Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

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Fahrenheit 451 is a product of McCarthy-ism in 50s America, but in an age of Fake News, bingeing on Netflix, and mobile-short attention spans it could not be more relevant.

Guy Montag is a fireman. He’s estranged from his bored housewife. He is diligent and hardworking. However, his job is not to put out fires but to light them to burn books. In this dystopian world, books are outlawed, knowledge is erased and mindless TV entertainment distracts the populace. Montag has a secret though: a scant library of a few books, a dangerous act that is the beginning of his resistance.

Ray Bradbury is a man after my own heart. His obsession with books, writers and libraries far surpasses my fairly sizeable passion- he claims to have written the most about these topics than any other writer.

My theory is that voracious readers don’t  become the best fiction writers. I am too stymied by the thousands of styles and intimidated by the pantheon of great authors that my prose becomes derivative and confused. Bradbury is clearly the exception as Fahrenheit 451 takes this influence and channels it into a flurry of burning passion, creating something original from a patchwork of quotes and ideas.

Read: To think about censorship and the freedom of ideas

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

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Things Fall Apart is Chinua Achebe’s story of Okonkwo, an important man in the Nigerian village of Umofia, whose world is changed by the coming of colonial Britain in the 19th Century. It is a novel about society, African identity and pride, and of course colonialism (pre & post, for all you literary theorists out there).

The book felt uneven as I read it- the beginning is slow as it takes time to immerse yourself in the culture and customs of the country. I’d managed to confuse village elders and miss the significance of a ritual. There were moments where I asked ‘what’s the point of this bit?’

Without wanting to give too much away, the ‘point’ is the ending. Only having finished it can I see how powerfully the structure works. The whole book builds to a cruel crescendo- it is only the benefit of hindsight that throws the the tiny minutiae of the Igbo people, Okonkwo’s life, into sharp relief.

The folkloric, oral storytelling of most of Achebe’s tale turns on a sixpence, shocking you as we move abruptly into Post-Colonial Nigeria. Ironically considering how historically enriched the text is, the use of Igbo words and speech rhythms and proverbs were revolutionary making Things Fall Apart a pioneer in Modern African fiction.

Read: For another perspective on colonialism.

The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh

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The Language of Flowers is the most hipster book I’ve read in 2017. Which could be complimentary or insulting depending on what you think of hipsters.

Orphan Claire is an angry, damaged, frightened girl comes out of a care home to sleep in an urban park. She has trouble communicating, choosing to isolate herself or to give flowers to indicate meaning instead. She starts work as a florist and runs into someone from her past. The archaic and nearly lost language of flowers becomes the running theme of the book as we learn more about her former foster family and childhood.

It would be very easy to call this a shallow, stylish story, something angsty and photogenic for the instagram generation. There is something lovely and poetic about flowers so as much as I want to be super cynical I can’t. I am softened by some visceral reaction to their scent and petals- in the same way that I am softened to this story despite being dubious about the love story, some of the characters or Claire’s personal development.

So as gimmicky as it is in some ways, the flower dictionary idea is charming. There is something wonderfully Victorian, romantic and whimsical about hidden meanings in flowers. So much so that apparently I’m prepared to read a whole book about them.

Read: For a millennial coming-of-age

The Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard

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The Red Queen is debut from Victoria Avery. I’ve just read the three of this Young Adult fantasy trilogy in quick succession…only to find out at the end that it’s not a trilogy. Gutted.

Partly because I’m not sure it need a fourth instalment, but mostly because I want to find out the ending in an universe divided by blood. Mare Barrow is a Red- an underclass drone worker to the powerful and magical Silvers, either through servitude or through fighting their wars. Through a combination of circumstances, she discovers she has ability beyond her kind and is propped up a puppet to serve the political purposes of the Silvers.

Genre confuses the plot at times, muddling motivations with characters slap-dashing around as Avery tries to do too much. There are mythical powers and quests along the lines of traditional Epic fantasy like Tolkien, but this gets derailed by the political plotting of the Hunger Games, the dystopian landscapes of the Divergent series and a breathy Twilight love-triangle.

The Red Queen trilogy takes the best and exciting bits of all the above and throws them into the mix, so it might feel quite derivative for keen fantasy or YA fans, but the upside is that when it works it really gets the blood going.

Read: If you liked the Hunger Games. Also when the fourth book is out so you can have some closure.

My Sweet Revenge by Jane Fallon

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My Sweet Revenge is exactly what the cover implies. A sweet-treat-guilty-pleasure; brightly coloured, a little bit wicked. Well done publishers and design team.

Plain and put-upon Paula discovers that her handsome soap star husband Robert is having an affair. Having taken a backseat to his career and to look after their daughter, her devastation turns to anger. She plans revenge by making Robert fall in love with her again, destroying his affair and then ultimately spurning him. Set between their lovely North London home and the gossipy glamour of a soap set, Paula entangles herself in various layers of deception and starts a Cinderella-style transformation. It’s quite fun.

Some of the plot holes are a bit like empty calories: Paula seems not to actually love Robert at all so why does she mind so much? There is a mid-narrative twist through the book which doesn’t quite work. Some of the motivation and action is a bit silly and juvenile, as the characters themselves acknowledge about their petty plotting.

Petty is fine sometimes. It captures the satisfaction akin to the fantasy of running into your ex whilst looking your absolute best in a sassy dress, hair blow dried, with a charming date on your arm.

Read: For the literary equivalent of a cupcake.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

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Do Not Say We Have Nothing is, like an appreciation for classical music, an acquired taste for the sophisticated amongst us. Not everyone will love the conplex construction, care for the critical acclaim (long-listed for the Man Booker in 2016) or know the referential motifs.

All that aside, even those without an ear for it, will appreciate the skill and craftsmanship that has gone into Madeleine Thien’s story is about a family of classical musicians and intellectuals. Politics and music is not a natural combination in my mind, but the novel comingles and counterpoints the two through the rise of Communism, the Cultural Revolution to the events of Tiananmen Square and present-day Canada.

The core of the narrative (at least for me) are the triumvirate of visionary composer Sparrow, his young violinist cousin Zhuli and dashing young revolutionary Jiang Kai. The interplay between these three characters is charged with feeling and soulfulness.

The inconclusiveness and lack of resolution is frustrating after so many chapters. There aren’t happy endings, people disappear in and out of others lives and narratives are elliptical. But that is real life. Even if you don’t actively enjoy it, Thien’s symphony certainly makes you listen to narratives in a new way.

Read: For a thought-provoking take on a multi-generational saga

Sealskin by Su Bristow

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Selkies are a Scottish myth- seals who shed their skins to take the form of beautiful women at a full moon. Sealskin is Su Bristow’s retelling of Celtic folklore.

Outside his small village, social oddity Donald is entranced by a group of women dancing on the shore. One of them is the ethereal Mairhi. Donald effectively violates and kidnaps her, hiding her skins so she can’t transform back. The terrible deed certainly doesn’t endear him as a protagonist. But as time goes on, they settle down in their West Coast fishing community and create a touching truce to share a life-of-sorts together.

Bristow’s narrative brings out out the weirdness inherent in Scottish folklore, or indeed many fairytales: gentle and whimsical at times and incredibly dark and harsh at others. Through very simple prose, it is a classic fisherman’s tale brought to life for a modern reader with themes of social isolation, identity, and free will explored.

The crux of the novel explores will in love and life choices, what it means to ‘set someone free’ as they say in cheesy American films, with sad consequences. Lovely and beautifully formed as this book is, it’s probably not one for children.

Read: If you want to read an adult bedtime story

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

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Fates and the Furies has a wonderful structure to it, which makes sense for a novel about plays. Told in two parts,  ‘Fates’ is about a marriage. Talented, rich and charismatic, Lotto escapes a troubled adolescence to college, where he meets and falls for Mathilde. She is a strikingly beautiful, smiling Sphinx. They live in domestic bliss as Mathilde supports Lotto’s path to world-renowned playwright, which is conveniently meta.

The inscrutable Mathilde and her mysterious backstory, ‘Furies’, is the revealed in the second half of the novel. Her dysfunctional upbringing and inner thoughts shine a different light on the first half of the novel.

My challenge with Groff’s book is that I just don’t like the art form of plays that much. This is a blasphemous confession from someone who adores literature but there you go. There is something about seeing the construction of acts and directed speech which disappoints me. I was tempted to skim large tracts of it that look like a script and I have no thespian joy in theatrical conceits.

However, I can appreciate a lot of it- this is a beautifully constructed classical revenge tragedy, climaxing in Oedipal revelations. Striking, rich and unusual, I liked the high drama, the stylistic devices (lots of brackets to convey inner thoughts) and the Greek mythological references (you need some knowledge for more enjoyment).

(Beautiful cover too)

Read: It you didn’t get tickets to the latest play you wanted to see.

 

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

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The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is darker than imagined. I thought it was about an unorthodox but inspiring female teacher, carefully nurturing young women into maturity. Something along the lines of a female Dead Poets Society.

Which is fairly accurate but it’s actually more complex with uncomfortable undercurrents. Miss Brodie is an independent teacher living in Edinburgh in the 1930s. She eschews a traditional curriculum for worldly topics to broaden the mind of her glamorous girls, with classes outdoors and trips to the ballet. In battle with the school determined to get rid of her and caught in a love triangle, this is supposedly her prime.

Miss Brodie is also a weird and pernicious influence on her charges- constantly scapegoating one, tactically taking others into confidence, encouraging them in inappropriate love affairs. She’s a complicated woman whose internal workings we can only glimpse.

It is stylistically interesting without sacrificing readability: there are oft-repeated maxims like you’d recite in a classroom. The novel plays with time as it is told in a series of flashbacks and forwards. It’s all deeply knowing and nostalgic, layered with the tricks that memory plays on is.

As much as I loved the book, I’m glad I didn’t have a teacher like Jean.

Read: When remembering your school days.

Summer Crossing by Truman Capote

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Discovered in a dusty box in 2000 and published twenty years after his death, Summer Crossing is the first novel Truman Capote wrote and the novel he never meant anyone to read.

I can sort of see why. Now, I don’t claim that it should have remained unread- sounds almost sacrilegious about an American Literary Great. But I can see Capote’s reluctance. Let me explain.

Grady McNeil is a young ethereal socialite. Rich, beautiful and bored, she is left alone in Manhattan one hot summer. Rebelling against her family, she has an affair with deeply unsuitable parking attendant Clyde. The song Uptown Girl may well have been written for her.

There is brilliance in Capote’s atmosphere of New York and especially some of his his characters- his description of Clyde’s matriarch driving family currents, Grady’s mother’s train of thought on dresses and debuts. Small actions are laden with significance, each tiny glimpse into a backstory conveing worlds.

When you’ve written something as stark and clean with as much gravitas as In Cold Blood, you probably don’t want people to see your working out. The whimsical metaphors, the poetic-ness detract from the good bits to make the novel feel light and silly in places, like a Truman Jnr. college essay

But lucky for us, we can see the bigger picture of Capote’s trajectory and enjoy the novel for what it is- a collection of interesting sequences, ideas and characters. Occasionally annoying, occasionally brilliant.

Read: If you feel restless in the heat of the summer.