haunts me when I visit National Trust properties.

Rating: 8/10

Saturday, 30 July 2011

The Wasp Factory - Iain Banks

ISBN: 0349101779

I studied this during my A-Levels and I haven't been able to forget about it since. Banks lets us inside the head of Frank, the narrator, and he drags us through his world as though we are being towed behind a truck, and he doesn't let up until the very last page.

Frank is a teenager in Scotland who leads an unconventional life, somewhat isolated, receiving comments that "he's not all there". But his wit and intelligence makes itself apparant as the prose continues and we learn to sympathise with and even like this self-professed murderer, "It was just a stage I was going through."

Set in the very real backdrop of being a teenager in the 80s, in this novel Banks makes us question madness and morality whilst ever being under Frank's power. He draws on Gothic convention and the timelessness of human nature, whilst still being incredibly relevant.

There are moments that genuinely turned my stomach and gave me nightmares, and others that made me laugh aloud, while the whole novel sparkles with literariness. And who doesn't love a book with a good twist at the end?

Rating: 8/10

Stargirl - Jerry Spinelli

ISBN: 1841219266

Perhaps unconventionally, I'm starting this literary venture with a novel for teenagers. I first read this as a young teenager, lured by its florescent pink cover, but rediscovered it recently and devoured it in an afternoon. This is a shining jewel among books. Reading it is like basking in the sunshine after a particularly cold winter.

The first-person narrative of a teenage boy bounces along with optimism and poise, although at times it does seem as though this voice more suits a female narrator. Leo’s high school is shaken one day with the appearance of a quirky new student, Stargirl Carraway. What makes her stick out is primarily her longing to bring joy to others.

On the surface this is a very simple novel, giving hope to those stuck in the mundane. It explores group mentality and the consequences of being different. But Spinelli also delves into what it means to truly be yourself and where happiness comes from. I think this book can’t fail to change its reader, and it promises to make our communities brighter places.

Rating: 9/10