The Little Friend – Donna Tartt

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★★

The Little Friend is a novel written in 2002, a decade after Donna Tartt’s arguably more successful novel, The Secret History, and in my opinion, is so much better. The beginning of the book is set up as a kind of murder mystery, with 12 and a half year old Harriet Cleve Dufresnes setting out to avenge her brother’s death, who was hanged mysteriously aged nine a decade before. This makes it seem much darker than it actually is, and turns out not to be a discovery of who killed Robin Cleve, but Harriet’s discoveries of her small town of Alexandria, and the situations she finds herself in.

I wouldn’t call it plotless, as I have seen so many reviews claim, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book, and there are some seriously high paced moments in which this book is unputdownable. I’ve seen so many reviews calling this book boring! Please don’t call this book boring! I was so pleasantly surprised! It seems Donna Tartt has this wonderful skill for writing so much about basically nothing – and many writers do this, but she is among the few that actually still manage to produce an enjoyable book at the end of it. This is a book to be READ thoroughly, even if there is little resolution to the questions she poses at the beginning – just ENJOY IT, because she’s so so good.

When I read The Secret History,  I was almost repulsed by it and took an immediate dislike to it’s characters and plot (you can read my review here), and although it is definitely more high paced and dramatic than this second novel, there’s something about The Little Friend which really appealed to me. It has snakes, death, drama, white trash meth-heads, and Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, the best part of the whole book. She’s a stoic self-empowered 12 year old whose role models include Houdini and Robert Louis Stevenson. She trains herself to stay underwater for long periods of time, aims to read more books than anyone else each summer, and basically doesn’t take any crap from anyone. She’s a joy to read about from start to finish.

It seems like Donna Tartt hit her stride and came into her own way of writing with this book, as if she had to write The Secret History as a sort of practice run. Languidly describing the characters and their settings, with less attention paid to the central plot suits her much more than the over dramatic and grating style of The Secret History. 

 

Down and Out in Paris and London – George Orwell

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Blurb: This unusual fictional account – in good part autobiographical – narrates without self-pity and often with humor the adventures of a penniless British writer among the down-and-out of two great cities. The Parisian episode is fascinating for its expose of the kitchens of posh French restaurants, where the narrator works at the bottom of the culinary echelon as dishwasher, or plongeur. In London, while waiting for a job, he experiences the world of tramps, street people, and free lodging houses. In the tales of both cities we learn some sobering Orwellian truths about poverty and society.

★★

Favourite quote: I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels,nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny,nor subscribe to the Salvation Army,nor pawn my clothes,nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant.That is a beginning.

This book is often called the most underrated of Orwell’s works – and it so is! It’s a (somewhat emphasised) nonfiction account of his brief stint in poverty during the 1930s, first in Paris, and then in London (hence the title). With gutwrenching candour, he describes how he lives on pennies per week, often going without food for days, battling with 15 hour work days and bug infested beds. It’s very short, and reads more like an essay than a novel – and it needs not be any longer than it is, as you get the idea pretty quickly. I can’t believe that every detail is true to Orwell’s life – but even if 20% is true, then I feel pretty sorry for the guy. I felt hungry just reading this book, but his flowing prose and pretty accurate views on working in the catering industry helped me through.

I wouldn’t say that this book is ‘triggering’ for those that live in poverty, nor would I say that it’s an unbearable read due to its brutal honesty about living with nothing. This book was written a good 90 years ago, and I’d like to think the social welfare programs of both the UK and France provide a less vomit inducing backdrop to poverty. Orwell colours this book with so many different personalities and characters that its a thoroughly enjoyable read – although I would say it’s helpful to have a nice bubble bath to go sit in after you read it.

 

The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins

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Blurb: ‘EVERY DAY THE SAME. Rachel takes the same commuter train every morning and night. Every day she rattles down the track, flashes past a stretch of cozy suburban homes, and stops at the signal that allows her to daily watch the same couple breakfasting on their deck. She’s even started to feel like she knows them. Jess and Jason, she calls them. Their life—as she sees it—is perfect. Not unlike the life she recently lost.’ Goodreads.com

★★

Read this book if your friend lends it to you, or if you’re going on a very long flight, or have just read Anna Karenina and need some light relief. Don’t believe that this is the most ‘anticipated read of the year’ or the ‘bestselling worldwide blockbuster novel’, because it’s just a plain old thriller. It’s a good, but overhyped summer read.

The plot is solid, and I read it in 1 day which does lend some credit to its readability and enjoyment factor. It revolves around Rachel Watson, a woman who passes the same house, in her old neighbourhood, every day on the train, and gets far too involved in things she shouldn’t. She’s a depressing protagonist, as are the people around her, and I’m not sure that’s not just because they’ve been badly written – there seemed to be absolutely no variation in the ‘type’ of person Hawkins writes about. I found myself literally predicting what was going to happen next in this book and basically worked out the end. If you like books that include characters you will loathe, read this novel!!! (it’s similar to Gone Girl in this way)

The fact that I thought that the writing was bad (to be honest), doesn’t really matter because it does have a gripping storyline so you can kind of put Hawkins’ overused cliches into the back of your mind. I enjoyed it, but this is the kind of book I feel guilty about reading afterwards as I feel like I’ve lost a few brain cells (sorry)

 

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

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‘In their world frivolous liaisons are commonplace, but Anna and Vronsky’s consuming passion makes them a target for scorn and leads to Anna’s increasing isolation. The heartbreaking trajectory of their relationship contrasts sharply with the colourful swirl of friends and family members who surround them, especially the newlyweds Kitty and Levin, who forge a touching bond as they struggle to make a life together. Anna Karenina is a masterpiece not only because of the unforgettable woman at its core and the stark drama of her fate, but also because it explores and illuminates the deepest questions about how to live a fulfilled life.’

★★★

This book is a thorough and complete study of all things people and the peaks and troughs of life and love. Despite being written in the late 19th C, it’s way before it’s time, and contrary to what everyone thinks when they hear ‘Russian literature’ or ‘Tolstoy’ which is usually along the lines of ‘oh god’ this book is impressively easy to read.

In a nutshell, it’s the story of a Anna, who’s passions for another man lead to her inevitable downfall. You know from the start the only possible ending for her, making it a pretty painful read. Can Anna fully estrange herself from her husband and son and start again with the attractive Count Vronsky? Probably not. Will she ever be accepted into Russian society without being branded a ‘fallen woman’? Of course not, that wouldn’t be exciting at all.

This is the mother of the modern novel and just to call it ‘Anna Karenina’ is the tip of the iceberg, as Tolstoy follows the entire network of relationships that surround her, and coupled with the detailed storyline of Levin, a clear reflection of Tolstoy himself, makes for an intricately woven book with about ten different main characters.Levin represents the future of Russia, the birthings of a communist environment, whilst Anna and her relations showcase the expensive living of the Moscow and St Petersburg circles. However, if there is one lesson in this book, it’s that money and success never equal happiness; anyone can get their heart broken and their life torn apart by the most primal of emotions – desire.

You can tell Tolstoy not only places importance on the love and attractive downfall of Anna’s life, as the book is interspersed with long analysis of peasant – or ‘muzhik’ – life and farming, providing a social and economic commentary which would have been far more relevant at the time of publication. Nevertheless, it provides a contrast to the turmoil of the Karenins, and certainly from a historical point of view lends an insight into the beginnings of a communist Russia. Although I have a soft spot for Levin and his country-dwelling, peasant-loving ways, these long passages are not integral to the plot – don’t be put off! These lulls in the plot are contrasted with unbelievable highs which make up for some of the intense pieces of writing I’ve ever read.

The Blind Assassin – Margaret Atwood

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“Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge” More than fifty years on, Iris Chase is remembering Laura’s mysterious death. And so begins an extraordinary and compelling story of two sisters and their secrets. Set against a panoramic backdrop of twentieth-century history, The Blind Assassin is an epic tale of memory, intrigue and betrayal…’ Goodreads.com

★★★

This book is a cross between Atonement and Star Trek.  It’s got the successful and wealthy family ultimately torn apart by romantic saga and sadness. It’s also got another aspect to it. Interspersed between Iris Chase’s memoirs of her and her sister Laura’s lives in Canada, is the Blind Assassin – a novella telling the tale of a secret love affair between two people who cannot be together, and the stories of the made up planet of Sakiel-Norn he tells her when lying in bed together. The story-within-a-story he tells her reminded me of Oryx and Crake with its ridiculous fantasies, made up words and foreign lands.

This book can offer everyone something, whether it be the drama of a rich and wealthy family, the torrid love between two sisters or a completely made up world where women grow on trees like peaches. I can’t ruin the details, who these two people are or why this fantasy tale is placed amongst Iris’ story as that would be a spoiler – but it’s so worth it in the end. This book is melancholy and often heart wrenchingly unfair, but once agaid, Atwood proves that you can have a satisfying ending even if your main characters’ life has been pretty unsatisfactory.

I am giving this book 5 stars because the image I had of Iris, of her life, and all the images in it were so crystal clear in my mind I didn’t for a minute doubt what was going on. Atwood uses her trait of jumping around the timeline of her characters, and as with The Handmaid’s Tale, you never even need an indication of what point she is telling the story from – you just know.

Every time I read a Margaret Atwood novel, I fall in love with her many different writing styles again, and this book is once again a testament to her complete versatility. I can see anyone of any age reading this book and loving it.

 

 

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood

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‘Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. She may leave the home of the Commander and his wife once a day to walk to food markets whose signs are now pictures instead of words because women are no longer allowed to read. She must lie on her back once a month and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if their ovaries are viable.’ Goodreads.com

★★★

This is the MOTHER of all dystopian novels – and I’m surprised it took me this long to read, but I’m glad I waited this long somehow.  Written in 1986, it centres around Offred, who has somehow, in a new world under military control, been recruited as a ‘Handmaid’, whose only purpose is to procreate for their ‘Wives’, who for some reason cannot procreate themselves with their husbands (or ‘Commanders’). Although a complete fabrication of Atwood’s mind, the story is less about the why’s and how’s of the new world Offred (not her real name) finds herself in, but the struggles of having to be silent, subservient and find comfort in a world that is ready to turn you in at any moment. The world she lives in acts more as a backdrop to her personal and often heart-wrenching stories. She leaps from one period in her life to another, and the fact that you can sense exactly which point in time Atwood is telling her talefrom, at any time, is testament to what an amazing writer she is.

 

It’s obviously the pioneering dystopian novel, along with 1984 and Fahrenheit 451, but not without differences. Offred is different in that she’s not bold like other dissenting protagonists in dystopians, she’s kind of resigned to her new life in the controlling state she lives in. She is more hesitant to digress away from the new world (unlike the Snowman in Oryx and Crake for example)- and usually adheres to what she’s been assigned to do – procreate and be subservient, and it is only when she is ordered to by her superiors that she will break the rules. In her words there is ‘comfort in ritual’, referring to her mundane tasks as a Handmaid such as walking, shopping, clad in her red robes, and she gets intense pleasure from even tiny acts of subversion, such as hiding a match under her mattress.

However, Offred still retains the qualities that make her relatable to a reader, such as her need to have a meaningful human relationship however taboo it may be, exactly like Winston in 1984. If you think about it, the two novels are extremely similar in the characteristics of their protagonists. I loved Offred so much as a character and one of the few criticisms I have of the book is that it is way too short and it ends way too abruptly. So much more could have been explored in this world and it would have been equally as gripping. Atwood also manages to create the perfect imagined world that is also fairly realistic. This is a book that I feel like I need to read again, and I’ve literally just finished it.

A Brief History of Seven Killings – Marlon James

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STAR RATING: (★★

BLURB: ‘On December 3, 1976, just before the Jamaican general election and two days before Bob Marley was to play the Smile Jamaica Concert, gunmen stormed his house, machine guns blazing. The attack nearly killed the Reggae superstar, his wife, and his manager, and injured several others. Marley would go on to perform at the free concert on December 5, but he left the country the next day, not to return for two years.’ Goodreads.com

PAGE COUNT: 685 (hardback)

I CAN’T FINISH THIS BOOK. I really really want to. And I feel like I need to apologise to someone because of it. But its like when I pick it up my body has an allergic reaction to it and I just want to throw it across the room. Reading reviews before I started the book, everyone spoke so highly of it, and it just didn’t match up to my expectations. Not to mention it is the WINNER of the 2015 Man Booker Prize. I struggled through with it until page 400 because of this reason – I thought that it had to get better, because this couldn’t be it, and as you all know, I am loyal to the judges of this book prize. But at the end of the day, if you’ve read 2/3rds of a book, and it is still failing to grip you, it’s just not worth it.

Here are the notes I made as I was reading it:

Page 200‘I can appreciate what a complete feat this novel is, I’m just not enjoying it. Remarkable how he can just switch between such different vernacular. I really liked how short chapters are but I think I struggled overall because there isn’t much of a storyline and there is a lot of trains of thought’ < This is when I was feeling positive, that although I wasn’t hooked just yet, I trusted that I would be soon.

Page 300 – ‘I am still yet to be impressed by this book. It’s like walking through a fog filled forest, I struggled so much to keep up with what was happening, mixed in with the sometimes confusing use of patois Jamaican language – I feel completely lost in this gigantic book. Halfway through, and I’m still having dilemmas about whether to stop reading or not.’ < Flagging.

Page 400 I have lost all energy to read this book and it feels like a chore. I have decided to cut my losses and give up. I hate, hate, hate not finishing books, but this just seemed like a waste of my time. 

I think the reason I found this so difficult was because I felt alienated from the subject, as if everyone who had read it had completely understood it and I was alone in my confusion and bewilderment. The topic is difficult enough as it is as someone who has never encountered Jamaican history, and Marlon James clearly has such a handle of everything going on around this period (1970s/80s Jamaica) that he can so swiftly change through vernaculars and subjects and I couldn’t keep up; it was like the story was running away without me. One page he’ll be writing in traditional Jamaican patois as gang leader ‘Papa-Lo’, and one moment he’s writing as ‘Sir Arthur George Jennings’, who is a ghost. (I think). Clever and well-written? Definitely. A struggle? Completely.

 

 

The Fishermen – Chigozie Obioma

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STAR RATING: ☆ 

BLURB: ‘In a Nigerian town in the mid 1990’s, four brothers encounter a madman whose mystic prophecy of violence threatens the core of their close-knit family. Told from the point of view of nine year old Benjamin, the youngest of four brothers, The Fishermenis the story of an unforgettable childhood in 1990s Nigeria, in the small town of Akure.’’  (Goodreads.com)

Did I enjoy this book? I don’t know. I certainly slacked on reading it for the first couple of weeks (In retrospect, this was definitely due to my own laziness) but once I actually made myself sit down and read, it hits its stride and I finished it in what felt like minutes…It’s definitely worth your time. Although its enjoyability factor is cloaked under its harrowing nature, if you focus on the flowing words and proverbs and glowing characters, you’ll find that you love it.

This is a dark and haunting domestic tragedy. And if you have a big family, like I do, you will immediately relate to it. It focuses solely on the relationship between brothers, with Obioma illustrating the different nuanced personas and characters within the family with fable-like descriptions (e.g. Hope was a tadpole, mother was a falconer etc.) which also added to its Greek tragedy feel. It was like a classical tale retold in a Nigerian setting. The descriptions of the family just works, they are similar but different, I was able to visualise them all perfectly in my mind, and they all get their moment in the book.

This book is set in the same area as ‘Half of a Yellow Sun’ by Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, which I loved, about 20 years later (in the 1990s), and does not take on a historical perspective as her book does, but you can see similarity, Obioma choosing to focus on the structure and workings of a small town community, but also hinting at contemporary and historical references (like Things Fall Apart). For his debut novel, this is a really accessible read, has earned its rightful place on the shortlist, and I think Obioma can join Adichie among the great current African writers.

Its story, whilst not on the lighthearted side, has a bittersweet undertone, in that through the great tragedies that befall this family, they emerge a stronger unit, and Obioma somehow manages to create a happy ending.

The Year Of The Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota

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STAR RATING: ☆ 

BLURB: The Year of the Runaways tells of the bold dreams and daily struggles of an unlikely family thrown together by circumstance. Thirteen young men live in a house in Sheffield, each in flight from India and in desperate search of a new life. Tarlochan, a former rickshaw driver, will say nothing about his past in Bihar; and Avtar has a secret that binds him to protect the choatic Randeep. Randeep, in turn, has a visa-wife in a flat on the other side of town: a clever, devout woman whose cupboards are full of her husband’s clothes, in case the immigration men surprise her with a call..’  (Goodreads.com)

This book is both magical in its writing as it is important in it’s subject. I think what makes it so particularly special is the fact that it touches upon a subject often ignored, and certainly not often written about. It focuses on the plight of Indian immigrant (often illegal) workers, coming to the UK to find work in the hopes that they can start a new life for their families back home. It’s something everyone (especially here in the UK) is very aware of, but not something often immortalized in novels, rather just plastered in news articles, demonising the people that are given a story and a life in this novel.

Each of his four main characters have a different backstory to how they came to the UK, and each their own struggle once they are there. The end result is that it covers aspects of both Indian and British culture, mixing them together so that the book is completely unique. Where else are you going to find long descriptions of bustling Indian communities and stories of grim Sheffield in the same book?

You have to be on your toes whilst reading this book; it doesn’t make anything easy for you and leaves much to be inferred by the reader. As it skips between four main characters, I often found it difficult to remember which character had which story, and with the book’s length (about 470 pages), you soon get used to it. That being said, I did have to reread a couple of passages, and the fact that Sahota rarely describes the physical appearance of his characters also allows your imagination to do some of the work. His writing is completely captivating, and even though I didn’t start to enjoy the plot immediately, his words just carried me through the pages, as if I didn’t have a choice. (until all the great plot twists start setting in, then I became addicted) This book basically reads itself and in the words of Salman Rushdie, ‘All you can do is surrender, happily, to its power’.

 

One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey

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STAR RATING: ☆ 

BLURB:“In this classic of the 1960s, Ken Kesey’s hero is Randle Patrick McMurphy, a boisterous, brawling, fun-loving rebel who swaggers into the world of a mental hospital and takes over. A lusty, life-affirming fighter, McMurphy rallies the other patients around him by challenging the dictatorship of Nurse Ratched.’  (Goodreads.com)

I made the fatal mistake of watching the film (!!!! I know) before I read the book for this. I am not kidding, I will never EVER do this again. It completely colours the way you read the book and basically had me making comparisons the entire way through. I thought the film was good when I watched it, but reading the book made me see that it’s just a watered down version, with very little depth that the book has.

This book is deep. And you can tell Ken Kesey was high on LSD when he wrote it (which he actually was, he was taking part in trials while writing), and I feel like you have to read it very slowly, reading every single word to gather the high level of emotion he’s trying to convey in his words. You need to be completely alone whilst reading this, or it just won’t get through, and unlike some other books, I noticed a complete difference in my ability to digest this book whilst in the company of others.

I can’t even pin down if I enjoyed it or not, but I have to take into account that this book is way before it’s time, before mental health institutes were a common thing of books and films. It’s portrayed in the stereotypical way, especially when the book has been translated into film and stage, the obvious clinical and sterile atmosphere with the crazy and scary mentally damaged, so whilst reading this I had to try and cast off my natural dislike for this kind of thing.

Overall, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped I would, but I genuinely think my opinion of it was tarnished by the fact I had watched the film before – SOMETHING I WILL NEVER DO AGAIN.