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The Fifty Women Challenge: ‘The Bloody Chamber’ by Angela Carter ***

A few of the choices on mine and Yamini’s Fifty Women Challenge list are authors whom I very much enjoy, but I am still only scratching the surface of their work.  Angela Carter is one such woman.

9780140178210I must admit that I have found her work a little hit and miss in the past.  I very much enjoyed The Moving Toyshop, and still think that the magical realism within it, and the beguiling and creepy elements, have no real equal in contemporary literature.  I have found a few of her other novels a little less enticing, however, despite her holding such a prominent place on the Virago Modern Classics list.

I had been very much looking forward to reading The Bloody Chamber for such a long time, and thought that I would very much enjoy it, loving twists upon fairytales as I do.  I was therefore thrilled when I found a copy of Carter’s Burning Your Boats: Collected Short Stories in a local charity shop, albeit a rather battered one.

A few weeks before I had planned to read The Bloody Chamber, my dear friend Belinda told me how disappointed she was with the collection, particularly with regard to the way in which Carter had subjected all of the male characters within it to some form of weakness, so that her female protagonists could subjugate them.

Still, I began the stories with an open mind.  Each of the tales here presents a series of (mostly) clever twists upon well-known fairytales.  I found that Carter’s writing is often careful and really quite wonderful, particularly within the title story which opens the collection.  Her vivid descriptions and general prose in ‘The Bloody Chamber’ were both lovely and rather disturbing.  Incredibly strange elements manifest themselves throughout, something which will surely not surprise anyone who is already familiar with her work.

As I often find with short story collections, some of the tales were far better than others; I felt that the originality tailed off a little after the first few stories, and never really reached the same level again.  Some of them felt too developed, and others were not developed enough; there was no real balance struck between the two.  There were a lot of similarities within the plots too, and a lot of them seemed to circle around (were)wolves, which I have very little interest in.

To comment upon the males within the collection, they were utterly void of strength in places, and rather unnecessarily so.  It was always the women who had to act as the rescuers, and the men who had to act as the victims.  I could see what Carter was trying to do within The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, but it just didn’t really follow the boundaries of the real world, which the stories themselves still purported to be set within.  Feminism should not be about weakening males in comparison to females; it should be about equality – something which does not seem to exist within the realms of this collection.  To conclude, I really did enjoy the overriding fairytale theme within The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, but feel that Carter could have been a touch more creative with it at times.

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Classics Club #36: ‘The Rainbow’ by D.H. Lawrence ****

Lawrence is an author whom I have wanted to read since my A-Level studies began, but I have always been put off from beginning his work due solely to the things Id heard about the smuttier (for want of a better word) elements present in some of his novels.  I decided to add one of his novels, The Rainbow, to my Classics Club list to get the ball rolling, as he is an author whom I certainly feel I ought to have read.

Published in 1915, The Rainbow opens with the characters of Tom Brangwen, a descendant of a long-established Derbyshire family: ‘The Brangwens had lived for generations on the Marsh Farm, in the meadows where the Erewash twisted sluggishly through alder trees, separating Derbyshire from Nottinghamshire.  Two miles away, a church-tower9780199553853 stood on a hill, the houses of the little country town climbing assiduously up to it.’  Lawrence goes on to beautifully describe the appearance of the family, building them immediately in the mind: ‘There was a look in the eyes of the Brangwens as if they were expecting something unknown, about which they were eager.  They had the air of readiness for what would come to them, a kind of surety, an expectancy, the look of an inheritor.  They were fresh, blond, slow-speaking people, revealing themselves plainly, but slowly, so that one could watch the change in their eyes from laughter to anger, blue, lit-up laughter, to a hard blue-staring anger; through all the irresolute stages of the sky when the weather is changing.’

Tom soon marries Lydia Lewsky, a Polish widow with a young daughter named Anna.  Lydia – or Mrs Lewsky, as she is known – is working as a housekeeper at the local vicarage.  The two soon find solace within one another.  The rest of The Rainbow is generational in its structure; it follows Anna and her siblings, and then Anna’s own children.  This particular aspect of the character study is fascinating, and each member of the Brangwen clan has been realistically built and wonderfully presented.  The character arcs, and the paths which each follows from early childhood to adulthood, are believable but not always obvious, which added another dimension to the novel.  The Rainbow is not overly plot heavy, and is more concerned with the family and the choices which they make, but it is all the stronger for it.

Lawrence’s grasp and understanding of the family is stunning, and I was put in mind of both Thomas Hardy and George Eliot at times.  His descriptions are beautiful, and I was absorbed from the very beginning.  The Rainbow is scintillatingly told, and one gets the impression that Lawrence has a piercing understanding for each and every one of his characters.  I feel so very foolish for leaving his work by the wayside for such a long time, but at least I have many more of his novels and short stories to enjoy in future.

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American Literature Month: Flash Reviews from the Archives

A series of flash reviews of American Literature seems a fitting interlude to post amongst the extensive reviews of late.  These have all been posted on the blog over the last couple of years.

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner ****
I adore the Deep South as a setting and am wondering why, after finishing this stunning novel, I’ve not read any of Faulkner’s work before.  I adored the differing perspectives throughout, and the way in which each and every one of them was so marvellously distinct.  The story is such an absorbing one, and I love the idea of it – a family waiting for and commenting upon the death of one of their members.  Faulkner’s differing prose techniques in use in As I Lay Dying are wonderful, and show that as a writer, he is incredibly skilled.  Terribly sad on the whole and very cleverly constructed.

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Let The Great World Spin by Colum McCann ***
I have read some absolutely marvellous reviews of this novel, and couldn’t wait to begin it.  The prologue of Let The Great World Spin is visually stunning and well thought out.  If only the rest of the book had been the same!  I enjoyed the author’s writing on the whole – some of his descriptions, for example, are sumptuous – but my stumbling block came with the characters.  They were interesting enough on the whole, but they were all so broken, often by alcohol and drugs.  Because of this, no distinct characters stood out for me, and I found it difficult to empathise with any of them in consequence.  An interesting novel, but a little disappointing by all accounts.

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Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan ****
Summer days warrant these witty, fun reads for me.  The books which Cohn and Levithan write are not your usual teen fare.  Rather than being fluffy, simply written and overly predictable (sorry, Sara Dessen, but I’m looking at you), their tales are smart, well constructed, intelligent in their prose and rather unique in terms of the cast of characters they create.  Yes, I suppose that there was an element of predictability here with regard to the ending, but the entire story was so well wrought that it really didn’t matter.  The characters are all marvellous, with perhaps the exclusion of Naomi, whom I found to be an incredibly difficult protagonist to get along with.  I loved the way in which Cohn and Levithan tackled serious issues – the rocky road of teen friendships, homosexuality, trying desperately to conform with peers, and so on.  Naomi and Ely’s No Kiss List is a great book, and one which I struggled to put down.

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Children on Their Birthdays by Truman Capote *****
As with the delightful Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I got straight into these stories from the outset. I love the stunning sense of place which Capote never fails to create, and his characters are both marvellously and deftly constructed. His writing is just perfect. The tales in Children on Their Birthdays are short, but boy, are they powerful and thought provoking.

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A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams *****
Williams portrays relationships, even the most complicated, in a masterful manner. I love the way in which he writes. His characterisation is second to none, and he gives one so much to admire in each scene, each act. The characters were all fundamentally troubled souls, each imperfect in his or her own way, but they worked so well as a cast, and Blanche Du Bois is eternally endearing. Williams’ dialogue is pitch perfect. An absolutely marvellous, perceptive, strong and unforgettable play, and one which I’m now longing to see performed.

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BookTube: Reviews – ‘Blankets’ by Craig Thompson and ‘Geisha of Gion’ by Mineko Iwasaki

In which I review two very different books – ‘Blankets’ by Craig Thompson and ‘Geisha of Gion’ by Mineko Iwasaki.

N.B. This is the last of the videos which I had filmed a couple of months ago and done absolutely nothing with – hooray!

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Flash Reviews (20th January 2014)

‘The Charioteer’ by Mary Renault

The Charioteer by Mary Renault ***
Renault is one of the Virago authors whom I have most been looking forward to reading, particularly because April so adores her.  The Charioteer has been recently reissued, and many new reviews can be read in major publications, most of which praise it highly. From the start, I felt that I was reading something ultimately special.  Renault’s writing is absolutely lovely, and her characters and scenes are so very believable.The many years which pass between the chapters is an interesting technique.  Laurie, our protagonist, jumps from being a five-year-old to a seventeen-year-old applying to Oxford, and at the next juncture, he is twenty-three.  Despite all of the lost time between chapters, it does feel as though we get to know him rather well.  The Charioteer, which deals with Laurie’s homosexuality, is a very sad novel at times.  A lot of pain has been woven into his story, manifesting itself both physically and emotionally.  Overall, I found that the story was an interesting one, and Renault certainly addresses some important and topical issues, but my qualm with it was that I could not warm to Laurie.  I also found that I enjoyed the first two chapters far more than the rest of the novel.  Regardless, I would still very much love to read more of Renault’s work.

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‘Before I Die’ by Jenny Downham

Before I Die by Jenny Downham ****
I first read Before I Die when the paperback came out.  I did enjoy it, but found it incredibly chilling, coming as it did just a couple of years after my own grandmother passed away from cancer.  After watching ‘Now Is Good’, a 2012 film which is based upon the book and which stars the lovely Dakota Fanning, a re-read was prompted.

Before I Die tells the story of Tessa from her own perspective.  Four years previously, she was diagnosed with a form of leukaemia, which has become terminal.  Tessa has made a list of all the things which she wants to do before she passes away.  The novel is so very sad, even when you are prepared for what is coming, but Downham handles the topic so sensitively.  Tessa’s narrative voice is incredibly strong.  She is not always the most likeable of characters in terms of her actions, but everything she does is consistent with the shattering news which she has to face.  In this way, Downham has rendered her book rather a gritty read at times.  I liked the way in which she has blended several different stories together, and the way in which she shows how Tessa’s illness affects those around her, as well as herself.  I enjoyed Before I Die far more the second time around, and to everyone who has read and adored John Green’s beautiful The Fault In Our Stars, I say go and read this.

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The Christmas Truce by Carol Ann Duffy ***** (re-read)
Carol Ann Duffy’s Christmas books are absolutely beautiful, both in terms of the words and illustrations.  I first read The Christmas Truce, which tells the lovely story of the British and German soldiers putting down their arms during a First World War Christmas, and spending a peaceful day together, swapping gifts and playing a football match, last year, when I spotted it in the lovely Notting Hill Book and Comic Exchange.  This is a book which I will gladly read every single year, and one which I will never tire of.

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From ‘The Ballad of Reading Gaol’ by Oscar Wilde (1907)

The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde ****
I absolutely adore Oscar Wilde, and this is one of just two works of his which I had not yet read.  The sense of place throughout this poetry collection is stunning, and his writing sublime.  I adore his use of language.  A wealth of subjects have been considered here – Milton, Nelson, Ancient Greece, death, nature, Scandinavian myths and legends, travelling, religion and history just to name a few.  Sadly, I did not quite fall in love with The Ballad of Reading Gaol enough for it to rank amongst my favourites, but it is still lovely.  My favourite poems were ‘The Harlot’s House’ and ‘Les Ballons’, which you can read below.

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Les Ballons

Against these turbid turquoise skies
The light and luminous balloons
Dip and drift like satin moons,
Drift like silken butterflies;

Reel with every windy gust,
Rise and reel like dancing girls,
Float like strange transparent pearls,
Fall and float like silver dust.

Now to the low leaves they cling,
Each with coy fantastic pose,
Each a petal of a rose
Straining at a gossamer string.

Then to the tall trees they climb,
Like thin globes of amethyst,
Wandering opals keeping tryst
With the rubies of the lime.

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‘Stay Where You Are and Then Leave’ by John Boyne ***

I adore John Boyne’s fiction (few books make me cry, but his A Boy in The Striped Pyjamas is one of those which never fails to induce tears), but I must admit that I have been a little disappointed with a couple of his novels.  The first was The Absolutist, which I really didn’t enjoy, despite my love of its wartime setting.  I took a bit of a gamble in that case in reading Stay Where You Are and Then Leave, which is set during the First World War, but it looked too sweet not to request on Netgalley.  Plus, Oliver Jeffers’ cover illustration is beautiful.

‘Stay Where You Are and Then Leave’ by John Boyne

The premise of this children’s novel is most interesting:

The day that the First World War began, Alfie Summerfield’s father promised he wouldn’t go away to fight – but he broke that promise the very next morning.  Four years on, his letters have stopped, and all Alfie knows is that he’s far away on a special secret mission.

In Stay Where You Are and Then Leave, Boyne has crafted the story of a young boy who has to grow up in the face of wartime, and who has to become the man of the house at such an early age, even deciding to secretly become a shoeshine boy in King’s Cross Station to help his mother out with money.  Whilst Alfie does not always understand what is going on around him, he experiences some quite horrid events.  His friend, a young girl named Kalena Janacek, and her Czech father are taken away, believed to be ‘spies’.  Boyne describes the way in which: ‘The last Alfie saw of them was Mr Janacek weeping in the back of the van while Kalena stared out of the window behind her at Alfie, waving silently’.

The First World War began on Alfie’s fifth birthday, and the few memories he had of his father are diminishing.  Throughout, his childish naivety has been well captured.  There is an overriding sense of humour which Boyne has used at intervals, which nicely balances out the horrors of war that the adults around Alfie speak about: ‘Georgie and Margie had been very old when they got married…  His dad had been almost twenty-one and his mum was only a year younger.  Alfie found it hard to imagine what it would be like to be twenty-one years old.  He thought that it would be difficult to hear things and that your sight would be a little fuzzy’.

Boyne has built up the social and emotional history of World War One well.  I imagine that reading such a story would be a good tool to help children to understand the devastation and destruction which battles on such a wide scale can bring – death, weaponry, conscientious objectors – as well as practical ways in which the population of Britain coped in the face of such adversity, by reusing things and rationing.

The third person perspective has been put to good use, but one element of the novel did not sit well for me as an adult reader.  Alfie seemed rather too grown up for a five-year-old at times – for example, he knows all about voting for the prime minister, and speaks of it as though he is far older and wiser than his age suggests.

Boyne is a diverse author, and whilst this was not my favourite of his books (I truly doubt that anything could beat the beautifully haunting The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas for me), it has to be said that he writes just as well for children as for adults.

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‘The State and Revolution’ by Vladimir Lenin ****

‘The State and Revolution’ by Vladimir Lenin

My Dad gave this book to me a couple of years ago, and I picked it up when I felt like a Russian History kick in early December.  I have a different edition to the one pictured, which was published in the Soviet Republic and has no lettering upon its spine – so one can keep it secret upon one’s bookshelf, I suppose.

I am a self-confessed Russian History nerd, and will read anything whatsoever upon the vast and incredibly interesting country’s history.  The subtitle of The State and Revolution is ‘The Marxist Theory of the State and the Tasks of the Proletariat in the Revolution’. The book has been split into quite short and concise chapters, and the information which Lenin presents is organised into shorter sections.

Throughout, Lenin writes about a wealth of information.  He sets out the Marxist theory and how he himself interpreted it, the notion of bourgeois rule, the ‘omnipotence of wealth’, Bolsheviks and Mensheviks and the great divide between the two, propaganda and how it came to be used, universal suffrage and what it means for society, economic development, anarchy, social classes, serfdom, and so on.  He backs up his own ideas and theories with quotes by Marx and Engels throughout.

The State and Revolution has been well written, and the translation has been nicely done too.  It is a great add-on volume to The Communist Manifesto, which I read in my own time at University.  It builds upon the foundations which Marx and Engels present in their book, applying their theories to a real society.  I would certainly recommend it, as it gives a great overview of Communism in Russia, and the doctrines which it was based upon.

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Two Abandoned Books

With the start of the year comes two more books which I abandoned in 2013, one a children’s novel and the other a well-known play by Denmark’s most famous playwright.

The Princess and The Goblin by George MacDonald **
I downloaded this to my Kindle when I read its rather intriguing synopsis.  It begins like a fairytale of sorts, and tells the story of a young princess named Irene.  Irene is sent to live with a family beside her parents’ castle, owing to her mother’s poor health.  A goblin community lives nearby, in a series of underground caverns: ‘their great delight was in every way they could think of to annoy the people who lived in the open-air storey above them’.  Fearing for Irene’s safety, her guardians do not allow her out of the house.

The Princess and The Goblin is nicely written, and has not been rendered too simplistic for an adult to read.  It is, however, an odd little story, which sounds promising but becomes a little dull at times.  It feels a little too drawn out to be the length that it is, and I gave up reading it around a third of the way in.

Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen **
I like A Doll’s House, which I have read three times to date, on the whole, but there is something about it which prevents me from loving it.  Hedda Gabler was similar, in that I was unable to get into the play, and none of the characters felt quite realistic enough for my liking.  Their exchanges with one another were really quite dull at times, and it became another casualty for the abandoned pile.