Vanessa and Her Sister – Priya Parma (2017)

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Young Vanessa and Virginia Stephen. Priya Parmar’s fictional response to these two extraordinary characters utterly dazzled me. I am bit of a newcomer to the Bloomsbury scene, however I found this novel has begun to bring this unusual group to life. This story is anchored by letters sent to and from various members of the group and help ground this fictional account into something almost biographical.

In the time before Vanessa marries Clive Bell, her and her sister’s love is unflagging. Through Vanessa’s eyes we see that Virginia’s mind is troubled and often unhinged, and it is her possessive love over Virginia that keeps her in balance. However, once Vanessa marries and begins to have a life of her own, the pair become emotionally separated. Jealously and betrayal is often on the edge of the families loyalty to each other and I was fascinated by the back and forth of emotions between each of them. What happens within this novel perhaps show aspects of Virginia that readers of hers may be unaware of.

I particularly loved Parma’s style of writing. Her tone of voice is fitting to those of the Bloomsbury era and I was completely hooked by the very first page.

A fabulous read.

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The Mermaid & Mrs Hancock- Imogen Hermes Gowar

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Publisher: Vintage

Year: 2018

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Mermaids, the creatures of legend; from tales of folklore to Disney, these sea dwelling beings are not only a thing of fantasy, but of nightmares. The sirens that derive from Greek Mythology are said to entice Sailors with their angelic song and cause them to become shipwrecked; thought they are bird-like in their appearance, they have the same hypnotic quality as Gowar’s Mermaid in her debut novel; The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock.

Set in 1785, there is no reason not to believe that Mermaids do not exist. Fantastical ideas were perhaps a welcome escape from the struggles of eighteenth century Britain. For Mr Hancock, an honest man whose life has bought him nothing but loneliness since the death of his wife and his son, Henry, the discovery of a mermaid brings him something resembling excitement.

His ship is unwillingly sold for a strange creature: ‘the size of an infant.’ Though they call it a mermaid, it is not what one originally might expect;

‘For no infant has such fearful claws, and no infant such a snarl, with such sharp fangs in it. And no infant’s torso ends in the tail of a fish.’

Though affronted at first, it soon becomes apparent that this little freak of nature can be used to Mr Hancock’s advantage, and he and his niece Sukie set about showcasing their little discovery inside a local tavern.

During this time, a beautiful, nearing-middle aged woman Angelica finds herself at the beck and call of her ex-pimp, Bet Chappell who would like to acquire Angelica again, since she was once the most sought after woman in town. It transpires that Bet has bargained with Mr Hancock and wishes to bring the Mermaid to her house in order to ‘entice’ the most highly esteemed men from around the country.

There is so much to this story that it is hard to summarise in one concise review. I was drawn in from the first page; enchanted by Gowar’s style of writing and led through a story unlike one I’d ever read before. This novel is less about Mermaids, and more about women’s sexuality and their power over men; and in contrast, the control marital bonds have over women.

Imogen Hermes Gowar has been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction which will be announced tomorrow – 6th June. This is a remarkable story and I’d recommend to fans of both myth and reality alike.

Women & Power – Mary Beard (2017)

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Year: 2017

Publisher: Profile Books Ltd

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For many of us, the realms of public speaking and power can seem a daunting one. Most of us perhaps don’t take the time to think about what ‘power’ really means. It is therefore understandable that we are ignorant of its misogynistic roots. In the case of Mary Beard’s manifesto, Women and Power specifically addresses the misogyny of public speaking, and how we can trace its origins as far back as Homer’s The Odyssey almost 3000 years ago.

Perceived as perhaps the world’s most famous classicist, Beard explores a history of female silencing in just under 100 pages. From Romans to the Greeks, Thatcher to May, Beard skilfully reveals the way  the voices of female public speakers have been suppressed throughout history. This piece is a pocket-sized gem that gives a new slant to feminism and power.

It is not however, merely the ‘silence’ of women that Beard writes of, but those voices that do speak are those of the ‘victim’ or female politicians who just talk about ‘women’s issues’ such as ‘childcare and domestic violence.’ We learn how Thatcher was given speech lessons to make her voice deeper and thus more ‘authoritative’, a tactic that can be traced back to the ancient Greeks.

It is thus that Beard declares:

 ‘…if women are not perceived to be in the structures of power, surely it is power we need to redefine rather than women?’

Though small, this is a powerful manifesto that is important in tackling the issue of ‘What is Power?’ and the structures that define it. This book is highly significant, especially to those who have experience of sexism in positions of power – no matter how great or small. Perhaps by defining its routes, we can begin to change what it means to be a woman in power.

The Librarian – Sally Vickers (2018)

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Born from personal experience and a unconditional love of books, The Librarian is a novel that can pride itself on being the book-lover’s saviour. It feels like a debt has been paid in the writing of this novel and in a comment for The Guardian, Sally Vickers declares that, if it were not for the library, she would never have come across the novels that have so influenced her work today.

Set during the 1950s, The Librarian tells the complicated new life that young Sylvia Blackwell explores whilst settling herself into a new career at the local library in East Mole. I say complicated, as this is the period in which young people are beginning to find themselves as adults, and are free to make choices in their life which are solely independent from parental influence or schooling. Sylvia is passionate, conscientious and most importantly, ‘pure’. She considers herself to be echoed in the female protagonist Cassandra from I Capture the Castle, and whilst The Librarian is not necessarily a coming-of-age story, there is certainly a suggestion of change that happens to Sylvia that allows her to become the women we see at the end of the novel.

In the quant village of East Mole, Sylvia moves in and soon becomes a love and cherished part of the community. She works to extend the Children’s Library and to thus inspire and educate the children through books. However, in this small town, everybody knows everybody, and when Sylvia finds herself thrust into an affair with the local doctor, things take a turn for the worse. Not only is her reputation on-the-line, but also the children’s section of the library as she desperately tries to save the innocence of young Sam, her neighbour’s child who has been accused of stealing the crude and ‘obscene’ novel The Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

I admire this novel as it really focuses on what it means to read. Reading educates, influences, inspires and helps us make sense of the world. Sylvia uses Henry Miller to show the hypocrisy and the contradictory society of the 1950s and its absurd view on literature. I recommend this to all book-lovers.

Uncommon Type – Tom Hanks (2018)

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Year: 2018

Publisher: Penguin

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When a book with an actor’s face plastered across the blurb is published, it is perhaps met with some reserve. Actor’s act, writer’s write; how could there possibly be time for both – surely its got to be rubbish? This is not the case with Tom Hanks’ debut book of short stories, Uncommon Type. 

I picked this book up with no expectations; I was just curious. I enjoy his films – Castaway being in my top ten – and was vaguely aware of his obsession for old typewriters. This fact was confirmed in not just the book’s cover and name, but in each short story, an old typewriter is featured, whether it being of minor importance, or for it featuring prominently in the plot. In ‘These are the Meditations of my Heart’, a small town typewriter mechanic declares: “A typewriter is a tool. In the right hands, one that can change the world.’ It is clear that Hanks’ love for these old machines are a primary theme that he has made sure to run throughout his work.

Typewriter’s being his base, Hanks has managed to blossom a wonderful selection of characters, situations and observations about life that course through every story. He has masterly grasped that skill that so many of us strive for; writing about the human condition in such a way that we all can relate to in one way or another. His stories explore a mix of different emotions; a child visiting his mother after her and his father have split up, a hectic relationship that only lasts three weeks, the sudden rise to stardom when a young actor least expects it… (yes, something all of us can relate to…). He also experiments with different writing; prose, scriptwriting and journalism. I loved how each story was different whilst still possessing Hanks’ unique voice, and I am happy to recommend this to anyone who may have their doubts about celebrity authors.

Unthinkable – Helen Thomson (2018)

Published: 2018

Publisher: John Murray (Publishers)

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Have you ever wondered why our brains work the way they do? Helen Thomson points out that ‘Our inability to understand our own brains is the price we pay for the ability we have to question it in the first place.’ In her remarkable book, Unthinkable, Thomson begins to touch the surface on the many mysteries of the brain, and unravels the reasons behind some of the worlds most bizarre and extraordinary conditions.

Helen’s career as a science journalist, has taken her around the world to meet eight people with the most incredible brains. These include; Sylvia, who experiences hallucination every second of every day; Matar, who believes he is a Tiger and Sharon, who is permanently lost. This idea started when she read the papers of George Miller Beard who, amongst other findings, had come across a group with a strange condition and who were named ‘The Jumping Frenchmen of Maine.’ Instead of studying them in the cold, scientific sense, Beard decided to go out and meet them, meet their families and find out about their lives. This, is what sparked Thomson’s idea for her book. She wanted to get to know the people who lived with these strange conditions, rather than simply reading the papers that had been written on them.

I picked up this book by chance in a bookshop one afternoon. I’ve always been fascinated by the human mind, ever since studying psychology at secondary school. What are hallucinations? Why do we emphasise with other people’s pain? The promise of finding out the answers to these questions were more than enough for me to read this book.

First off, I found Thomson’s writing to be exceptionally well written, neither dumbed down nor unnecessarily complicated. Each person she meets is given their own chapter, along with a brief history of research into their condition. These chapters are sandwiched between a tidy introduction and conclusion that give us a sense of Thomson’s feelings before and after her journey. I’d like to point out that this is not a ‘study’ on new research into the ways our brains work, it is more of an informal, friendly insight into a concept that even neurologists and ‘brain scientists’ are still getting to grips with.

Happiness – Aminatta Forna (2018)

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Year: 2018

Publisher: Bloomsbury

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London is a multicultural melting pot. Blends of different ethnicities, ideologies,  knowledge; Forna has beautifully captured the essence of London with her new novel Happiness. 

This novel centres around two characters, Attila and Jean, who are bought together due to the disappearance of Tano, Attila’s little nephew. Caught up in an immigration ‘crackdown’, the pair, along with an eclectic mix of different characters, set out to find him.

However, this not the primary plot, and as the novel unfurls, we are given a detailed picture of Attila and Jean’s past, which has thus led them to meet each other in London.

Attila is a Ghanaian psychiatrist, and Jean an expert in foxes. Both have lost loves, and are now trying to make sense of the world on their own. This novel is beautifully written and I am almost jealous of the way Forna captures the sense of place. I recommend this to anyone who enjoys Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth as both novels assert what it means to live in British Society and feel it is such an important piece of work in order for us to understand 21st century society.

The Cleaner of Chartres – Sally Vickers (2012)

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Publisher: Penguin

Year: 2012

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My recent employment at a lovely bookshop in Sussex means I’ve been introduced to many books that I might not have necessarily picked up if I were just a regular customer. One of them happened to be Sally Vickers’ 2012 novel, The Cleaner of Chartres. Knowing that I am going to be attending a talk led by her in early May, I decided it was best to give this novel a go.

I’m glad I did.

This novel recounts the life of the elusive Agnes, a parentless woman who, as a baby,  was found abandoned in a basket by a farmer. Believing himself incapable, little Agnes is sent to be raised in a convent. At the age of fifteen (under traumatic circumstances), Agnes becomes pregnant and is forced to give up her baby, for him to be adopted by a rich family; worlds apart from Agnes’ life in the convent. What follows is her tale of misery, ‘madness’ and recovery.

Former psychoanalyst, Sally Vickers, explorers a humanity centred around the church and contrasts are often drawn between the ‘light’ of god and the ‘darkness’ of human behaviour. That isn’t to say that Agnes’ life is solely terrible. Her past has given her a character that is so full of compassion and beauty that it is hard for most people to dislike her. She becomes the cleaner for the Cathedral and the citizens of Chartres. However, her vulnerability and naivety allows her to become the brunt of Madame Beck’s spiteful and jealous personality.

This novel does not follow a pattern of linearity and we are constantly thrown back and forth between the past and present, sometimes without really knowing it. The events in Agnes’ childhood and adulthood are indisputably linked and as the novel draws closer to the end, so do these links become ever-more apparent.

Sally’s prose is rich with colourful characters and beautiful writing. She plays with the idea of the Labyrinth and its mystery that Agnes’ is forever trying to solve; much like the past which she attempts to make sense of. We spend the whole novel trying to get close to Agnes, but Sally has written this novel in such a way that we are just out of arms reach. This, is extremely clever.

The Chalk Man – C.J. Tudor (2018)

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Year: 2018

Publisher: Penguin

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It is true that the past will sometimes never leave you, but for 42-year old Ed, it seems his is just starting to unravel. Living in his home town of Adenbury, Ed’s current situation is somewhat sad, lonely and stuck in a time warp that is full of unanswered questions and mysterious events that he is unable to let go of. However, when he receives a letter, containing a picture of a chalk-drawn stickman, he finds himself beginning to uncover and come to terms with what happened to him all those years ago.

One of the first points that stuck me when reading this novel, was the undoubtable tones of Stephen King running through the writing. My suspicions were confirmed of course, when I read Tudor’s bio, and found out she was a fan of King and James Herbert (as am I!). Take a group of young teens; they are best friends, they taunt each other and live in a town where everybody knows everybody… well you’ve got a thriller right there! I loved this novel for all those reasons and more. Despite it being undeniable gripping, the writing flowed easily and I was quickly able to pick up the style and atmosphere of the story.

This novel flits between 1986 and 2016; the past and the present. After receiving the mysterious letter, Ed is forced to recount the year of 1986, when the body was found in the woods and his friends, family and town are torn apart. As the story unravels, it becomes apparent that everything in his present is linked to the past and thus we are shown Tudor’s unique and highly effective story telling skills.

Not only is this novel a stone-cold murder/ thriller, it also deals with issues such as abortion, negative religious following and abuse. It felt contemporary as well as historical, which I really admire. A great read.

The White Tiger – Aravind Adiga

 

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Originally published by: Free Press (A division of Simon  & Schuster Inc)

Year: 2008

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Balram Hawai is the hero of Adiga’s first novel. He is an entrepreneur, hugely wealthy and making his money off the rising technology industry in India. He is also a murderer. When Balram hears word that the Chinese Premier is coming to Bangalore to learn the truth about Bangalore; it fuels Balram to write a seven-day letter to ‘Mr Premier’ detailing the real Bangalore. Underneath the city supposedly lavished in wealth, new supermarkets built every week and wealthy businessmen, there is a side that no one of Mr Premier’s stature would ever see. Balram calls this ‘The Darkness.’

Balram gives us an honest and unforgiving account of his rise out of the Darkness, and into the ‘Light’. As a chid he lived in Laxmangarh, a small village in Sikar. This is where the poor dwell. In a country that claims to have democracy, education and wealth; we see that there is nothing but corruption and greed. The rich draining the poor. However, when Balram manages to land a job, driving for the son of a rich landlord, we see that corruption far extends from the abuse instilled on the poor. It lives in both high and low circles and Adiga gives us a brutal insight into the contrasts of both higher and upper classes.

This story is incredibly eye-opening, and I was shocked to hear about what goes on to both the rich and the poor. One particular part that struck me was the way marriage was dealt with in the village. Balram’s cousin-sister Reena marries  boy from the next village. As Balram states; ‘We were screwed.’ The girls family are made to give gifts to the groom’s family and pay for the wedding. This means Balram’s family must ask for a loan from one of the big landlords, this particular one knows as ‘The Stork.’ In terms of repayment, Balram is taken out of school and forced to work full-time at the local tea shop, thus losing out on his education. Its heartbreaking.

I loved this book and I admit, read it in a day. The writing flows so nicely; not complicated but there is enough details to allow you see well between the lines. Adiga raises issues on what it means to be an entrepreneur in the big city. Though Balram is our hero; is also a criminal and has killed, cheated and sacrificed his own family to get to this point in his life. It questions our moral judgements and it left me feeling morally torn.  This novel was the winner of the Man Booker Prize in 2008 and although ten years old, perhaps some of these issues still ring true today.