Robert des noms propres- Amelie Nothomb

There is no denying that this short novel throws you right into the narrative from the very start. Any hope you might have for Lucette is quickly whipped away, with two deaths complete in under thirty pages.  However, this does not even necessarily tell the reader anything about the rest of the novel- except that it is going to be intense.

The title of the novel doesn’t give anything away, either, with no allusion to it until the very end. However, what the reader is made clear of is Plectrude’s importance. The reader is made to focus on every tiny detail about her, from her speech (from the moment she is learning), to her physical appearance (even when this is not in its best form) and it is these small details that allow us to understand more about the story- even when it might seem that very little has been offered to us in terms of narrative or character development. Focussing on these small details results in an ‘Oh, I see how this is making sense’ scenario towards the end of the novel.

It is interesting that Clémence’s husband plays such a quiet role in this novel. On the rare occasion that we hear his opinion, it is quickly undermined by his wife, highlighting the importance of women in this novel, and potentially foreboding Clémence’s fate-changing tendency that we later see. This is clever, considering that she appears to be so kind and accommodating elsewhere in the novel.

Nothing is more unexpected than the very end of the narrative. In fact, even just a few pages before the end the characters’ fate changes, which means the reader should never relax or be complacent in their predictions. It is the first time that Nothomb references herself as the narrator, which means the final event feels a little glued on, and does not seem to flow properly with the direction of the rest of the narrative. Having said that, it certainly adds to how shocking the event is.

In contrast with the intensity of the subject of Robert des noms propres, Nothomb’s writing style is very relaxed, and incredibly easy to read. She favours the matter-of-fact over convolution which, one might argue, contributes to the intensity of the subject in hand.

I would definitely recommend Robert des noms propresfor the very reason that it is sure to keep you on your toes. Even when you think you have predicted the outcome, you discover you are wrong, and it is this that keeps you turning the pages. This engaging yet unpredictable narrative, combined with the simple writing style makes this a quick, yet satisfying, read.

Oliver Twist- Charles Dickens

Now, we all know the story of Oliver Twist, so I cannot pretend that this week’s review will be anything ground-breaking. However, I must admit that this is the first time that I have actually sat down to read the Dickens novel. I am unsure (and a little embarrassed) how, as a literature student (aged 21), and Dickens lover, I have managed to overlook this novel until now. Better late than never, I suppose…

Oliver Twist is classic Dickens- hearty and thorough writing, that absolutely brings the characters to life. He does this through both explicit character description, and allowing each character to display their own personality through their speech, accent and dialect. As a result of this, it is really easy to remember who is who, even though there are, relatively, quite a few characters. I love that Dickens situates his narratives so firmly in their location, constantly mentioning the geography, which allows the reader to really follow the narrative, on both a plot and geographical level.

I must admit that I was expecting to feel more sympathetic for Oliver than Dickens necessarily guides a reader to be, which actually makes for an interesting read. Also, in not pitying Oliver at every moment, it allowed me to be more perceptive of other characters and the action in general.

As with the majority of Dickens’ works, Oliver Twist is a very dark novel, and I can almost imagine the Victorian-style lighting under which all of this action is taking place, which makes the sense of threat and fear all the more apparent. What’s more, though Oliver Twist may be one of Dickens’ shorter works, it is by no means any rich in detail and action- in fact, there is something to be taken from every page.

Even though I was already familiar with the general narrative, I was not aware of the small Dickensian details and nuances of Oliver Twist, and reading this novel was an absolute pleasure of the occasion to do just that. If you are looking to get into Dickens, or Victorian literature as a whole, Oliver Twist is the perfect place to begin!

Winter’s Fairytale- Maxine Morrey

It is fair to say that final year of university is taking its toll. It is intense, and I am feeling more stressed than I had ever imagined, so I decided that anything I would be reading for pleasure needed to be lighthearted and cheerful. Given that Christmas is approaching, though it can be hardly tell from the confines of the library, I decided that Winter’s Fairytale could be precisely the type of book I could do with reading!

 

The story might not begin well for Izzy, who has pretty much every bride’s nightmare happen to her, but her luck definitely picks up along the way. Not only does her luck in love change, the story of it happening is filled with heart-warming humour….made even better by the fact that the narrative is set in the run up to Christmas.

I would describe the atmosphere Winter’s Fairytale as cosy. This is only because there is so much of a contrast between what really isn’t cosy- being gilted at the altar, getting stuck outside in the snow, and Izzy’s less than homely flat- and the safe, happy spaces that Izzy actually ends up in: Rob’s apartment, the New Year’s Eve party etc. This cosiness definitely contributes to the festive feel of this narrative!

The characters don’t have an awful lot of depth, but that doesn’t seem to matter in this story. The small amount of background information we do gain about each character isn’t all that relevant when all we want, as a reader, is for Izzy and Rob to just get together. Somehow the Christmas magic seems to more than make up for the (perhaps too) convenient resolution of problems within the narrative.

On the same lines of characters, it struck me that Rob’s family feature so heavily, yet Izzy’s really aren’t mentioned a lot. I suppose this might have been a way of highlighting her need for ‘rescuing’, but it might have been interesting to learn more about them- especially towards the end when things looked like they were working out for Izzy.

I think it’s important to mention that, though the protagonist might not have the best luck, we definitely aren’t made to pity her in a Bridget Jones kind of way. Instead, we get the impression that she is really prepared to look after herself, and that she is prepared to make it on her own if she need to. At the same time, though, we do want nothing more than for her to give up her pride.

Winter’s Fairytale is definitely a girly light-hearted light read, which is by no means a bad thing! I couldn’t wait until my bus journeys, just so that I could become a part of the heartwarming story for a little bit longer. I like that the ending is satisfying, but still leaves a little to the reader’s imagination, as it prevents it from appearing a little too obvious. This is most definitely the perfect book to read on the sofa with a hot chocolate as you begin to wind down for Christmas!

How I Lost You- Jenny Blackhurst

On first appearances, How I Lost You ticked all the right boxes: a gripping thriller with a twist.

For the first few pages, I did feel a little confused. I couldn’t quite comprehend who was narrating, and why there were different names floating about..but now I realise that this might have been intended, reflecting the confusion that Susan feels herself.

This confusion meant I didn’t quite understand whether or not I was supposed to identify with Susan, and I held her at quite a distance for the majority of the narrative. In fact, I felt quite ambivalent towards all of the characters in How I Lost You and I was never sure if all was exactly what it seemed, or if they all had ulterior motives. This is by no means a criticism. It was actually very interesting to be kept on tenterhooks as to who could be trusted and who could not.

I think Blackhurst’s use of the parallel narrative, focusing on certain events in the past, was really useful in adding extra depth to the plot in a much more sophisticated way than characters simply discussing the past. It was also quite satisfying in the way that it acted as a tool with which I could start to decode the book’s present and gauge how to react to and understand certain things that are referred to.

Though the main premise of the narrative is a constant theme, and the driving force behind everything that unfolds in the plot, there are also a number of other key themes, which I suppose reflects the real-life nature of the book. Or, at least as real-life as something like this can be….

My criticism would be that the resolution seems to unfold a little too conveniently, with everyone involved only too ready to help, and those who are guilty too easily let off. Having said this, the narrative does end on a semi-cliffhanger, and does leave a lot to be explained which, I suppose, does leave room for further problems to arrive, even if they aren’t addressed directly.

I certainly would recommend How I Lost You, particularly if you are looking for a book that doesn’t necessarily tell you how to feel from the start, and want to work things out for yourself!

The Good Samaritan- John Marrs

It’s fair to say that this book’s description does not do it justice. I imagined that it would be dark, and with that I imagined tension. However, I hadn’t quite imagined how dark or tense The Good Samaritan would be, and I was pleasantly surprised- if anything can be pleasant about such a dark subject…

For the first few pages it is difficult to imagine the action that might follow later in the plot, and it seems that Laura might actually be a good samaritan. But it doesn’t take long to realise that this isn’t true, and her worryingly sadistic tendencies become more and more apparent the more you read on. Even when you begin to learn possible explanations for Laura’s difficult-to-understand pleasures, it is hard to feel sorry for her because she is so relentless. It is not just that she doesn’t see what she is doing is wrong, she truly believes it is acceptable and justified. This is frustrating, but it is also great to read a book in which you are supposed to detest the protagonist, and that I did.

When I say that Laura is relentless, I mean it wholeheartedly. Nothing and no one will get in the way of her quest to help, or rather encourage, people to die. I certainly thought that she would meet her maker at numerous points in the narrative, but it seems that when someone has so little to lose, they have no fear. For the entirety of the narrative I was sure I had figured out what was going to happen, reformulating the possibilities and getting it wrong every time. In fact, even at the end of the book, it isn’t entirely certain that she face the consequences of what she has done.

The further I read, the more The Good Samaritan held my attention, as I truly feared what might happen next. It becomes clear that Laura isn’t simply obsessed with the idea of people dying, but of being in control and having the upper hand. It seems that she has no mercy, and is even prepared to utilise her children as a tool to assert her power. This intense desperation still didn’t make me pity her, I just hated her more. The book is filled with injustice, which makes for a frustrating narrative and also pushed me to keep reading out of desperation to see justice served.

I liked that Marrs made the dual narratives intertwine as it helped to highlight the differences in how a sane person interprets the situation, and how Laura understands what is happening. However, it did this in a clever way that didn’t always simply tell two identical scenes from different perspectives, but rather added reflections and comments into each narrative to acknowledge the event.

The Good Samaritan made me question how genuine everyone working at helplines, such as the fictional End of the Line might be. Though you’d like to think that someone as dangerous as Laura would not slip through the net, it definitely made me consider that people might not work for such charities for the right reason: something I had never thought about before.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone that enjoys drama and tension. While there aren’t any mysteries to be discovered, I became so invested in the need for justice that I could barely put the book down. The Good Samaritan is one of the best books I have read in a while, and I will be sure to check out some of Marrs other works!

This Modern Love- Will Darbyshire

I had been meaning to read this book for a while, but it somehow always got overtaken on my to-read list.  However, after spotting it on my friend’s bookshelf, I decided to prioritise it.  I had no excuse not to.

I had read about This Modern Love, and was incredibly intrigued by the book’s inspiration: Darbyshire’s unluckiness in love and, when I first began reading, it was great to see that, in spite of his bad experiences, he hadn’t given up on love. Instead, Darbyshire was on a quest to learn all about the beauty of love in the rest of the world.

The introduction and various other explanations throughout the book definitely added to how heartwarming it was. It allowed me to appreciate the book as more than just a collection of different letters, and as a result of someone’s vision and hard work. What’s also great is that Darbyshire uses his online presence to create something as tangible and concrete as this book. Using his online presence and global audience, Darbyshire was able to target, and curate letters, from such a wide spectrum of people, meaning there are a variety of different viewpoints in the book. I thought the question about how technology impacted relationships, for better or for worse was important, given that this book was only possible as a result of these people using technology. The answers to this question were equally interesting, as even those who said it had a positive effect recognised its potentially damaging nature. I suppose I had never considered this before. I mean, I know that our contemporary reliance on technology is not necessarily the best thing for us as humans but, considering that it has facilitated my long-distance relationship for the past five years makes it difficult to say much bad about.

I thought it was interesting that the contents page divides the narrative simply into ‘beginning’, ‘middle’ and ‘end’, framing this as a story in its most simple terms, and recognising that love can have and end, sometimes on good terms and sometimes on not so good terms. Of course, Darbyshire did have control over the ‘narrative’ as he selected which letters were to be included, but he did not edit the ones he chose. I suppose, in this way, This Modern Love reminded me a little of PostSecret, except that most participants chose to disclose their names, which I think added to how heartwarming these stories were as they weren’t ashamed of the intense love they felt.

I found myself smiling constantly as I was reading. Of course, some of the letters were sad, but the majority of them were largely positive. Not only did I feel privileged to be let in on the candid love and happiness of these people, it also gave me hope that there is quite so much love in this world that is so infamously terrible at times.

The inclusion of images, as well as singular words to describe love, that punctuate the collection of letters demonstrate the many ways in which love can be expressed, yet sometimes not articulated.

I would definitely encourage anyone to read This Modern Love. There are few things more endearing than learning about why other people love each other so much, and I know that I will pick the book up again in the future. Perhaps I wouldn’t read it again from start to finish, but I will definitely flick through it when I am in need of something to make me smile.

 

The Text- Claire Douglas

It’s been a while. I think it’s fair to say that I had underestimated the intensity of final year, only made worse by the fact that I had a year abroad, which entailed very little studying. I got a bit swept up, and was not prioritising reading for pleasure. Now that I have had reading week, and a chance to catch up with myself a little, I am determined for this to change.  Let’s see…

I downloaded The Text from the Kindle store a while ago, thinking I could fit in time to read a 40 page short story. Apparently not. However, I am glad that last night I finally forced myself to. Don’t get me wrong, I love my degree, but there’s only so much french feminist writing, or medieval french romances that I can bring myself to read.

The first page was gripping, which is pretty vital for a short story and, though the plot wasn’t the most complex or the most convincing, it did keep my attention. I like how the narrative begins in media res– Douglas wastes no time in introducing her characters, allowing her readers to get to know them as the story progresses. I could identify with Emily straight away: desperate to vent to a friend, too involved with what I want to say to check what I’m actually saying….The Text really does show you that a typo can be fatal, and proof reading (even a text) can save lives…

(Half) Joking aside, Douglas does touch on some serious issues considering the mere 40 pages that the narrative is spread across, including abusive relationships and affairs, and how these can impact those involved and others around them. It was also impressive that the author managed to squeeze a plot twist into the story in such a short space, and I didn’t even see it coming.

Though Emily does resolve some of the problems in her life by the end, the narrative does still leave a lot to be desired. I would say the short story feels more like a chapter from a book (albeit a busy one), and there would definitely be room for a sequel. The cliffhanger isn’t the worst thing in the world, though the conclusion does feel like it creates a double meaning for the book’s title.

I would say that The Text is worth a read, if not for the fact that I don’t tend to read many short stories, and it is interesting to see how narrative technique and character building varies to that in a novel. It is evident that Douglas is an incredibly competent author, and I would definitely read one of her novels to see how she writing style changes. Perhaps not the most breathtaking book I have ever read, it certainly did not feel like a waste of time.

 

The Casual Vacancy- J.K. Rowling

I remember there being a lot of hype about The Casual Vacancy when it was first published. Personally, I couldn’t believe how an author that had spent so much of her time creating such a detailed fantasy world could ever come out of that, and authentically write about something different. I made this judgement without even having read the blurb of this new venture, and I had no idea what the book was about. However, after having recently rejoined my local library and finding it on the ‘suggested reads’ shelf, I decided I had nothing to lose by giving it a try.

The first thing I have to say is wow. Why  did I not read this book sooner? My judgements about J.K. Rowling couldn’t have been more wrong, and I severely underestimated her. I have never read a fictional novel, set in a fictional place, that is so representative of the ‘real’ world and the people that live within it.

Even once I had began reading, I had no idea what the title actually referred to, and I am truly amazed by Rowling’s ability to display how, what is effectively a mundane event, can have such a huge impact on the lives of so many people. She also captured human nature wonderfully, and the fact that, in such a small geographic space, people can have such different attitudes. The narrative follows a series of different people, who are all affected in a different way by this ‘casual vacancy’. I must admit that some of the characters are more memorable than others, and some are definitely more likeable, but as I was reading I could envisage exactly what each looked like, without any real time being spent on their physical description.

My favourite aspect by far was that of the Weedon family. It wasn’t so much that they were likeable, but rather that, as a reader, I had an intense desperation for their situation to better. For them to somehow surmount their unfortunate situation, and prove other characters wrong.

At no point did I feel I knew where the novel was heading, but this made it such a pleasure to read. Though Rowling’s narrative destination wasn’t clear, the message she was trying to convey was, and it really made me reflect upon how I view other people without really knowing or understanding their situations.

The book was deeply upsetting at times, but I could not read it fast enough. Desperate to see how the narrative was going to unfold, and who was going to be proven wrong and right. It was written so beautiful, and it was clear how much thought and consideration had been put into every word chosen, and the structure of every sentence to achieve this magnificent end result. As I was reading, I couldn’t stop telling everyone I spoke to about how amazing it was, insisting they must read it.

The narrative resolution is abrupt and shocking, but I believe that, once again, this is simply a reflection of the path that life can take, and this was just another technique Rowling used to made The Casual Vacancy such a fantastic reflection of this.

Love & Gelato- Jenna Evans Welch

I chose Love & Gelato without even reading the description. The title was enough for me : summery and playful. I presumed this book would simply be about falling in love in Italy, without much else to the narrative, but I was pleasantly surprised. You needn’t be put off by what some might describe a ‘sickly sweet’ title (pardon the pun, given the gelato reference), as it’s not all about romantic love, there’s something a little deeper in there, too.

I like Lina, the main character, because she doesn’t fall into any stereotypical categories of teenage girl. Rather than being delighted to spend her summer in Tuscany, dreaming of catching a killer tan and finding herself a gorgeous Italian husband, Lina couldn’t be less fussed. It’s very clear that she’s only there because it was her late mother’s dying wish, but she’d really rather be at home.  During the narrative, she’s wary about everything that comes her way,  rather than jumping at the chance to go to the parties she is invited to, she considers her option. This whole attitude is quite refreshing and it makes her character seem more realistic, as she doesn’t fit into a cookie cutter category.

In fact, the author seems to have a gift for creating characters, as each with a major role in the narrative really did feel real and relatable, and I had no problems with creating mental images of them, or their voices. Her trick seemed to be not overloading, as each character serves a real purpose, and each get their own ‘screen time’, so to speak, However, I do feel that I would like to learn more about them, and spend more time with each character, so I definitely would be interested in a sequel.

Soon after arriving, a couple of things happen that, though she might not realise at the time, change her entire opinion on staying in Italy. The most important of which is her mother’s journal, which helps her on the quest to find her father- a journey which is not quite as smooth or romantic as one might hope or imagine. The journal is a great narrative technique that allows us to learn about Lina’s mother and hear her voice, without her having a real presence in the narrative. This makes it easier for the reader to make judgements later on in the book, where her honesty is questioned.

Though Lina’s such a likeable character, and I really did want the best for her for the entirety of the book, the ‘bumps in the road’ did make for a better read. I was unsure of how the story would resolve itself, and was pleased to see it perhaps wasn’t what I might have imagined from the beginning.

Love & Gelato kept me interested from start to finish. Perhaps not because it was the most complicated story, but instead because the characters all seemed so genuine, and I cared about what was in store for them. The great thing about this book is that it explores love on multiple levels, and ends with an important lesson about what love can mean (on more than a romantic level). I don’t have any criticisms of Love & Gelato, it was just the sort of heartwarming book I love.