The Fifty Women Challenge: ‘The World and Other Places’ by Jeanette Winterson **

As I was already a fan of Jeanette Winterson’s novels, I decided to try something a little different of hers for our challenge: a volume of short stories.  The World and Other Places is Winterson’s first collection, and I was incredibly interested to see how the genre suited her writing style.

There are a lot of different styles at play here; we have fairytale-esque shorts, those told from the perspective of men, stories set within imagined vistas, and real world slices of life to name but a few.  That said, the tales within The World and Other Places are a little too varied; there is no sense of cohesion between them, and reading them feels like rather a jarring process in consequence.

Winterson is both an intelligent and perceptive author, but despite this, I was not entirely enamoured with the collection.  There was no particular story which really stood out for me, or which I enjoyed, even.  Nothing felt quite as strong as I had supposed it would; the characters are flat, and the backdrops are shadowy and not quite realistic.  The World and Other Places is neither as interesting nor as engaging as I find her longer fiction.  I love the way in which Winterson writes, but I cannot help but think that she is far better suited to longer literary forms in which she is able to fully exercise her prowess.  Whilst I still really want to read the rest of her novels, I  shall happily hang fire on any other short story collections which she has published to date.

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Flash Review: ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ by Jeanette Winterson ****

‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ by Jeanette Winterson (Vintage)

I have wanted to read this ever since it was published, particularly as I so enjoy Winterson’s fiction.  Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, a question which Winterson’s mother asked her when she was told of her lesbianism, is a memoir of her life, some of the details of which have been previously broadcast or written about, and other details which are new.  Throughout, Winterson writes so creatively, and is honest to the point of admirability about her past.  I found it particularly fascinating to see how much of her own life her first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit reflected.  ‘Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?’ is such a vivid memoir, which manages to be both frank and poetic.

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‘The Daylight Gate’ by Jeanette Winterson *****

Jeanette Winterson’s novels never fail to astound me.  Whilst I have most of her oeuvre yet to read, I have very much enjoyed every book of hers which I have read to date, from the heartbreakingly sad Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit and the quirky The Passion, to her distinct, unique and imaginative retelling of the story of Atlas and Heracles, Weight.  I wanted, therefore, to read The Daylight Gate ever since I first learnt of its publication, and was thrilled when I received a beautiful copy from my parents for Christmas.

I find the Lancashire Witch Trials absolutely fascinating (that kind of horrid which both repulses and interests me – much like the many books about the Holocaust which I tend to read), and I am so pleased that Winterson decided to turn her talented hands to writing a novel about them.

‘The Daylight Gate’ by Jeanette Winterson

Her newest offering is so atmospheric.  Winterson unfailing writes so well, and is a master at creating chills using just a simple sentence.  This was present from the outset in The Daylight Gate, and the consequent tension was marvellously built.  The undercurrents which are present in every work of her fiction are so well done here particularly, and she suggests and hints at many elements throughout without explicitly stating facts.  I love the way in which the reader is subsequently able to come up with their own interpretation at times in The Daylight Gate, almost putting their own stamp upon the novel.

The true history of the Trials is set out throughout the volume, and this gives the entirety a real sense of place and time.  Winterson is able to switch seamlessly from one narrative perspective to another, and shifts the focus between her characters accordingly.

The way in which Winterson uses the full names of her characters for the majority of the book works very well.  As each person whom she touches upon is a distinctive being in history, this technique reminds the reader continually that they were real, and it also serves to detach us emotionally from some of the crueller beings who were involved in the Trials.  Only in the more tender, emotional or pivotal situations throughout does Winterson revert to using only the given names of her protagonists.  The psychology of each and every being we meet has been well considered.

The Daylight Gate is a dark novel, far darker than I expected it to be.  The entirety is beautifully written, the prose sparse when it needs to be, and decorated with lovely descriptions.  The novel made me feel a little uneasy at times, but some of the more gruesome instances throughout built up the book’s power to wonderful heights, making it both powerful and vivid.  I admire Winterson greatly for writing about such an important historical event and bringing it back into the contemporary consciousness in such a stunning way.

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Flash Reviews (16th October 2013)

The Blue Lenses and Other Stories by Daphne du Maurier ****
I love Daphne du Maurier’s books, and her short stories are especially powerful.  This collection, also published as The Breaking Point and Other Stories, promises ‘eight stories which explore the half-forgotten world of childhood fantasies and subtle dreams’.  This quote, coupled with the tales in The Birds and Other Stories, the first of du Maurier’s story collections which I read, made me hope for rather a dark and memorable collection, and that, I am pleased to say, is exactly what I was met with.  Each plotline throughout was surprising, and the twists and turns made me unable to guess what was about to happen.  The tales were startling and full of power, and I very much enjoyed them all for different reasons.

'The Weight' by Jeanette Winterson

‘The Weight’ by Jeanette Winterson

Weight by Jeanette Winterson ****
The two books which I’ve read in the Canongate Myths series so far (Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad and Ali Smith’s Girl Meets Boy) have been great.  Both were very imaginative stories, and I thus had high hopes for Winterson’s offering to the series.  Her chosen story, a retelling of the myth of Atlas and Heracles told in her distinct and unique way, was a marvellous addition to the oeuvre.  The different narrative techniques used throughout complemented with one another, and I loved the way in which the story was presented.  The inclusion of a concurrent present day story running alongside Winterson’s interpretation of the myth worked well.  My only qualm with Weight is that there were perhaps a few too many sexually explicit scenes woven in which were not really necessary, but it is a great read nonetheless.

Love’s Labour’s Lost by William Shakespeare **
I didn’t find Love’s Labour’s Lost as intriguing or interesting as the majority of Shakespeare’s other plays.  The storyline, whilst interesting, did not quite hook me from the outset, as most of his other work has done.  The plot often felt overshadowed by other elements, and I did not feel that it was as developed as I was expecting it to be.  I liked Moth as a character, but he did not feature enough for my liking.  I shall be watching the film version on my boyfriend’s recommendation, but at present, this sadly ranks amongst my least favourite Shakespeare plays.


Flash Reviews (31st July 2013)

The Doll’s House and Other Stories by Sylvia Townsend Warner
I hadn’t even known of the existence of these newly discovered tales before I spotted them quite by chance whilst searching for Virago books on the Kindle store.  I so enjoyed Lolly Willowes which I read earlier this year that I couldn’t pass up the chance of purchasing the collection and then starting it almost immediately.  What I was greeted with was a short book, but an incredibly good one in terms of the quality of its tales.  I love Townsend Warner’s writing, and she strikes a perfect balance between loveliness and expertly building up an atmosphere.  The lasting quality of these stories and the way they linger in the mind is marvellous.  My favourites were ‘The Doll’s House’ and ‘Haig’.

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson

'Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit' by Jeanette Winterson

‘Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit’ by Jeanette Winterson

I wasn’t at all sure what to expect from this novel, but I know that it is much loved and well respected in the literary world.  I had read one of Winterson’s books previous to this (The Passion, a quirky book which I very much enjoyed), and when I spotted it on a crammed shelf in Black Gull Books in Camden, I added it to the (surprisingly) small pile which I was carrying.  The blurb utterly intrigued me.  I found the story incredibly absorbing, and the child narrator Jeanette makes it even more so.  Aspects of the novel were so very sad – for example, Jeanette’s lack of friends, and her classmates and teachers shunning her at school for being so religious – but it was also so witty and amusing.  The balance between the two was expertly done.  Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is an incredibly powerful and unexpected novel.  At one point, it felt as though my heart had been ripped out and stamped over, due to the power of just one sentence.

The Ballad of the Sad Cafe and Other Stories by Carson McCullers
I adore McCullers’ writing, and after reading the beautiful The Heart is a Lonely Hunter earlier this year, I vowed to work my way through her books sooner rather than later.  Whilst the main story in this collection was a relatively interesting one, I do not feel that it or its themes had been quite developed enough.  The characters were not realistic on the whole, and I felt that some of their actions did not at all match McCullers’ initial descriptions of their characters.  I feel as though the length of this story and the mere fact that it was a novella worked against it from the first.  Nothing was quite developed enough.  My favourite part of the story was the stifling and oppressive small town atmosphere which was built up.  After having relatively mixed feelings about The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, I began the short stories with some trepidation.  I was interested to see how McCullers would tackle the often restrictive genre of the short story.  I was beginning to think that these tales were all rather commonplace, and then I reached ‘A Domestic Dilemma’, which proved to be one of the most powerful short stories I’ve read in a long while.  In it, McCullers builds up the atmosphere perfectly, and the musings which the protagonist provides about memory are subtly written and very well woven together.

Candyfloss by Jacqueline Wilson
Yes, I suppose that I am too old to be reading Jacqueline Wilson’s books, but they were such a big part of my

'Candyfloss' by Jacqueline Wilson

‘Candyfloss’ by Jacqueline Wilson

childhood that I still look out for her new publications and will happily read them.  With regard to the storyline in Candyfloss, it was not my favourite of Wilson’s creations, but it tackles issues faced by a worrying amount of children – one parent deciding to move to Australia with her new partner and baby, and the other staying in England.  Whilst the conversation seems a little outdated throughout, the story is sweet, and Floss is a nice little narrator for such a tale.

Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith
I so enjoyed the first book which I read in the Canongate Myths series (the glorious and inventive The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood), and I also so enjoy Smith’s writing in the other books of hers which I’ve read, that I jumped at the chance to read Girl Meets Boy.  On the whole, the tale which she crafted was an imaginative one, and she used the foundations of her chosen myth very well indeed.  Smith presented an interesting blend of modernity and antiquity here, and injected interesting musings on life, society, rights and morals too.  I love the intertwined stories and the use of different narrative voices, all of which were distinct.  The entirety of Girl Meets Boy is tied together so well, and is so intelligent in its tale and its telling.