Recent Reading

Hello!

Apologies for such an extended absence; my reading list was temporarily abandoned in a flurry of other reading! I read The Giver, and will be posting a summary review soon, and I’m currently reading (and loving) Lost Souls, and will be sharing my thoughts as soon as I’ve finished. In the meantime, I thought I’d share some highlights of my recent reading escapades:

Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey: I’m sure my heart still stops beating whenever I think about this book. Catherine Lacey perfectly captures the feeling of losing yourself, and I fell completely in love with her prose and beautiful descriptions of a woman on the edge. It made for tough reading at times, because I’ve been through similar lows myself, but my experiences only made me appreciate Lacey’s incredible work all the more. The tagline of this blog is Thoreau’s quote, “How many a man has dated a new era in his life from the reading of a book?” and this book definitely signified the beginning of a new era for me.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: Hilarious, heartwarming, and innovative, with one of the best twists I’ve ever encountered, this book was frankly robbed of the Booker Prize! I finished it in a day, and had a grin firmly plastered to my face throughout, completely absorbed in Fowler’s writing. For reasons I won’t spoil, this book is an especially great read for my fellow veggies/vegans and animal lovers.

The Divergent series by Veronica Roth: I’m no book snob, and dystopian YA fiction is one of my favourite genres. The Divergent series is second only to the Hunger Games trilogy in my eyes, a near-perfect tale of a utopia gone wrong. The bombshell dropped by Roth towards the end of the final book is possibly the boldest move I’ve seen from an author, and left me truly shell-shocked.

The Chaos Walking series by Patrick Ness: More dystopian YA fiction! This series beautifully explores the senselessness of war and power relationships, alongside a backdrop of the usual adolescent themes. Bonus points for Manchee, the greatest canine character in literature.

Bright Young Things by Scarlett Thomas: Scarlett Thomas is one of my favourite authors (PopCo sits proudly in my all-time top five favourite books), and as a child of the Nineties, I adored Bright Young Things. Generation Y’s Lord of the Flies, this book explores relationships, ambition, and post-adolescent idealism as only Scarlett Thomas can. After I tweeted her to tell her how much I enjoyed the book, particularly the end, she told me that I was the only person in 15 years to understand its ending. I still feel very smug to have received such a compliment from one of my favourite authors!

I would recommend any and all of these books to a wide readership, and I hope that some of you will check them out. Let me know what you think!

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Book 5: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (1996)

I have read a lot of books. Most have been good, some have been great, and some have been disappointing. But every so often in a reader’s life, a complete game-changer of a book comes along, one which captivates and moves you so strongly that it stays with you long after you’ve read the last page. A Game of Thrones is one of those books.

 

I’ve never been much of a fantasy fan; other than my beloved Lord of the Rings, I’m not sure I’ve ever even read a fantasy book. I came to the Game of Thrones series through the TV programme- it’s one of very few TV shows I actually enjoy. I added the first novel to my A Century of Books list because I firmly believe that the book is *always* better than its adaptations, and if the series had so enthralled and delighted me, the book must be incredible. I was not disappointed!

 

GRRM’s storytelling ability is nothing short of genius; tales told in such vivid, beautiful, engrossing detail that the reader is pulled into the page and feels like they’re part of the scene. It is a testament to the quality of his writing that, even as a huge fan of the TV series, I imagined the characters anew as their descriptions guided me, instead of picturing them as their on-screen selves, which is a difficult task to achieve. The use of different characters’ perspectives throughout the book provided a perfect method of telling a complex story in a refreshing, perfectly-paced manner, though I would have loved to read a couple of chapters from the perspective of the direwolves! Something to think about for next time, George.

 

Martin’s fearlessness in creating entirely irredeemable characters was fascinating- I doubt I’ve ever hated anyone as much as I hate Joffrey and Viserys! Despite the fantasy elements of the story, the majority of the tale itself is an intriguing exploration of the politics, values and lifestyles of the Medieval era, and although some elements of the story are infamously controversial, I admired Martin’s decision to include even the more gruesome aspects of life during this era, in order to create a more rounded, vivid image of the lives of these characters.

 

I became bonded to the characters in a way that is rarely achieved in literature- I felt their joy and pain, winced at their gruesome injuries, laughed at their jokes, and cried when they experienced tragedy. When you read A Game of Thrones, you’re not just a reader- you’re a warrior in an army, or a lady-in-waiting, or a merchant, or a Council member, fully immersed in the action and watching from the sidelines as everything unfolds. After making a shaky return to real life last night, I can’t wait to start book 2 and return to Westeros!

 

Rating: 5/5

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Book 4: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame (1908)

The problem with “classic” works of literature is that many of them struggle to live up to the hype and expectation thrust upon them. Such was the case with The Wind in the Willows, unfortunately. It has taken me the better part of two weeks to finish this book, and I’ve resorted to reading other books in between, because the monotonous storyline and frankly terrible life lessons made it rather less than fun to read.

 

Considering that The Wind in the Willows is a children’s book, I expected swift plot and character development, humour, and valuable lessons, and I was disappointed on all fronts. The quality of the storytelling is mediocre at best, and the plot ostensibly resolves around an irresponsible aristocrat who is constantly protected from the consequences of his selfish and ill-advised actions by his fawning friends. The book condones some horrendous actions and essentially glorifies the power of money and influence, and these are not lessons I’d ever want to teach my children.

 

The only redeeming factor of the book lies in its beautiful, rolling descriptions of Nature and the countryside. It warmed my hippy heart to read such absorbing prose about connections with Nature, and to be entirely honest, these skillful love letters to the outdoors were my only motivating factor to keep reading the book. But in the future, if I want to read sumptuous descriptions of Nature, I’ll just go back to Walden!

 

Rating: 2/5

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Book 3: The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1915)

Although I read, and deeply loved, The Trial, I’ve never really explored any of Kafka’s other work, and I was particularly keen to include him in my A Century of Books challenge in order to have an excuse to read another of his works. The Metamorphosis is frequently cited as one of the most important works of fiction of the last century, and for once, the hype is quite justified.

The Metamorphosis is about a young man named Gregor, who wakes up one morning to discover that he has transformed into a horrific, bug-like creature. Forced to give up his promising sales career as a result, and no longer able to support his family, the novella deftly explores the effects of Gregor’s condition on his mentality, and the economic burden created for his family as a result of Gregor’s metamorphosis.

There are numerous, oft-discussed themes within The Metamorphosis, which I won’t examine as the internet has already done that job thousands of times over. However, I found myself deeply struck by a parallel which may not have been quite so thoroughly explored. As you are no doubt already aware, the UK’s poorest and most vulnerable families are currently being comprehensively decimated by our Government’s increasingly Hitler-esque persecution, and one message I always try to convey to those who lack sympathy for the plight of the vulnerable is that any one of us, at any time, is only one step away from the economic and social struggles which characterise the vulnerable. Gregor’s condition, and its subsequent implications, strongly reminded me of that very situation.

I saw Gregor’s plight, and its implications for his family, as a somewhat extreme illustration of the ease with which a family can fall into destitution when, through no fault of their own, the breadwinner suddenly becomes a dependant. The subsequent financial and emotional turmoil, and rapid shift in the family dynamic, cause complete upheaval; Gregor’s family virtually lost everything as a result of Gregor’s condition, and in the end, the ultimate tragedy ensued. Gregor’s isolation, mental unrest and gradual withdrawal from humanity reminded me of the emotional struggles faced by many of my friends and family members who have found themselves stricken by sudden illness and have lost the structure and purpose of their lives as a result, and I honestly believe that the novella can be interpreted as a comprehensive metaphor for the shock and chaos which follow the sudden onset of illness or disability. I obviously have no idea whether this was Kafka’s intention, and perhaps it is only because this issue is quite close to home for me that it influenced my interpretation of the story so strongly, but whatever your interpretation of the story, I guarantee you will continue to think about it long after the last page has been read.

Rating: 5/5

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Book 2: Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy (1976)

Woman on the Edge of Time has been on my to-read list for many, many years; I’ve been scouring second-hand bookshops for a long time, searching for a reasonably-priced copy, and was beyond excited when I finally found one. My expectations were so high, and I desperately wanted to love the book, but ultimately it left me feeling lukewarm.

 

There were many things I enjoyed about the book; gender inequality in healthcare has been an interest of mine for a long time, and consequently I found myself intrigued by the parts of the book which referenced both physical and mental abuse of female patients by doctors in search of research subjects. I would have been more than happy had the entire novel consisted of an exploration of flawed mental health care in the 1970s, and I felt that this theme could have been further expanded.

 

I very much enjoyed Piercy’s interpretation of a Utopia, mostly because the Utopia she created was far from perfect, and thereby questioned the very nature of the Utopian concept. By creating complete gender equality, the diversity which makes the human race so interesting was lost, and I enjoyed Connie’s perspective regarding the flaws of a genderless society.

 

I found myself questioning towards the end of the book whether Connie truly was sane, as she had always maintained, or whether she was, in fact, struggling with a mental health disorder and had imagined the Utopia. The fact that this question is never answered, at least for me, set me thinking about my preconceptions, and whether my attachment to the book’s protagonist had influenced my own conclusions, which provided an interesting additional perspective on the work.

 

I’ve always loved a good revolution, and, whether Connie’s visits to Mattapoisett were real or imagined, the fact that her experiences there provided her with the strength to fight back gave me the warm fuzzies. I love the notion of an individual revolution – one person finding the strength to fight back against an all-powerful Big Bad, despite feeling alone and relatively powerless (for my favourite example of this, pay a visit to Otto in Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin), and I found myself desperately hoping that Connie’s desperate act triggered a tangible positive change.

 

As much as I enjoyed the book’s themes, I struggled with the quality of the writing and the pacing of the book. I suspect that Marge Piercy may have a touch of J.K. Rowling syndrome – a gifted storyteller with an incredible imagination, whose writing ability never quite seems to match the strength of the story itself.

 

I was disappointed by the fact that I never really looked forward to reading the book; for me, the indicator of a great book is when I actually become upset when I have to stop reading in order to do pesky things like working and sleeping! When I read The Goldfinch, for instance, I used to sit at the bus stop for a few minutes after arriving outside my workplace, just to squeeze in a few more of Donna Tartt’s exquisitely-written sentences. I never quite felt that way about Woman on the Edge of Time, which surprised me because, on the surface, it seemed as though the book would become an instant favourite of mine. It has all of my favourite ingredients, but they never seemed to combine to create something irresistible.

 

Rating: 4/5

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Book 1: The Lotus Eater by W. Somerset Maugham (1935)

I admit that I’m cheating slightly by choosing The Lotus Eater, as it’s actually a short story. However, of the works published in that year, it was the one which most appealed to me. The story is set in Capri in 1913, and concerns the narrator’s encounter with an enigmatic man named Thomas Wilson, who has decided to escape from working life and use his savings to live a simple life in tune with nature on the island of Capri. Although Wilson’s story ends in a less-than-desirable manner, the narrator expresses his admiration for Wilson’s determination to live outside the rules of society.

I really enjoyed this story. Though it was written in 1935, it is an incredibly timely piece. It speaks to the growing desire within 21st century society – particularly among those of my generation – to escape from social constraints and enjoy a simpler life. Although Wilson [spoiler alert!] doesn’t have the happiest of endings, he enjoys twenty-five years of pure, unspoiled happiness, experiencing life on his own terms and at his own pace, which is something that so many of us strive and fail to achieve. The following paragraph particularly resonated with me:

From what I saw of him then and from what I heard from other people I made for myself what I think must have been a fairly accurate picture of the life he had led for the last fifteen years. It was certainly a very harmless one. He bathed; he walked a great deal, and he seemed never to lose his sense of the beauty of the island which he knew so intimately; he played the piano and he played patience; he read. When he was asked to a party he went and, though a trifle dull, was agreeable. He was not affronted if he was neglected. He liked people, but with an aloofness that prevented intimacy. He lived thriftily, but with sufficient comfort. He never owed a penny. I imagine he had never been a man whom sex had greatly troubled, and if in his younger days he had had now and then a passing affair with a visitor to the island whose head was turned by the atmosphere, his emotion, while it lasted, remained, I am pretty sure, well under his control. I think he was determined that nothing should interfere with his independence of spirit. His only passion was for the beauty of nature, and he sought felicity in the simple and natural things that life offers to everyone. You may say that it was a grossly selfish existence. It was. He was of no use to anybody, but on the other hand he did nobody any harm. His only object was his own happiness, and it looked as though he had attained it. Very few people know where to look for happiness; fewer still find it. I don`t know whether he was a fool or a wise man.

I am on a constant quest for adventure, nature and simplicity, and as such, this story was ideally suited to me. The perfect start to my A Century of Books challenge!

Rating: 5/5

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Welcome!

Hello, and welcome to 100 Years of Books! I’m participating in the A Century of Books challenge, and I’ll be posting reviews and other book-related bits and bobs as I go along. Hope you enjoy reading!

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