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‘The Lie Tree’ by Frances Hardinge ****

Finding a book to read after submitting my Master’s dissertation this August has been one of the most daunting tasks of the past few months. Nothing I picked up seemed interesting enough to keep me reading and now I have several books of which the first ten to twenty pages have been read but have unfortunately been set aside for the time being.

9781509837564the lie tree illustrated edition_4The Lie Tree was almost one of those books. Usually, when I go through a reading slump I either read something I am certain I will like or something very short to get me back into reading. My copy of The Lie Tree with its 490 pages is definitely not a short read but it certainly sounded like one of those books I am bound to love since it contains mystery, fantasy and historical elements. Plus, the edition I own was illustrated by the wonderful Chris Riddell, whose work I first encountered through his collaborations with Neil Gaiman, and that certainly contributed greatly to my picking up this book.

The story takes place in Victorian England and it follows Faith, the daughter of a once renowned scientist whose recently bad reputation in society due to some scandal that arose from his research resulted in his family fleeing home and seeking refuge in a smaller town. Secrets never stay hidden for long, however, and their new society labels and mistreats their family again. Faith, being the curious and science-loving girl that she is, is determined to find out what her father’s research was all about and what discovery of his led to their family’s demise. The fantastic elements are not apparent from the outset but I couldn’t speak more about them without revealing some plot spoilers.

Perhaps due to its length, the story starts off in a rather slow manner and it takes the first hundred pages or so for the mystery and the actual plot to truly begin. I usually don’t mind slow books, but for a murder mystery book a slow start isn’t really the best introduction for the readers. The mystery itself, though, was very well crafted. For the very attentive reader the culprit might have been obvious from earlier on, but for me, suspecting everyone due to their dismissive behaviour towards Faith and her family, the revelation was quite a shock. The fantastic elements included, as I mentioned before, are not ever-present and fantasy has been inserted in the world of the book in a very crafty and believable manner.

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Chris Riddell’s stunning illustrations.

The writing is sometimes lyrical and others more practical, but beautiful nevertheless and very fitting to the entire atmosphere of the novel. I really enjoyed Faith’s character, a young girl growing up in an era when female curiosity and desire to learn was everything but rewarded and when women had to hide their research behind the name of a much more powerful and well-established man. The novel raises those issues in a subtle yet satisfying manner, as Faith’s indignation for her being treated unfairly by society and family alike merely for being a girl is evident throughout and is what ultimately empowers her and gives her courage to investigate the mystery surrounding her father. It reminded me somehow of Marie Brennan’s The Memoirs of Lady Trent series, which also centers around a lady scientist in Victorian era who struggles to get her research and scholarly profession accepted by society.

Overall, The Lie Tree is an utterly compelling novel which successfully combines mystery, fantasy, feminist and social issues, as well as a coming-of-age story. Although it starts off very very slowly, the pace picks up after a while and the story becomes so intriguing that it’s impossible to put it down. It’s also a very spooky story with many gothic elements, so I guess it’s a very fitting recommendation for Halloween as well. I’m very glad I didn’t put this book aside like all the rest that came before it, as it was definitely worth reading it.

Have you read this book? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments below ūüôā

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One From the Archive: ‘Will Grayson, Will Grayson’ by John Green and David Levithan ****

First published in May 2014.

I love John Green and David Levithan, so the very fact that they collaborated on a novel together excited me rather a lot.¬† I couldn’t wait to read¬†Will Grayson, Will Grayson, and it was almost agony to put it onto my to-read shelves and wait for its title to come out of my book choice jar, rather than to begin it straight after purchasing it from Waterstone’s Piccadilly.¬† I was patient, however, and thankfully I didn’t have too long to wait to read it.

My favourite John Green novel – rather predictably, I suppose – is¬†The Fault in Our Stars, and my favourite of David Levithan’s is the fabulous¬†Dash and Lily’s Book of Dares¬†(written with Rachel Cohn), which I read every Christmastime without fail.¬† (Also, I must mention that the periwinkle coloured Penguin cover of¬†Will Grayson, Will Grayson¬†is just lovely.)

I tried not to read many reviews of the novel before I started to readit, but from what I’ve seen, it appears to be a ‘Marmite’ book of sorts, and is either loved or hated.¬† Its premise is simple yet clever:

“One cold night, in a most unlikely corner of Chicago, two strangers cross paths.¬† Two teens with the same name, running in two very different circles, suddenly find their lives going in new and unexpected directions, culminating in heroic turns-of-heart and the most epic musical ever to grace the high-school stage.”

I loved the nod to Neutral Milk Hotel at the start of the book (a great band, and the favourite band of¬†my¬†favourite band’s frontman).¬† As with most of Green and Levithan’s characters, almost everyone was instantly likeable (aside from Maura, that is).¬† Each protagonist in¬†Will Grayson, Will Grayson¬†had noticeable flaws, but they felt all the more human for it.¬† The stories of each Will Grayson blend seamlessly, and I very much liked the different literary techniques which the authors had used to differentiate their protagonists from one another.¬† Out of both Will Graysons, I much preferred the gay one (I am almost entirely sure that this is Levithan’s creation); he was quite simply adorable.¬† The same can be said for Tiny, the character who essentially links both Wills.

Elements of both authors’ novels have been skilfully woven in – there is a love story a la John Green, which is rather unexpected but warms the heart nonetheless; there are many references to homosexuality, as in David Levithan’s books, and a few gay characters – all of whom I would love to call friends; and there is wit, humour, and even hilariousness at some points.¬†¬†Will Grayson, Will Grayson¬†is an immensely difficult book to put down, and the authors write so well together that I hope they choose to collaborate again in future (multiple times, please, gentlemen.¬† You know you want to.).¬† The novel has been perfectly executed, and I would heartily recommend it to everyone in search of a heartwarming and amusing novel.

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Reading the World: Austria

Austria, one of the most beautiful countries which I have been lucky enough to visit thus far, is next on the list.  This is possibly my most varied list of recommendations for my Reading the World project, containing, as it does, a graphic novel, a book which nestles somewhere between child and adult literature, a novel, a piece of non-fiction, and a collection of poetry.

1. Persepolis II: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi 9780375714665(2004)
‘In” Persepolis,” heralded by the “Los Angeles Times” as one of the freshest and most original memoirs of our day, Marjane Satrapi dazzled us with her heartrending memoir-in-comic-strips about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Here is the continuation of her fascinating story. In 1984, Marjane flees fundamentalism and the war with Iraq to begin a new life in Vienna. Once there, she faces the trials of adolescence far from her friends and family, and while she soon carves out a place for herself among a group of fellow outsiders, she continues to struggle for a sense of belonging. Finding that she misses her home more than she can stand, Marjane returns to Iran after graduation. Her difficult homecoming forces her to confront the changes both she and her country have undergone in her absence and her shame at what she perceives as her failure in Austria. Marjane allows her past to weigh heavily on her until she finds some like-minded friends, falls in love, and begins studying art at a university. However, the repression and state-sanctioned chauvinism eventually lead her to question whether she can have a future in Iran. As funny and poignant as its predecessor, “Persepolis 2” is another clear-eyed and searing condemnation of the human cost of fundamentalism. In its depiction of the struggles of growing up here compounded by Marjane’s status as an outsider both abroad and at home it is raw, honest, and incredibly illuminating.’

2. A Song for Summer by Eva Ibbotson (1997)
‘When Ellen Carr abandons grey, dreary London to become housekeeper at an experimental school in Austria, she finds her destiny. Swept into an idyllic world of mountains, music, eccentric teachers and wayward children, Ellen brings order and joy to all around her. But it’s the handsome, mysterious gardener, Marek, who intrigues her – Marek, who has a dangerous secret. As Hitler’s troops spread across Europe, Ellen has promises to keep, even if they mean she must sacrifice her future happiness.’

97809542217203. The Post Office Girl by Stefan Zweig (1982)
‘It’s the 1930s. Christine, A young Austrian woman whose family has been impoverished by the war, toils away in a provincial post office. Out of the blue, a telegram arrives from an American aunt she’s never known, inviting her to spend two weeks in a Grand Hotel in a fashionable Swiss resort. She accepts and is swept up into a world of almost inconceivable wealth and unleashed desire, where she allows herself to be utterly transformed. Then, just as abruptly, her aunt cuts her loose and she has to return to the post office, where – yes – nothing will ever be the same.’

4. The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (2010)
‘The Ephrussis were a grand banking family, as rich and respected as the Rothschilds, who “burned like a comet” in nineteenth-century Paris and Vienna society. Yet by the end of World War II, almost the only thing remaining of their vast empire was a collection of 264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox.The renowned ceramicist Edmund de Waal became the fifth generation to inherit this small and exquisite collection of netsuke. Entranced by their beauty and mystery, he determined to trace the story of his family through the story of the collection.The netsuke drunken monks, almost-ripe plums, snarling tigers were gathered by Charles Ephrussi at the height of the Parisian rage for all things Japanese. Charles had shunned the place set aside for him in the family business to make a study of art, and of beautiful living. An early supporter of the Impressionists, he appears, oddly formal in a top hat, in Renoir’s “Luncheon of”” the Boating Party.” Marcel Proust studied Charles closely enough to use him as a model for the aesthete and lover Swann in “Remembrance of Things Past.”Charles gave the carvings as a wedding gift to his cousin Viktor in Vienna; his children were allowed to play with one netsuke each while they watched their mother, the Baroness Emmy, dress for ball after ball. Her older daughter grew up to disdain fashionable society. Longing to write, she struck up a correspondence with Rilke, who encouraged her in her poetry.The Anschluss changed their world beyond recognition. Ephrussi and his cosmopolitan family were imprisoned or scattered, and Hitler’s theorist on the “Jewish question” appropriated their magnificent palace on the Ringstrasse. A library of priceless books and a collection of Old Master paintings were confiscated by the Nazis. But the netsuke were smuggled away by a loyal maid, Anna, and hidden in her straw mattress. Years after the war, she would find a way to return them to the family she’d served even in their exile.In “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” Edmund de Waal unfolds the story of a remarkable family and a tumultuous century. Sweeping yet intimate, it is a highly original meditation on art, history, and family, as elegant and precise as the netsuke themselves.’

5. Poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke (ed. Edward Snow, 2011) 9780374532710
‘”The Poetry of Rilke” the single most comprehensive volume of Rilke’s German poetry ever to be published in English is the culmination of this effort. With more than two hundred and fifty selected poems by Rilke, including complete translations of the “Sonnets to Orpheus “and the “Duino Elegies,” “The Poetry of Rilke “spans the arc of Rilke’s work, from the breakthrough poems of “The Book of Hours “to the visionary masterpieces written only weeks before his death.’

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One From the Archive: ‘Before I Fall’ by Lauren Oliver ***

I do not tend to buy many books for my Kindle unless they are reasonably priced.¬† (Also, may I take this opportunity to say boo, bad Amazon for not paying your taxes and making me dislike you?)¬† I saw this in a post-Christmas book sale for just 99p, however, and decided to go against my laurels and purchase it.¬† I did so mainly because I had seen so many people rave about it on Goodreads early last year when I was still a member, some of my good friends among them.¬† I expected, without having read the blurb, that it would be an amalgamation of¬†The Fault In Our Stars¬†and Jenny Downham’s¬†Before I Die.¬† It was not like either book in the slightest.¬† (Note to self: in future, read the blurb before you purchase anything!)

Before I Fall¬†was nothing at all like what I was expecting it to be.¬† It tells the story of Sam, a seventeen-year-old girl who spends most of her time doing those awfully cliched things that not many teenagers whom I have encountered of late actually seem to do – ‘getting wasted’ and ‘getting high’ among them.¬† In the prologue, she is killed in a car crash.¬† Rather than die however, she wakes up in her bedroom, unscathed, and realises that the accident has not yet occurred.¬† She begins to live the same day over and over again, trying to get it right.

Sam is one of the ‘most popular girls in school’, so I believe that I took an active dislike to her from the very beginning. I really dislike the ‘popular’ kids faction, and even the notion of popularity irks me somewhat.¬† I am far more drawn towards the Dashs and the Lilys, the Holden Caulfields, and the Scouts and Jems of the literary world, than those who feel obnoxious on the page, and frequently go on about how much everyone just adores them when, quite frankly, they have little going for them.¬† Cue Sam, the novel’s protagonist.¬† I was astounded throughout at quite how cruel she was, particularly to those who try to be kind to her.¬† There was no call for her behaviour.

Before I began to read, I glimpsed several of the Amazon reviews.¬† Some – actually, most – people seem to clearly adore this book, but I am in the minority camp.¬† One of the reviewers, Stephanie, said that she has read a lot of young adult fiction which strongly appeals to the adult market too, but that¬†Before I Fall¬†is a young adult novel which is ‘firmly rooted in the young adult market’.¬† It did feel too young at times for anyone over the age of about sixteen to enjoy, and the way in which simple language is used throughout seems to exacerbate rather than diminish this.¬† I doubt I would have enjoyed Oliver’s writing if I were still of the intended age to read it.¬† Any emotional charge which the storyline could have held had been wiped away entirely.

I did not like any of the characters in¬†Before I Fall,¬†until almost at the end of the novel – and those characters whom I did grow to like were relatively minor ones.¬† They were all so superficial, and even though we as readers learnt a lot about them as the story went on, they still felt lacking in depth.¬† A lot of the novel felt like a rip off of ‘Mean Girls’ at times.¬† Because Sam is not a likeable narrator, even when the conclusion is reached, none of the bad things which happened to her struck up any sympathy within me.¬† I had the same problem with a lot of Sarah Dessen’s characters when I read her books as a teenager.

The whole Groundhog-Day, deja-vu element of the plot is quite a clever twist, and it is interesting to see how just one different action can so alter the course of a life, but I really resented a character like Sam being the protagonist of a novel in which we as readers had to spend so much time with her.  She began to grate on me from just a little way in, and by the time I had reached the final page, I hoped that I would never encounter such a character again.

I did not abandon this book, as I wanted to see if it improved as it went on.  I am glad that I persevered and read it to the end, because at around the halfway point, it did actually get a lot better.  Sam stopped being quite so self-centered and irritating.  My three star review reflects the poor two-star beginning, and the far better four-star ending.

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One From the Archive: ‘Insurgent’ by Veronica Roth ***

Insurgent¬†is the second book in Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, the first of which is about to be released as a major film.¬† The sequel to¬†Divergent¬†was first published in 2012, and both books have been reissued with lovely new covers by Harper Collins.

The Divergent series is in the Hunger Games vein of books, and includes many of the same elements.  There is a strong female narrator who occasionally becomes a little self-obsessed and irritating; a dystopian society which is divided into different and incompatible factions; ever-present violence and peril; and a love story of sorts between its heroine and another teenage character.  It is also fast paced, and full of foreboding and adventure.

Sixteen-year-old Beatrice Prior Рor Tris, as she is known throughout Рis in the Dauntless faction, due to her bravery, courage and lack of fear. She is also Divergent, which essentially means that she is compatible with more than one of the five different societal groups РCandor, Erudite, Dauntless, Amity and Abnegation Рand can align herself with whichever she pleases.  This sectioning of society is rather a simple technique, but it works well.

‘Insurgent’ by Veronica Roth (Harper Collins)

The premise of¬†Insurgent¬†is as follows: Tris, the protagonist of the series, has survived a ‘brutal attack on her former home and family’.¬† This novel deals with her coming to terms with the way her life has been so drastically altered, and fighting against those within authority – hence the book’s title, which points to a group of people who act in opposition to establishment.

The story follows directly on from¬†Divergent, and begins with the guilt which Tris feels over killing one of her peers, Will: ‘I woke with his name in my mouth’.¬† The action starts immediately afterwards, when Tris and her companions immediately jump from a moving train to get to the Amity headquarters.¬† One of the main threads of plot within¬†Insurgent¬†is the way in which those who are ‘factionless’ wish to establish a new society, which does not consist of any factions at all. They claim that they need the help of those who are Dauntless to achieve this.

Tris is an orphan, her parents having both been killed in the struggle, and the only family member whom she is still able to see is her brother, Caleb.¬† She and the Dauntless group are continually under threat from different factions, and much of the action within¬†Insurgent¬†is concerned with the Dauntless trying to overcome those who are trying to suppress them.¬† Tris is not the most likeable of characters, and her behaviour does not always feel consistent.¬† Lots of characters can be found within the novel’s pages, many of whom were introduced in the first book, and some of which are not very well developed at all.

The present tense and first person narration which Roth has made use of throughout suit the story and its action well.¬† All of the senses are used from the very start, and help to build a complete picture of the dystopian world in which Tris lives.¬† Roth’s writing style is quite simple, and is therefore accessible to a relatively wide audience.¬† Some of the details which she weaves in can become a little repetitive, however – I lost count, for example, of the number of times in which Tris smelt or ‘breathed in’ apples or ‘wet pavement’.¬† The pace of the whole works marvellously, and the plot arcs ensure that something is almost always happening.¬† Despite the continuation from the first book to the second feeling rather smooth, the storyline did feel a little drawn out at times.¬† Unsurprisingly,¬†Insurgent¬†ends on a cliffhanger of sorts, and the place in which it finishes is intriguing enough to make most want to read on and see how Tris’ story concludes.

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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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