The Cement Garden – A Winning Title

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned from Ian McEwan’s  1978 novel The Cement Garden, it’s not to underestimate the power of a great title: it can hold greater  power than the entire contents of the story.

Browsing an independent book store in Camden, I had no real intention of buying anything: I had already bought three books that day. But tediously flicking through titles, running my fingers along the worn spines, the unusual and strikingly morose title caught my eye and made my heart skip a beat. There was no blurb on the back, just testimonials to the impressive nature of McEwan’s debut novel. But I didn’t need any convincing. The title had me sold, and a couple of hours later I was reading the first page on the tube.

The story itself is more of an extended short. It’s only 120 pages, and follows a boy called Jack and his siblings, Julie, Sue, and Tom. McEwan uses wonderfully grey imagery, with desolate landscapes, and an emphasis on decay, and carves in stone a horror of real life, shockingly vivid incest, and the importance of a child coming to terms with mortality.

The narrative has not been particularly developed, and I can’t say an awful lot happens. It starts where it should and ends in the right place, but when I finished, I wasn’t quite as blown over as when I’d bought it. I enjoyed the journey, and understood the intentions behind every action, but would have enjoyed it more if it had been a collection of short stories I could move on to. It was frustrating, too, because the ending was a good one. I just wanted a longer narrative.

As it’s so short, I can’t really tell you much of the plot in fear of giving anything away. But I would say this: I am excited about reading more of Ian McEwan’s work, considering the vivid descriptions and intelligently written characters. If the title interests you as much as it did me, then go ahead and give it a try. You just might find yourself sighing at the end. I know we’re supposed to be left wanting more, but how little is too little?

My rating: 3.5/5 stars.

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The Bloody Chamber – a review

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The Bloody Chamber is a masterfully written series of short stories by the late, great Angela Carter. Re-imagined fairy stories at their finest, this amalgamation of chilling tales shows Carter at her finest. Her frighteningly wicked and illustrious vocabulary is used to paint beautifully haunting scenes of “winter and cold weather” and fearlessly writes with astonishing detail. The detail can, at times, appear shocking and somewhat trite, but the pornographic scenes are definitely important to reflect the harshness of the reality she has carved.
The stories vary in length (the first is about 46 pages long, the Snow Child is only 2), but that doesn’t mean one is of less value than another. That couldn’t be less true. And what is so wonderful with her work is her subtle links between one tale and another, so that her entire collection is a subtle collection of intertextual references weaving between themselves, paying clever homage to their originals and counterparts, whilst establishing themselves as fully original stories.

One could pour hours over this collection and still find things to talk about (indeed, I studied two from this book for my A Level English Coursework), but equally, one could easily sit back and read it without having to pay too much attention to her details.
While playing to the cliché, I can honestly say (or rather, warn) that this little bundle of joy is not for the faint of heart.

My rating: 4/5 stars

A Classic that Never gets Old

Book Lovers! Here is a book I recommend without a doubt. The Earthsea Quartet, by Ursula Le Guin, is a collection of four epic, beautifully-written tales in the archipelago isles of Earthsea. Set in a world of wise wizards, mile-wide fire-breathing dragons, and the ever-shifting balance of light and dark, the focus of this quartet is not the epic setting, nor the magic, but the brilliant development of people emerging into adulthood.

A Wizard of Earthsea, the first novella, follows Ged as he discovers his innate magical powers and becomes a wizard, rumoured by many to be the greatest of all time. When training, dared to show his power and summon someone from the land of the dead, he is left running for his life from a shadow seeking to overcome him.

The Tombs of Atuan, the second, follows Tenar, a young girl destined to be lead the cult of a long-forgotten religion. Born into a world she does not understand, when the wisened wizard Ged infiltrates her domain in search of a forgotten relic, her perspective of her world and the world outside are forever changed.

In The Farthest Shore, rumours spread across Earthsea of magic losing its power. Songs no longer have meaning, crops no longer grow, and the dragons forget themselves. Ged and Arren, a Prince, journey across Earthsea to discover the root of the evil.

The first three are written in a very condensed, fable-like structure, and waste no words in painting a clear picture of Le Guin’s world. A fantastically confusing feeling is left at the end of each story, thanks to their suitably abrupt, and brain-twistingly bitter-sweet endings. At the end of the third, I just wanted to go back to the beginning again and relive it again. I didn’t want to believe how it had finished.

And Tehanu, the fourth and final of the quartet, is a slower-paced story that deals with the shattering aftermath of the third, and Ged’s story as he must learn to live with himself, when his magic, his crutch, is taken from him. Tenar, now all grown up, is a foreign woman in a foreign land, alienated because of her accent and skin-colour.

The final book takes a strikingly different style to the others, in that it sheds its archaic fable tone, and adopts a more modern, personal approach. The dragons and magic are still there, but are stripped back under a magnifying lens, and conversations over dinner take precedence over journeys over land and sea. The underlying issues of inequality between men and women are addressed forthright, and it deals with the day-to-day struggles of normal people getting by.

Perhaps the greatest attraction of this series is the lack of a main antagonist. Yes, there’s a bad guy or two, but the focus is not good guy defeats bad guy, more-so child becomes adult. No villain can be so one-dimensional. It is the journey Ursula Le Guin focuses on, the issues of her world that reflect our own.

This is an example of fantasy in its highest form, and I would recommend anyone reading this, turn over the first page: It’s a book impossible to put down. Please, give it a read.

My rating: 5/5

Duma Key – A Book in a Misfit Genre

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I don’t know what it is with me and lengthy books. First Shantaram, an epic mammoth of a read, followed by Duma Key, written by Stephen King, an author well known for piling the pages. It was a healthy read, and an enjoyable one, with several thoughts brought to me along the way.

Firstly, I think it’s safe to say Stephen King’s works can be a bit hit and miss, especially of late. He has written some masterpieces in his time (my favourite being It, but Revival was pretty sound, too), but a couple of his pieces have started to feel a little saturated. It almost feels as if he has become his own protagonist from Misery, Paul Sheldon, who writes work for money, out of demand, when the passion runs dry. Considering he churns out books by the bucket load, it’s probable for some of them to not hit the mark. Indeed, I imagine many readers of celebrated authors will love anything they’re given, because of the name rather than the quality of what’s written.

Okay. To the book.

This one is certainly a step up from some of his previous stuff. The main character is clearly thought through, and it’s refreshing to live and breathe a person so heartfelt and true. His family is relatable, his friends are reliable, and the beginning premise is a sound one: A man goes to a remote island in search of a retreat after a life-threatening accident. He loses his arm, his marriage, and contemplates ending his life. He goes to Duma Key, a picturesque, isolated island in Florida, where he rediscovers his old love for painting. Except here, when he paints, sometimes he paints real life. And sometimes, he can make real life happen.

I particularly enjoyed the first two thirds of the book. The setup is fascinating, and the slow burn of information slowly fed to the reader kept me on my toes, and intrigued over what was on the next page.

The last third did admittedly become a little silly. Characters having skills that just happen to save them from certain death, though it was never established before; last minute realisations that bore no relation to the rest of the book… To me, it felt as if King just didn’t know how to conclude his story, which is a shame, because as I said, the first two thirds were fascinating.

My issue, I think, is not with the book itself, but with its genre.

Stephen King’s works are labelled “Horror”. So, naturally, when I read his work, I expect to be horrified. It was terrifying, the ending of Revival was spine-tingling, The Shining was chilling, but while Duma Key had its chilling moments, on occasion, it felt very misplaced. I just wasn’t scared enough. If anything, it was more of a fantasy book with a touch of creepy. And yet, his typical “horror” terminology, with the blood and the gore and the rest, was all there, simply to fit within the expectation of his readers. It brought my attention to Horror as a genre, and the question of whether it’s justifiable to define an author’s entire career by the books that started him off. Surely, it’s up to the publishers to tell him it doesn’t quite fit, or to market it differently? Perhaps if I had begun with a different preconception in mind, it may have changed my opinion of the sudden change in the latter section of the book.

But perhaps this is just me. A friend once said to me, “your book may have scary elements, but don’t label it horror because it suddenly makes appears a little trite, as if it’s trying to be scary.” And I may have to agree, to an extent. Unless the work is masterfully scary, labelling it as such is setting oneself up for a fall.

My rating: 3.5/5

An Excerpt of My Own

A bit of my own creative writing.

While I finish a book I’m currently reading, I thought I’d share my own most recent spout of creative writing.

I have struggled, recently, with my desire to try new things: Once we have trained in one route, through university or school or otherwise, there is a degree of expectation put upon our shoulders to follow that route for the rest of our lives. But ‘the rest of our lives’ is a long time. Why must we be so restricted? Why must the naivety of our young adulthood determine the rest of our days? The other paths are so unattractive to those who expect us to conform to a piece of paper we earned when we were teens, but sitting still just does not satisfy me. When the other options are off limits, the desire to reach them can consume us until the one we’re following appears ugly. Poisonous. I believe that only once we’re set loose to try new things, can we truly understand and appreciate the beauty of what we already had.

Today, I share two short excerpts from my developing novel, When it Rains. Please leave a comment and share your support. Any creative/constructive feedback is welcome.

HOW TO START AGAIN (1)

It begins with a choice: wash out the pan and start from scratch, or try saving it by adding on top. That would seem the safer option; it means security, and no bridges to burn. But it doesn’t guarantee removing the original taste, and always risks turning sour.

Starting from scratch entails cutting ties; A fresh new start with no strings to hold you down. But you’d be alone. Nothing to fall back on. Nobody to pick you up. When the past is tossed aside, and the bridge burned, it can be very hard to cross back over. So many dream of making the brave, giant leap into the unknown, but so few take the chance.

The risks are just far too great.

HOW TO START AGAIN (4)

What will we find in the great unknown? What will we hear? What will we taste?

Will it be what we expected? Will it hold everything we’ve dreamed of? Inspiring prospects? Brand new horizons? Blindingly beautiful colours and flavours? The possibilities seem endless, because they are. The way back is gone, shrouded by smoke, but the way forward could go on for an eternity, and splits into so many different directions, it’s often impossible to see which way is the right way. It’d be easier just to close our eyes and point: Eenie-meenie-miney-mo…

What if we don’t like what we find? What if it’s lesser than what we left? It’s possible that the great unknown isn’t so lovely after all, and once we reach the top of the mountain, the grass on the other side has dried and withered away, and only a barren wasteland lies in its wake.

But the worst prospect is finding nothing at all: When we take that first step, that giant leap into the unknown, our foot could fall into darkness, and we’d tumble, tumble into black until it closes its mouth and swallows the soul. There is no light, no return. But still we hope.

Hope… If we find a fast-flowing river, we look for a boat. If the tunnel hits a dead end, we search for a crack. If we find a locked door, we look for a latch. But the cracks are sealed. The wall is high. The door is shut. There is no boat. Searching for the light at the end of the tunnel is the only thing that keeps it from collapsing on our backs. Hope allows us to maintain our dignity in the face of all odds, and keeps us pressing through the darkness, regardless of whether or not anything is there.

So, we search. And search, and search, and search…

We keep searching. As long as we keep finding things to search for, we search.

It took a lifetime

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This one has proven tricky.

I have written and re-written this review several times, and have tried to put into words my feelings on the latest book I’ve read, but still I have not been able to give it the justice due. It is partly, I feel, because of the great length of the book, and I don’t really fancy crafting a review that matches the author’s writing stamina.

Shantaram, by Gregory David Roberts, is a healthy 940-odd read, but a mere page number does not put into words just how much of a process reading this was, as I am sure it was for Roberts to write.

Lin, the protagonist, jumps the wall of an Australian prison and flees to Bombay (now Mumbai), where he is exposed to the very richest, the poorest, and the wisest of India, and quite possibly the world. He joins the Bombay mafia, establishes a free medical clinic for the poorest in society, joins a war, falls in love, and all the while paints an almost inspirational painting of life in India. In a city where multiculturalism is embraced, and the mafia’s dominance is accepted as a part of life, it is a perfect doorway to questions about our own societies, about acceptance, and re-instates faith in humanity at a time when it’s difficult to believe in anything. It is most interesting, perhaps, because it was crafted around the author’s own life, which was almost destined to be retold in literary form.

About five years pass in the novel, yet it could very well have taken me that long to finish reading it. I put it down, tried something else, came back to it several times, and all the while had quite mixed feelings about the whole experience. Let me tell you pourquoi.

Shantaram is overwhelming. I think that is the point. It immerses you, with Lin, in a wonderful culture quite opposite to our own. There are many moments that are heart-warming, heart-breaking, stomach-churning, and tear-jerking. His depiction of the characters, of the unfathomably beautiful Karla, of the loyal and joyous Prabaker, and of the sage and father figure Khaderkhan, to name a few, are so fleshed out, I could almost smell their colognes and feel their breath against my neck. They all had something to say, a grand philosophical opinion, a proverb thought of on the spot. But though many of their thoughts were interesting to consider and worth writing down for my own reference, is it entirely necessary to read so much of it?

At least a third of the book consisted of questions about life, the origin of God, and catchy, wise quotes from friends so intelligent and impactful that he could very well have found them in a monastery. The first few thoughts are interesting, and enough to inspire debate, but enough rambling can become irritating. I caught myself eye-rolling on many occasions, for I don’t believe it truly plausible to know that many people so wizened to the world, who have that much of an impact on one’s life. The fact that there are so many characters in the novel (more than I can possible count), and each one of them have something profound to say, is what made many of the instances and people introduced as simply unbelievable. I enjoy a philosophical debate, but when it comes from so many mouths at once, all with a ten-page discussion, it is no longer the character’s view, but the author’s own opinions that he wishes to promote. It comes across as preachy, and a little pretentious, with a desperate need to start a debate.

Furthermore, Gregory depicts Lin as a character thought of so highly, and loved by so many, which is lovely, but I think humility is a virtue that the main character lacks. While it promotes him as the hero, it also makes the author come across as a little self-righteous, considering as it is based on his own life.

I also think many authors (myself included) have a habit of including too much information. I think his personal attachment to much of the source material may have dissuaded him from “cutting the fat”, which would have saved the reader a lot of time, the printing companies a lot of money, and may well have inspired many more to pick up the book: I know how daunting it is to see such a heavy tome. I have seen encyclopaedias with less information. Yes, it’s nice to know he understands what he’s talking about, and yes, somebody out there might enjoy what I did not, but there’s only so much talk about printing offices and currency exchanges that I can withstand before I start skipping paragraphs.

My thoughts above do not dissuade me from considering a second read-through. It is easier to criticise the bad than point out the good, because we have a tendency to point out our own flaws and react badly to praise. But pushing my critical opinions aside, I really do think it was expertly written. It took him thirteen years to write, six which were spent in prison, and it is evident that his blood, sweat and tears went into making it. It is incredibly descriptive, wonderfully informative, and makes me want to visit India. Over the last few months, reading Shantaram, I have laughed, I have grimaced, and I have even shed a tear or two. When the end came, despite my opinions on the content, I was terribly upset to realise the journey was over. I feel like I lived a lifetime reading his own, and have certainly picked up a few new words, too.

Would I recommend this to someone? Yes. Yes, I would. It is educational, real, and so brilliantly shocking. To anyone considering climbing this mountain, I would say: Persevere. The climb is difficult, and you will often want to turn around, but I promise that the view from the top will take your breath away.

MY RATING: 4/5

 

A Book Everybody Should Read

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In March, while rehearsing in Miami, a friend lent me a copy of a book, Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman. I had not heard of it, nor could I discern much from its title or blurb, and that made me all the more intrigued.
Reading it took a matter of days. Alan Lightman lays out Einstein’s theory of relativity in three-page chapters, from where he provides a different scenario, each of which centres on the same question: ‘What if time existed like this?’
What if everyone lived forever? What if we only had one day to live? What if time acted differently from town to town? What happens after universe ends? All of these and more are questions myself and many others have asked ourselves, in bath, or in bed, but are too shy to ask the questions aloud. Here, in this 150-page novella, questions are met with more questions, with tantalising, simple, and effective imagery.
It’s fiction, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it a ‘story’. I would call it an experience. I went through such a metaphysical journey, from one thought-provoking chapter to another, and it was so wonderful to see the possibilities already conceptualised in my head fleshed out and expanded upon. It was heavy to read but very short in length, and impossible to put down. I promise that if you turn past the front page, you will not find a way back.
This is the best book I have read to date, and I have already recommended it to many. Please, if you have a moment, delve into this book, and experience a concept you will never forget.