Friday, 28 December 2012

Before I Die- Jenny Downham

Reviewed by Kelly Moore

'The sound of a bird flying low across the garden. Then nothing. Nothing. A cloud passes. Nothing again. Light falls through the window, falls onto me, into me. 
 All gathering towards this one.’

   Ever wondered what you would feel like if you were told you only had a few months to live? What would you do with your few precious, remaining moments? What would you say to the people you were leaving behind? With so many people touched by cancer, Downham’s book remains as relatable now as it did when it was first released. It’s not everyday that you come across teenage fiction, which deals with such a poignant plot line where the ending is inevitable. Throughout the entire novel, we are made to come to terms with the fact that our protagonist, Tessa, is eventually going to die. So what’s the effect of this? Well it’s gripping to say the least. ‘Before I die’ is definitely a page-turner and is guaranteed to leave you feeling lucky to be alive.

   Most of us have experienced some sort of loss in our lives. There’s nothing that can take away that sense of pain and overwhelming grief, but most of all there’s that feeling of wonder. The wonder of how it might feel to die? An impossible question to answer it would seem. Yet it’s something that Downham depicts so brilliantly in her novel. To say it left me feeling overwhelmed with sadness is not entirely true. Yes, I choked back tears and I felt as though I had lost my best friend when Tessa died, but the beauty of a book is that you haven’t really experienced any loss at all. If anything, Downham’s writing makes you happy to be living, which is why it is such a great novel to read.

  'Before I die’ holds no secrets. The plot does exactly what it says in the title- it takes us on sixteen year-old Tessa’s journey, accomplishing things that she wants to do before she dies. Tessa is just a young girl suffering from cancer and all she knows is that she has ‘two choices- stay wrapped in blankets and get on with dying or […] get on with living’. When the realization hits that she has limited time left, she decides to write a list consisting of a few things to do before she finally reaches the end of her life. One of her wishes is to have a boyfriend. So much so, that the novel begins- ‘I wish I had a boyfriend. I wish he lived in the wardrobe of a hanger. Whenever I wanted, I could get him out and he’d look at me the way boys do in films, as if I’m beautiful. He wouldn’t speak much, but he’d be breathing hard as he took of his leather jacket and unbuckled his jeans.’ The list of things varies from things as serious as sex and drugs, to lighthearted fulfillments such as becoming famous.

   Then we are presented with the heartbreaking wishes, such as wanting to stay alive long enough to meet her best friend’s newborn baby. By cleverly revealing Tessa’s list as the novel progresses, it means we are kept in suspense of what her next wish might be. This technique is much more effective for the reader, leaving us wanting more at the end of each chapter.

    A touching twist in the plot is when Tessa falls in love, especially when she thought she’d never get the chance. After everything she has to deal with already, it’s hard to believe that she is still only young and when it happens, she understandably reacts like a child discovering a new place for the first time.

 "‘Is this how it is for everyone?' she whispered. 
'How do you know?'
 'I just do. I've never felt this with anyone before.'
 'Serious. That isn't a line.'
 'Kiss me,' she said. 
He did. Everywhere.’"

   Downham throws Tessa into a whole new world of emotions that she thought she would never be able to experience. Adam, Tessa’s love interest, soon becomes her drug and release from her illness. So, whilst Downham manages to portray what it’s really like to die, she also manages to portray a young love, which makes the story even more gripping to read.

   Tessa’s character sometimes comes across as being overly headstrong and we often feel more considerate towards the supporting characters, like her brother or her dad, whom she subconsciously pushes away. At certain points in the novel, it is hard to remember that Tessa is the one suffering and we become more concerned about the way she is treating those around her. However, we must remember that this is perhaps her way of telling us not to feel sympathetic towards her. After all, she is still just a normal teenager experiencing the same emotions. Despite having her ups and downs, Downham still manages to get us to warm to Tessa’s character, and by the end of the novel when Tessa is slipping in and out of consciousness; it is incredibly hard not to have teary eyes.

    The book is filled with important supporting characters, such as Tessa’s best friend Zoey- a happy-go lucky girl who compliments Tessa with her wacky personality, Tessa’s younger brother, Cal – who gives us an innocent, much needed, alternative perspective on death and Tessa’s Mum- who adds another dimension to the story when she comes back into her life. In my opinion however, it’s Tessa’s Dad who’s the most heroic. He is the voice of reason who only wants what is best for his daughter. He knows full well that Tessa doesn’t have much time left and all he wants is to hold onto her for as long as possible. Towards the end of the book Tessa tells her father-

  'Dad... For hours you sat in hospitals and never, not once, complained. You brushed my hair like a mother should. You gave up work for me, friends for me, four years of your life for me. You never moaned. Hardly ever. You let me have Adam. You let me have my list. I was outrageous. Wanting, wanting so much. And you never said, 'That's enough. Stop now.'

   Throughout the novel, Downham employs a particular writing style, which manages to grip you from beginning to end. She has the knack of explaining poignant moments in such a simple and effective way, like when Tessa’s younger brother says that when she dies, she’ll turn to ‘dust, glitter, rain.’ Likewise, the familiar dialogue intertwined in the narrative brings each character to life and makes everything appear to play out as clearly as it might do in a film. At some moments, particularly at the end, it is almost as though you are in the room with them, witnessing Tessa draw her final breath.

   'Before I die’ is an easy read, but can be enjoyed by teenagers and adults alike. I would say that it’s the perfect book for keeping on your bedside table, particularly because of its captivating plot and relatable characters, which will make you more inclined to pick it up every night. Also, with the recent release of the film adaptation, renamed ‘Now is Good’, there is no better time to read Jenny Downham’s touching novel. I know it sounds clichéd, but it’s a real life-affirming book, which really does leave you appreciating the little things in life and reminds you not to take anything for granted.

Friday, 14 December 2012

The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster (second draft)

Paul Auster, ‘The New York Trilogy’

Review by Lydia Mark


The phone that rang in the corner of his boxy New York apartment brought Daniel Quinn back to life. As a somewhat retired writer, he had lived so long as a ghost that everybody had forgotten he was there until the telephone penetrated his solitary world. Usually, I find the “the ringing phone” a tired device used to anticipate and forebode mystery. Yet, in the first book of the trilogy, City of Glass, Paul Auster strips away the familiarity of this sort of beginning as Quinn does not seem remotely bothered by the phone; Daniel Quinn was a man with absolutely nothing to hide or expect.
When he finally heard the voice on the other end, it was like a voice Quinn had never heard before, ‘mechanical and filled with feeling, hardly more than a whisper and yet perfectly audible’. It was asking for Paul Auster. Who is Paul Auster? Of course our award-winning novelist is Paul Auster. Elements like this make Auster’s trilogy intriguing because you enter the story in a state of confusion, which you really believe you can dispel if you just continue reading. As a feature in the ‘1001 books you must read before you die’ [], The New York Trilogy is a thoughtful comment on the genre of mystery and the panoply of novels written on this topic. In essence, Paul Auster’s novel is a look at the mystery about mysteries and the aspects of it that engage readers; the satisfaction from reading his novel comes as Auster transforms the reader into the investigator, making the reader active, in his take on the classic detective story.

With City of Glass I felt Auster evoked the image of a typical Hollywood detective drama, the film noir type popularized in the 1940s, with Quinn’s characterisation as the “cynical protagonist” gifted with a smart mouth and very little to lose, but as it continues Quinn is taken on a journey initiated by chance and the story becomes more than typical detective fiction. As he is not a P.I, but a writer of crime fiction, Quinn laughably takes on a trail and report case but instead of facts all he is left with are meaningless stories from various characters. What I think differentiates City of Glass from other detective stories and makes it so interesting is that it concentrates on the art of story itself, and not on whether the story does or is supposed to mean anything at all. Even when Quinn finally met the Paul Auster he had been trying to impersonate he was not the right guy, and definitely not the private investigator the voice of the phone mistook him to be. Instead Paul Auster was a writer who enveloped Quinn in yet another meaningless story and it is at this point you realise Quinn is not going to uncover any answers. Subsequently the reader is reminded of the narrator’s initial point that ‘The question is the story itself, and whether or not it means something is not for the story to tell.’ City of Glass and its illusive beginning constitute Auster’s novel as a postmodernist mystery as he plays with the conventions of a detective genre, challenging our expectations and encouraging the open-mindedness to explore the story.

However, I did not think Ghosts was as successful in encouraging the reader’s natural instinct to explore and discover. Ghosts is the second story about Blue who was asked by White to follow Black. While it does create the same sense of mystery as the first, I felt that all the events were thrown together deliberately to confuse the reader. Whereas, Auster so effortlessly intertwines the events of City of Glass together that you find yourself flipping back the pages to find the link that you missed and Ghosts, I think, lacked this subtlety. Blue was also set on an unfruitful trail and report case where his ending parallels Quinn’s. Blue ‘… stands up from his chair, puts on his hat, and walks through the door. And from this moment on, we know nothing.’  

Evidently Auster is a fan of delayed gratification as I found myself racing to the last book, The Locked Room. With so many clues and so little answers the unnamed narrator aims to clear up the mystery that has gripped the first two books; we get a sense of the three stories as a trilogy as he tries to find the writer and friend that has “disappeared” and subsequently holds all the answers to The New York Trilogy. The Locked Room is frustratingly good as we expect it to answer all the questions posed in City of Glass and Ghosts, but in Auster fashion as he toys with the relationship between the story-teller and the listener he also challenges the authenticity of all three stories. As readers, can we really trust the “facts” presented to us by narrators?
Despite this, you harbour the feeling that you can find the mystery if you just look hard enough and this is when you realised you are entirely engulfed in Auster’s thrilling novel...  






Review of S.J. Watson's Before I Go to Sleep by Freya McIntosh (redone)

Every day Christine wakes up.

Every day Christine wakes up. She is a twenty-something woman. No, that's not right, that can't be right. Just look at her, look at herself, look at myself in the mirror. I'm old, too old. She has written a diary. She reads it, I read it. She reads her life into existence. It's a dull life. Beautifully written, by her, for her, written within writing. She's the author of her own story.

I rem-

She lives with a man. Her husband. His name is Ben. He loves her. He looks after her. But. Don't trust Ben. It's written there in her diary, the diary she can't remember writing. Ben is her memory. He tells her who she is, how she is. He is her memory. Every day he looks after her but Don't trust Ben. Every day she reads her life into existence. He doesn't know about the diary. The diary tells her things that Ben doesn't so Don't Trust Ben, but every day he looks after her. She is the one with the problem. How can she how can she how can she trust herself? 

I remem-

Her journal, my journal, this book explores the importance of memory and just how lost we would be if our memory were taken away at the end of each day. Just how lost we would be if...if what? I look back at what I've written. Oh, lost if our memory were taken away.  The book seeks to place the reader in Christine's position: a confused position. We read the diary at the same time as her; discover her life at the same time as her. In a way we become her, which is why the final revelation has such a powerful impact on us. We don't know who to trust. "Don't trust Ben." But can we trust Christine? Can we trust ourselves? What is real? What if our reality were taken away?

I remember-

The only negative aspect of my diary, her diary, this novel; is that Christine seems to read and write impossibly fast, and with incredible accuracy. Like in Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela, we wonder at the startling pace at which her journal progresses, and at the fact that she seems to remember every single word that has been spoken in a particular day. She appears to remember long conversations word for word, rather than giving the general gist of the conversation. One example being a conversation with her doctor:

I’ve decided to write up your case. It’s pretty unusual in the field, and I think it would be really beneficial to get the details out there in the wider scientific community. Do you mind?

The accuracy in her memory of all this direct speech is ironic, given that her long-term memory is non-existent; it is perhaps more of a device rather than a realistic portrayal of human memory, and yet this amount of detail enables us to climb between the pages of her journal and into her life. This novel, her journal, achieves what it has set out to do brilliantly: make us at home in a world in which we know almost nothing about, and make us care deeply about Christine and whether or not she is being told the truth. By Ben, and by herself.

I remember when, I remember
I remember when I lost my mind.

Every day Christine wakes up.

Handmaids Tale review (redone)

Handmaid’s Tale Review - by Jenny Ward

In my writing I am very interested in dystopian societies, especially dystopias which look at the issues of today’s world and exaggerating them to future extremes. Hence, I was naturally attracted to this book by Margaret Atwood in which the anti-feminist movement is extrapolated to a point where, in the fictional city of Gilead, all women have been cut off from money, “can’t hold property any more” and are either housewives of the men who run Gilead or Handmaids, described by the narrator Offred (a handmaid herself) as “walking wombs”. These handmaids are specifically hired by families to have intercourse with the husbands (while the wife is in the room as part of the conception ceremony) and bear the “families” children.

Through the course of the novel Offred is gradually degraded from a modern woman with a daughter and a lover, as we see through Offred’s narration of her memories, to the reified (in this instance meaning reduced by society to a state where she is viewed as an object or machine), dehumanised cog in the system. This reification is accentuated by both Atwood’s description of Offred’s isolation, and also her portrayal of Offred’s acute isolation.
Offred’s identity is stripped from her, firstly, through her clothing; she is forced to wear a red shapeless burka-like outfit that turns her into a “nondescript woman in red carrying a basket”. Secondly, Offred is even denied a name, her character name derived from the name of her captain; she is “of Fred”. This adds another level of reification as she is defined solely through her ownership, portraying to the reader how dehumanised the society has forced her to become. This loss of identity, isolation and the slow degradation of her humanity that we see through the novel, especially in contrast with her previous life, is beautifully described and structured by Margaret Atwood, making “The Handmaids Tale” a truly poignant novel. It is structured in chapters titled merely by stages of her day i.e. “Nap” and “night”. From this structure we not only get a portrayal of how mechanical Offred’s life is but an accurate depiction of how memory works from Atwood. The memories we get from Offred are narrated mostly in her nap times or “night”, the first flashback not occurring till chapter three, when Offred’s mind is free to wonder. Through this the novel appears fragmented, leaving the reader the task of gradually piecing together the sections of Offred’s life throughout the novel. This is not only an accurate impression of memory, but also gives the reader a sense of the struggle in Offred’s personality between the powerful, carefree woman in her fragmented flack backs, and the reified person Gilead has made her into.

This struggle is poignant in itself but, as to poignancy, one example has always stuck in my memory. There is a description of Offred laughing in chapter nine, a sensation Offred does not recognise, feeling she has “broken, something has cracked, that must be it”, describing how laughter is an “emotion inappropriate to the occasion” and “could be fatal”. This section is so beautifully sad, showing how much she has changed from her previous life, even to the extent that she has forgotten and is afraid of happy emotions, or even any emotions as she “prays to be empty”.

In conclusion, I would really recommend this book to anyone; it stands out not only in its interesting plot but also through Margaret Atwood’s ability to build a complete, unfamiliar world whilst still moving the story along. She gradually allows the reader to discover the world of Gilead, portrayed even in her use of syntax; in which there are no speech marks, lessening the dramatic quality of dialogue, but nevertheless not lessening the interest in the plot, to create an empty, hollow feeling to Offred’s narration. It is this careful and subtle world building which I admire most, and aim to achieve in my own novel.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop

(second attempt)


Angela Carter’s fiction is often defined through her feminist re-writing of social conventions. Indeed, Carter described herself as being 'all for putting new wine in old bottles, especially if the pressure of the new wine makes the bottles explode' (from Carter’s ‘Notes From the Front Line.’) She does this most notably in her 1967 novel The Magic Toyshop in which the 15-year-old protagonist Melanie is torn from her middle class world following the sudden death of her parents and flung within an oppressive familial structure in which her uncle terrorises his mute Irish wife and her brothers.

Despite its misleadingly juvenile title The Magic Toyshop is a sophisticated and well-written novel in which Carter’s precise and focused writing breathes life into the mundane. Like a painter, Carter is vividly able to create a scene in which she questions almost every aspect of social convention. Gender, class, culture, patriarchy, the nature of sexual taboo – not much is left unscrutinised by Carter, so much so that the reader eventually feels as if Carter’s “putting old wine in new bottles” is intended to shock, rather than being a genuine attempt to question ingrained mindsets.  Nevertheless, the characters do finally transcend social constraints when placed in an alien setting. The Irish family, who practise incest, gender equality and free love, are foreign, red-haired and dirty and are therefore entirely removed from respectable 1960s British society. Consequently, the reader ultimately feels that this social liberty is unattainable within respectable means.

Undeniably, every line is claustrophobically enveloped with symbolism and references to psycho-analytical theory which causes the slowing of the plot. The theme of spying runs throughout the novel and is clearly a nod to feminist theories of the male gaze, whilst even the mundane act of an object falling is laden with symbolism:
“She said to the Daisy girl with her big brown eyes: 'I will not have it plain. No. Fancy. It must be fancy!' She meant her future. A moon-daisy dropped to the floor, down from her hair, like a faintly derisive sign from heaven.”

Fortunately, this does not reduce the effectiveness of the novel as a whole due to its focus being not on the actual storyline, but on the message it attempts to portray. Nevertheless, Carter’s anti-Patriarchal mindset teeters from the sublime to the ridiculous at times, no more so than during the almost comical scene where Melanie, acting as the mythological Leda in one of her uncle’s puppet shows, hysterically overreacts to being raped by a wooden swan. As the novel’s genre is magic realism, the reader is supposed to feel at this point that the puppet actually transforms into the mighty Zeus. Yet Carter’s writing in this scene becomes as wooden at the puppet itself, leaving the reader biting their cheeks in amusement.
“It was a grotesque parody of a swan; Edward Lear might have designed it. It was nothing like the wild, phallic bird of her imaginings. It was dumpy and homely and eccentric.
Evidently, a home-made swan puppet would be ‘dumpy and homely,’ thus Carter’s description is superfluous and serves no further narrative function beyond prolonging the clumsiness of the scene.

Nevertheless, it is hard to find fault with Carter’s style of writing as a whole, and her ability to evoke vivid imagery without the use of clichés is one of the reasons why The Magic Toyshop is so encapsulating. Her greatest descriptions revolve around Finn, Melanie’s romantic interest and one of the more intriguing characters in the novel. His otherworldly air is summed up beautifully through Carter’s alignment of him with both folklore and mundane life:

‘Maybe his legs were hairy under the worn-out trousers, coarse-pelted goat legs and neat, cloven hooves. Only he was too dirty for a satyr, who would probably wash frequently in mountain streams.’

Despite Carter’s tiring and incessant attempts of pushing boundaries, The Magic Toyshop is both a charming and disturbing novel in which a young, spoilt, virginal girl is forced to accept the harsh realities of the real world and discover her role within it. For many young female readers, Melanie is the female Holden Caulfield, an accessible and likeable character who shares the universal woes of teenage girls. Whilst Carter’s new wine does not necessarily cause old bottles to explode, it is a task in itself to emotionally move on from the all-encompassing, soul-absorbing world she creates.

-Claire Gogarty

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Ender's Game

'Ender's Game' by Orson Scott Card

It is difficult to categorise Ender’s Game. This difficulty comes not from its genre – Ender’s Game is very clearly science fiction -- but from the fact that it is not clear who this novel is aimed at; it features a child protagonist, yet is not a children’s book. Young adult? Arguably; the main character is young, gifted and bullied, someone who is both The Chosen One and yet The Underdog at the same time; popular character tropes in young adult male protagonists. There are also plenty of action scenes and ADULTS ARE EVIL to keep young readers entertained and self-righteous. But it features themes that perhaps may be overlooked by younger people. The politics, the background, the psychology of the book are quite very gritty, and the ADULTS ARE EVIL aspect of the book doesn’t feel like it panders to the younger readers, it feels – oddly  ̶  realistic; like it’s aimed at the adults. So is it an adult book? Not necessarily, but possibly. Although the writing may be too simplistic and some of the messages are hammered home a bit too bluntly (and it’s also quite short) there is nothing to say that adults, myself included, won’t enjoy it. Indeed, the majority do it seems; it is critically acclaimed and recommended reading for some American military organisations (according to Wikipedia). This blurring of the target demographic is no bad thing from a reader’s perspective, but makes things difficult when it comes to criticising the novel.    

Wait…maybe it’s a bildungsroman?

Wow, ok. I’ll come back to that.

The first thing one notices when reading Ender’s Game is that it has aged extremely well. For a 1985 science fiction novel it feels remarkably current. Card seems to have anticipated the rise of the blogosphere and the impact of the internet had it remained purely in the hands of the elite and the academics. The novel even predicts the military’s use of computer games to train soldiers, and interstellar colonialism does not look too outlandish in today’s climate. The novel seems plausible, contemporary and yet still futuristic, which is very impressive. The second is that it reads very much like an action movie. The tactics of battle scenes are lovingly detailed but, crucially, are not boring (a boon considering how many of them there are). The dialogue has near Top Gun levels of slickness, and the expositional segments at the beginning of each chapter never seem to pass up an opportunity for a pessimistic one-liner. In any other book this could be tacky but Ender’s Game is among many things a commentary on the military, so this style of speech is appropriate, not grating. The slang that the boys adopt is also palatable, much better than most authors’ attempts to replicate teenage dialects. The problem that initially arose with this action movie format is that in many ways the novel also retains the predictability of an action movie: The underdog is ostracised, eventually through innovation and risk-taking he becomes the best, he is ostracised even more because of his brilliance, he triumphs even more until, in spite of everything, he and his ragtag group of outcasts defeat the main bad guys all by themselves. At one point Ender Wiggin even has an old mentor who turns out to be a war hero.
The plot was very standard fare until the ending, however. The ending was almost anti-climactic, but  ̶  and here’s the key thing  ̶  in a good way. After the previous gung-ho attitude and the message of ‘Winning is more important than anything’ being plastered through every chapter it was extremely refreshing to have an ending that performed a 180 ͦturn and reversed the meta-heroic theme. Because of this the novel almost deserves the predictable format, since the consequences were so profound. The resolution was not a clean one, and it worked.

So…is it a bildungsroman?

Well, yes and no. And more ‘no’ than ‘yes’. This statement does not extend to the series as a whole, since I have not yet read the other books but Ender’s Game on its own cannot really be classed as a bildungsroman. The online edition of Oxford English Dictionary defines it as ‘A novel that has as its main theme the formative years or spiritual education of one person’, and this could be true if you count the physical, mental and spiritual thrashing Ender receives at as an ‘education’. But I would hesitate to define it as such because it does not edify him. He doesn't learn anything he didn't already know. Ender emerges by the end not a man, but a broken individual trying to trying to undo both the damage inflicted upon him and the damage he has wrought. If anything, it is an atavistic coming-of-age tale. It’s Lord of the Flies in space.

It is easy to see why ‘Ender’s Game’ remains a seminal novel. It occupies a bracingly grey moral area, raises questions on the issues of military ethics, child soldiers and challenges the notion of victory. The majority of characters are well developed and psychological effects are deftly dealt with. It handles mature themes but, appropriately, in a childish way, which highlights the inherent childishness of war; even the title emphasises this. Every aspect of the story is relevant, again contributing towards that movie impression. This is a positive thing, though it does make the novel rather lean. Some of the morals are overt and heavy-handed, as though the author was afraid that the readers would otherwise miss them. But that does not detract from the novel, which achieves the perfect balance of cautionary wisdom and entertainment.

Review by Shana Laurent