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Literary Playlist #1: ‘Stargirl’

Shiny Happy People — R.E.M
She’s Got You High — Mumm-ra
Iris — Goo Goo Dolls
Brand New World — Noah Gundersen
Lights Out, Words  Gone — Bombay Bicycle Club
Bright Whites — Kishi Bashi
Sweet Disposition — Temper Trap
Abraham’s Daughter — Arcade Fire

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Flash Reviews (29th November 2013)

Crash by Jerry Spinelli ***
Upon the strength of Stargirl and Milkweed, both of which I very much enjoyed, I will happily read any of Spinelli’s work, even if the storyline does not appeal to me as such.  This one in particular did not, as it is partly about football which I have no interest in, but I began it regardless and still found myself enjoying it.  Throughout, I found the protagonist, Crash, rather difficult to like.  His character arc was believable however, and I admired the ways in which Spinelli consciously altered his views and behaviour by the time the end of the book was reached.  The narrative voice used throughout worked very well, and the writing was polished.  My favourite characters were Crash’s neighbour Penn, and his young sister Abby, both of whom I felt were marvellous constructs.

The beautiful RSC Complete Works of William Shakespeare

Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare ***
Unbeknownst to me was the fact that this is one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays; ‘perhaps even his first’, according to my beautiful RSC edition of his complete work.  Each introduction in the volume is marvellous, and this one particularly sets the scene very well indeed.  Throughout, the introductions speak of Shakespeare’s chosen techniques in each of his plays, his themes, the choices he makes regarding names and vocabulary, and the balance between comedy and seriousness, amongst many other elements.  I really cannot recommend this collection enough.

I did not know anything about Two Gentlemen of Verona before I began reading it. The play tells the story of two friends, Valentine and Proteus.  Valentine has set his heart upon leaving Verona to search for much-needed adventure in Milan.  Whilst the storyline is interesting, it does not feel as polished throughout as Shakespeare’s other plays.  There does not seem to be that marvellous awareness of how powerful plays can be made if things are left unsaid rather than explicitly stated.  This is not the best play which I have come across by any means, but it is most interesting to see how Shakespeare’s writing progressed during his career.  My favourite element here was the fun wordplay employed throughout, which brought a comic touch to proceedings.

13, rue Therese by Elena Mauli Shapiro ***
I inwardly cheered when I found such a pristine copy of 13, rue Therese in Brighton, and was glad when the suggestion to read it came out of my book jar so quickly.  The novel was not at all what I expected.  It contains a lot of source material throughout – letters, photographs of people and objects, etc. – and is told both through letters and narrative.  First, second and third person perspectives have been made use of, and are switched from one to the next quite seamlessly.  The story has been based upon a box of random objects which Shapiro’s mother kept after one of their elderly Parisian neighbours, who owned it, passed away.  Shapiro has tried to recreate her story – an imagined working of how the objects came to be in the box, as it were.

The novel begins in 1928.  Several linked stories run concurrently – one of a professor whose secretary seems to own the box of objects and places it within his filing cabinet for him to find, of Louise Brunet (Shapiro’s neighbour), and of Xavier Langlais and his family, who become residents of the novel’s address.  These tales overlap at seemingly random junctures.  The idea of the novel is interesting, but the use of so many sources – almost like clues throughout – make the whole feel a little disjointed.  I liked the idea of 13, rue Therese more than the execution.  I found the entire novel rather odd, repetitive and jumpy, and the ending was utterly bizarre.  Still, as it held my attention and curiosity throughout, I have given it the benefit of the doubt and awarded it three stars instead of the two which I briefly considered.

The Snow Goose by Paul Gallico ***

‘The Snow Goose’ by Paul Gallico

I have heard many marvellous things about Gallico’s writing, and this title particularly appealed to me.  I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the book, and I did not even know which age group it was aimed at particularly, even when I had finished reading.  In some ways it seemed rather too simplistic for adults, but equally, the latter part of the story does not strike me as overly companionable with children.  The prose style throughout feels fairytale- and fable-esque.  The first section of The Snow Goose takes place upon the Essex coast, and begins in 1930.  It tells the story of a man named Rhayader, a painter and bird lover, who relishes peace and solitude.  My favourite part of the novel was Gallico’s description of him:

“… a lonely man.  His body was warped, but his heart was filled with love for wild and hunted things.  He was ugly to look upon, but he created great beauty.

The main thread of the story begins when a young girl brings Rhayader an injured snow goose, which she hopes that he can save.  It then grows darker in its plot, and Rhayader goes off to fight in Dunkirk.  This element of the story did not work that well as far as I was concerned.  On the whole, The Snow Goose is both odd and sweet, but it feels a little lacking at times, and is not one which I will pick up again in a hurry.

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Flash Reviews (13th November 2013)

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides ****

‘The Marriage Plot’

I really enjoyed The Virgin Suicides on both occasions which I’ve read it, and I also liked Middlesex.  It was quite obvious, then, that I would be reading The Marriage Plot as soon as I could get my hands upon a copy.  The novel is composed of all the elements which I enjoy in fiction, and intelligence, wit and philosophy abound throughout.  The entirety is well crafted in terms of both its writing and structure.  The settings were described marvellously and the characters all felt realistic.  Whilst I didn’t like many of them – well, in truth, I did not like any of them aside from Mitchell, one of its protagonists – they both interested and intrigued me.  My only qualm with The Marriage Plot was the wholly predictable ending.  Aside from that, I found the novel difficult to put down.

Milkweed by Jerry Spinelli ****
I find novels about the Holocaust and World War Two which are told from the perspective of children so very powerful.  When I found out that Spinelli had written one, it made its way onto my to-read list immediately.  I am pleased to say that it was both compelling and harrowing.  Spinelli crafted each of his characters well, and I was particularly fond of Misha and Janina.  I loved Misha’s naivety throughout, and his yearning for self-sufficiency within the Warsaw Ghetto.  He was a very endearing protagonist, and I admire Spinelli greatly for creating him.

Like April, who also read Milkweed at around the same time that I did, I would have given this novel five stars were it not for the rather paltry ending, which I half expected to happen.  I wanted to be completely blown away by it, and think I would have been if the entirety of the book had been left upon a cliffhanger.  The power which this would have created would have been utterly marvellous.  Milkweed made my heart ache with sadness at times, but I did not find it as gutwrenching as it could have been.

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome ****
Swallows and Amazons is one of very few books which my sister has actually read and enjoyed, so I felt I just had to borrow it.  I found it marvellously old-fashioned.  The very notion that four young children – the youngest only five years old – would be allowed to camp on a deserted island, sailing and cooking by themselves, seems rather alien to a child of the late twentieth century.  I felt that this was exemplified fourfold when their mother handed them half a dozen packages of matches and left them to it.  This unusual element of the story made it so readable, and I really struggled to put it down.  I loved how adventurous the children were, and it felt rather Blyton-esque to me, as I had both hoped and expected it would.

I found the pace a little plodding at times, and felt that it varied greatly from one chapter to the next.  Several of the passages or even whole sections in a couple of cases were rather superfluous.  Just as I was beginning to think at around the halfway point that the book was becoming a little overdone and rather overworked, elements of greatness crept in once more, and I was hooked.  I very much like the way in which Ransome writes and crafts his tales and characters, and his marvellous building of the atmosphere within the novel.  I wish I had come across Swallows and Amazons when I was younger, and will certainly be reading the rest of the series at some point.

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Flash Reviews (29th October 2013)

9781846169243

‘Stargirl’ by Jerry Spinelli

Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli ****
Stargirl was one of the very first books which I wrote in my original ‘to-read’ notebook when I purchased it back in 2007, and I have only just got around to purchasing and reading it.  I was so excited to begin it after April telling me that the snippets of the story which she had read were beautiful.  Whilst reading, the novel reminded me of Looking for Alaska by John Green in terms of its school-based storyline and quirky characters, and The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides with regard to its narrative style.  (Side note: If you have enjoyed either or both of these novels, then go and locate yourself a copy of Stargirl as soon as you can, and don’t stop reading until you have finished it.)

The characters in Stargirl are all incredibly well developed, and I loved how different they were.  Spinelli makes it easy to identify those who are only mentioned once or twice in the narrative due to the original details which he includes.  The characterisation of Stargirl particularly was marvellous.  I loved how quirky and unexpected she was, and the arc of her character development was well constructed and believable, if very sad.  This is a novel which I will certainly be reading again.

Bluestockings: The Remarkable Story of the First Women to Fight for an Education by Jane Robinson ****
I find non-fiction books like this fascinating, particularly when they explore education and the suffrage movement in detail (which, incidentally, Bluestockings does).  I loved the way in which Robinson set out the history of the female fight for education, and admired the fact that she based the book only within England and Scotland.  Her use of sources – quotes and case studies – to back up particular facts or statements worked very well, and I was pleased that she did not rely too heavily upon them, as some historical books which I have read in the past have done.  Without the women outlined in Bluestockings, I doubt that I would be as well educated as I am now.  It is thanks to them, really, that all children and young people have the same educational rights and opportunities to study today, regardless of their sex or upbringing.  I am so very grateful for both their determination and their bravery.  A great and highly recommended book.

Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer ***
I had not planned to read another non-fiction book directly after finishing the marvellous Bluestockings, but it was the first suggestion which I picked out of my handy to-read jar, so I decided to go with it regardless.  The story which Krakauer looks at – that of a young man named Chris McCandless, who donated his savings to Oxfam and then disappeared into the Alaskan wilderness, his whereabouts relatively unknown until his body was found some time afterwards – is interesting, and as I don’t really read true crime books often, it has made me want to explore the genre further.  Despite this, Into the Wild did feel a little lacking in its execution.  Krakauer’s narrative style was a touch dull at times, and I think a little more passion in or enthusiasm for his subject would have made the world of difference.  Although I was keen to learn about McCandless’ story, the writing style meant that I rather struggled to get into it.