Book of the Month- May A Slip of the Keyboard by Terry Pratchett

The Discworld. Rincewind. The Unseen University. And, of course, antipasta.

Do you even read science-fiction if these words are alien to you? Terry Pratchett, the author of over 70 books, was a literary mastermind (who created the aforementioned words, or in the case of antipasta, decided that it was actually pasta that was prepared, like all antimatter, several hours after you ate it). He created the Discworld, a mega-series that contained no less than 41 novels. In 2000, he was voted the nation’s favourite author by the people of Britain. (Well, 2nd favourite author, if you include Rowling!) But Pratchett was also a remarkable campaigner for Alzheimer’s, animal rights and having a bit of sense of a sense of humour.

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In this collection of his most celebrated speeches and articles, there is hardly an instance where one isn’t littered with a witty pun or sly joke. This book surveys almost the entirety of Pratchett’s lifetime, reflecting on his time at school, the nuclear power station (who knew?) as well as his career in journalism. Given that Pratchett, as far as I know, has no official biography, this is all we have. This snapshot of various moments of his life is all the people who admired this man, who’d become a knight in his lifetime, can go by.

“Build a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Set a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.” Pratchett

And why would you want to go without? By reading this, I have gained such an invaluable insight into not only his writing methods, but more memorably his stance on Alzheimer’s and assisted death in the UK. Pratchett was probably one of the most famous sufferers of the disease when he was alive, donating £1 million to their charity and creating various documentaries. Reading this has given me such a remarkable perspective on the topic of euthanasia, that it was starting to become a much more philosophical read than I had bargained for!

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I was incredibly moved, too. To be able see in the articles the progression of topics from childhood anecdotes, to his endless book signing tours- where he always wrote about how incredulous he was at his popularity- to hearing the frustration and anger in his words as he described the onset of the disease. How he could no longer type, because the letters would disappear from the keyboard. How he could no longer read his own speeches, and had to have someone else present them for him. To hear such a renowned and literally accomplished person describe their struggles is something that is painful, yet if you respect them, necessary to endure.

In a way, this is possibly better than a biography. The pointless parts, the vague relationships and holes between occupations have already been melted away, so only the quality information is left for us to experience. Of course, occasionally there was repetition of a phrase here or there, yet this was only to be expected since Pratchett had given more interviews and written more articles than anyone could possibly perceive, so to expect every piece to be completely original is borderline ludicrous.

When I was younger, I wrote Terry a letter. I even him drew a dragon, something that I was truly proud of, and was even slightly reluctant to send it away. I did it nonetheless, but I never received a reply from him. It’s not in bitterness that I mention this, but merely in recollection. Particularly towards the end of his life, Pratchett noted that he was receiving so many emails and letters that it he would never have the time to rely to  even a fraction of them, and the immense feeling of regret that filled him at the thought of this.

I suppose this book really is only relevant it to you if you like science-fiction, or at the very least Terry himself. And if you’re unfamiliar, then make it your priority to explore one his books straight away- you’ll find yourself pleasantly surprised. I guarantee it.

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April Book of the Month- The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

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The original legend of the Essex serpent was Perry’s inspiration

A compelling novel that explores the relationships that tie people together- and break them apart.

Set in 1893, the Essex Serpent follows a troop of characters as Cora Seaborne reacts to her husband’s death. Far from the respectful widow, for reasons which Perry tantalisingly hints to throughout, Seaborne is delighted with her newly-found freedom, escaping with her maid and son to the marshy plains of Essex.

Revelling in her man’s overcoats and the death of the whale-bone corset, Seaborne indulges in her passion for archaeology, and finds for herself what might be a living fossil. Only seen by the disaster it had struck- stolen children, sheep drowned, madness seeping throughout the minds of those in the Aldwinter town- it seems like the Essex Serpent has arisen from the estuary once more. Drawn unfathomably to her polar opposite, the brusque local vicar William (whilst she has her beliefs firmly grounded in science), they explore the nature of the rumours together, discovering for themselves not only the power behind a relationship, but the consequences it can have on others, too.

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This novel is brimming with positive attributes: firstly, it is a joyfully authentic Victorian novel, where every detail, though not tediously precise, contributes to the stifling atmosphere of the smog-filled streets, or helps conjure up the tension that Darwin’s new theory had struck up amongst those in society. So this can appeal to those that love to dabble in the historic genre, especially since this is one of the few 19th-century (style) novels that not only have women starring as protagonists, but are actively rebelling against the roles that society had given them, with the consequences shown, too. Dracula, Frankenstein and Oliver Twist, classics though they may be, don’t give a flavour for the life of women, and although there may be Austen with Pride and Prejudice and Northanger Abbey (which was unbelievably dull, like a stale cracker), here you almost have the real thing but things you care about actually happen.

Like the mystery behind a giant snake in an estuary. Who said mythical beasts couldn’t be in successful adult novels? (It did win Waterstone’s 2016 Book of the Year, after all.) This adds an aspect of intrigue and fantasy to the novel, creating a tone of wonder after it has been soured slightly by the maid Martha ranting about the London Housing Crisis. (Something which I was completely ignorant of beforehand, but now I feel suitably educated in thanks to reading this.) That’s another positive; it covers a wide spectrum of characters in terms of ages and backgrounds, so that the plot isn’t isolated in the stuffy upper-class corner. (Admittedly, it doesn’t have someone from every single ethnic background, or sexual orientation, which apparently has become the benchmark for a book with ‘character equality’ these days, but it satisfies me.)

All in all, a superb read which I would highly recommend to anyone interested in historical literature or emotive, fantastical writing with complex relationships between characterss.

March Book of the Month- I Have Lived A Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson

We think we know. Or at least that we can imagine: the terror that struck their hearts, the fear that perpetrated every dream, the weight of their sorrows.

If there is anything to illustrate just to what extent the present is ignorant of the past’s sufferings, then this is the book to do it. An autobiography, I Have Lived A Thousand Years is the shocking retelling of Bitton-Jackson’s experience of two years under Nazi rule, as a Jew. We have all heard the stories of concentration camps, seen images and even visited them. But until you have absorbed the description of someone who suffered, you will never skim the surface of understanding what life was like during the Nazi regime. Having been subject to work at Dachau and Auchwitz, there are countless, gruesome recollection of days without water and food. Where she was forced to march for miles, leaving trails of red as pieces glass drove deeper into their bare feet. It is, to say the least, a raw and uncensored account, and rightfully so. Just be warned that it can be incredibly emotional.

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In concise detail, Bitton-Jackson writes about the most influential and momentous experiences of her childhood. After growing up in a small town in Hungary, one day the streets are overwhelmed with Nazi attitudes. It spirals, scarily fast, out of control. By reflecting on the events of the past, it reminds what a great distortion of reality we actually have, how the peace we bathe in every day is no more concrete than the placated moods of the global leaders. So, the message is, don’t take it for granted.

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By reading this book, you will perpetrate, as much as any of us can, the reality of the concentration camps. The way that everyday could be the last- the fact that there were teams of Jews forced to drag their friends’ bodies out of the gas chambers, to pick out their gold teeth, unpeel whatever could possibly be of value from their bodies. The pointless violence. The train journeys, with the final destination intangible. The days so long, I could feel Bitton-Jackson’s despair penetrating through the pages. The bodies staggering as plumes of blood dotted their shirts, after the prisoners clamoured around the trains’ window to collect soup from the Red Cross during one of the stationary periods of the train journey. Except, of course, it wasn’t the Red Cross. It was the Nazis, using Red Cross vans, and even bowls of soup, as a lure to get the Jews to come to the window so that they be shot more easily.

It was a horrific read.

In a way, Anne Frank’s diary is the perfect prequel to this. Of course, they lived on different sides of the continent, but both were young teenage girls, and whilst Frank recalls the conditions of her concealment, Bitton-Jackson tells of her experience of what followed. In my opinion, I Have Lived A Thousand Years should be considered as classic a war read as Frank’s Diary, because it is one the few books to tell the story of a survivor, and reads well too. I would recommend this to anyone interested in history, current affairs or simply a gripping, emotional read. In many ways, it’s much more engrossing than a novel, and what better way to honour the deaths of so many millions, than by understanding the conditions of their deaths?

February Book of the Month – A.A Gill is Further Away: Helping with Enquiries

Everyone was shocked. It was unexpected, especially since A.A.Gill had only recently revealed his cancer. His death has shaken literary world, and now there is a gaping hole where his columns used to be, ever opinionated and witty, and the newly employed writers are floundering to fill it. Reading over their thoughts of the mango soufflé suddenly appear (whereas it most certainly hadn’t before,) trivial. Of course those journalist can’t help it, but how can you fill the page in place of one of the best journalists of our time, and not appear feeble in comparison?

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 I decided to read A.A.Gill is Further Away because his death had inspired me to look what he had achieved and created. It contains a remarkable selection of short essays. The book is roughly split into two: the first half is composed of essays which he had written about his experiences in England, and for the latter each essay is about a foreign country. The remarkable thing about Gill’s writing is that the subject is almost regardless. His essays about bantam chickens are as compelling as those reflecting on his trip to Haiti. Every topic felt fresh and were explored with such a zest and enthusiasm towards writing about the subject, that is difficult to find. You can tell the Gill enjoyed his job, that he felt satisfaction from diving into corners of the English language to extract the most precise metaphor, or adjective, or whatever else it was. The descriptions are vivid and quite literary for essays, which I enjoyed because often I find that non-fiction books can be stale in that respect.

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The variety of subjects were in itself a relief: each essay is roughly 10 pages long and detailed enough to make one feel (if somewhat briefly) immersed in the location, but because Gill’s writing is incredibly intense, not so long that one loses concentration or interest. Gill has a unique voice, one which is blatantly unafraid to point out the faults in a country or to highlight the triumphs in the ordinary. This is wonderful. So often people are timid to say something that not only defies public opinion, but in fact is disparaging, simply because of fear. There’s none of that here! And those readers who think that this type of writing, or as it has been labelled ‘complaining’, is dull, well it isn’t. Gill writes about, for example, his Madagascan tribal culinary experience with such humorous distaste that it’s impossible not only to sympathise with him, but to laugh.

I thought that A.A.Gill is Further Away was a fantastic collection of essays, and contained some of the best pieces of travel writing that I’ve come across. If you’re looking for an escape, not necessarily to another world as the cliché goes, but at least to another country, then look no further.

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December Book of the Month – The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

A mystery clouded by mental instability. Raw, shocking and cruel, but above all honest, this is a insight into the world of a teenager battling mental illness. It is clear that, in 2013 at least, the judges of the Costa Book Award were wise. I can’t think of a more suitable winner- I was gripped by the novel and read it in less than two days.

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Matthew Holmes, aged 19, recounts the incident that has dominated his childhood painstakingly, from the computer in his local mental health centre. Why is he there? Diagnosed with schizophrenia, just like his grandfather, Matthew often hears his older brother with Downs Syndrome, Simon, speaking to him. Begging him to play, to come outside and join him:

“If the tap choked and spluttered before the water came, he was saying I’m lonely. When I opened a bottle of Dr Pepper and the caramel bubbles fizzed over the rim, he was asking me to come out and play. He could speak through an itch, the certainty of a sneeze, the after-taste of tablets, or the way sugar fell from a spoon.”

And our protagonist feels compelled to listen. Simon has been dead for over a decade. Some say he died at a Caravan Park in Dorset, but  Matthew believes it was practically murder. The guilt that has wracked him, and wrecked his family after that fated night saw a shocking transition from an innocent, boisterous boy to a teenager stumbling through life, taking all the wrong turns.

For me, it was Matthew’s voice that made this novel remarkable. His voice, breaking free from the words, illustrated the development of his character incredibly. Matthew was almost tangible, and that is what Filer achieves so greatly. That sense of a person speaking just out of sight. That there really is someone out there, a boy that age. It’s how we get lulled into fiction, because it’s all just stories, isn’t it? In the end it’s a product of a person sitting in front of a bright little screen, carefully crafting the characters that seem so spontaneous. The characters we take home and discuss over dinner, and bring into our lives.

One outstanding aspect of this novel was the detail that Filer gave concerning mental health facilities and regimes. He clearly didn’t research through watching films. Actually, Filer was a mental health nurse, and so the vivid descriptions of the mistrust Matthew feels as he is forced to take his drugs tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, and to endure the awful side effects, can be taken at face value as that of a (relatively- this is still fiction) accurate account, not that of some dreaming, sheltered author.

Yet on the other hand, there was a minor issue. Only a small one in the grand scheme of things, but it must be mentioned. The great reveal was grossly delayed. It was saved until page 247. By that time the actual suspense had faded away, because my interest in reason to Simon’s death could only last for so long, and by that point I had a rough (correct) idea anyway, so the climax/ reveal came as no shock. It is worth mentioning, that from the outset the protagonist does mention it the ‘shock of the fall’ (yes, that’s the title too!) which kills his brother, but we only really learn why it is has triggered schizophrenia and lasting guilt until the reveal. And marvellous at character building although Filer is, I don’t care that much to be interested until the end of novel.

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Overall I thought that this poignant novel, with a frank and humorous tone, is definitely worth a read because of it’s insight into the life of a teenager with schizophrenia, and the clever use of typography and sketches to aid the narration. Here is a short extract which I think sums up the tone of the novel perfectly:

“I’ll tell you what happened because it will be a good way to introduce my brother. His name’s Simon. I think you’re going to like him. I really do. But in a couple of pages he’ll be dead. And he was never the same after that.”

So have you read the Shock of the Fall? What do you think of it? What is your favourite book concerning mental illnesses?

 

The Moth- Book of the Month November

You walk away from a conversation with friends. Shaking your head, marvelling at the bizarre cases of truth. How no one could possibly have made that up. Welcome to the Moth.

The Moth is a kind of event, where people stand up and recount true hilarious, heart-breaking or horrifying stories on the stage. And, standing alone on the stage, clutching only their memories and a mic in their hands, they all have a personal touch. The Moth as a novel is no different: it is merely a compilation of 50 of the best short stories that have been told. Originally, The Moth was created to mimic that feeling of story-telling around the campfire, as your words pour out of you whilst everyone else is leaning in, the flames’ shadows flickering on your face. There is a deep sense of satisfaction rooted in sharing stories; after all we’ve been doing it for most of our history, and just because we have superior technology doesn’t mean this art should fade away: that’s why it is called The Moth; it reflects the fact that humans are attracted to stories like moths to a light, and maybe it is our light; our escape from reality.

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And, although it’s in the written word, this has still been conveyed into the book. Each story has been copied from the speaker (because they’re all spoken on-stage, remember,) word for word. This is fantastic for us, readers, because it presents you with the genuine idiosyncrasies of their voices. You feel like they’re standing over their shoulder, whispering into your ear, and you truly get a framework for their character. People speak differently depending on their upbringing. You know that. So you will understand how frustrating it is when all the characters in a book sound the same; well, all I can say is that the Moth will provide relief in that respect.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys any form of a short story, because there is a wide variation in the topics covered, so you’re bound to find something that appeals to you. Each one is a convenient length so that normally you can read it in one sitting, but usually I’m so enthralled by the previous tale I am driven to discover the next one, and see where it leads me! The best thing about The Moth is that there are so many topics covered. It isn’t simply about travelling, or love, or that funny thing Jeff said yesterday. There are magnificent stories, such as the one about the man who saved Mother Teresa’s life, or optimistic ones, like the woman testing out life with a new prosthetic limb, or harrowing stories about a scientist and his relationship with his monkey used in experiments. It evoked so many emotions with me- so if you’re looking for an uplifting read or a challenging one, then look no further.

 

The Opposite of Loneliness by Marina Keegan September Book of the Month

marrr“Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead.” wrote Anne Fadiman, her university professor, “She would want to be remembered because she’s good.”

But she isn’t good. Marina is phenomenal. Her fiction stories, each no longer than twenty pages long, are delicately composed featuring wildly different plots and characters. One is set in the sandy planes of Iraq, relocating Iraqi families and written purely in letter form. Another, prose, revolved around a theatre-set in Cape Cod, paragraphs littered with late night drinks and angst. And so it goes on. They are unique, seemingly revolving in their own literary sphere, untouchable. But there are ties: these characters are not built of marble, they are fallible. Keegan has portrayed them as real people, with true problems, refreshing as, unfortunately, despite it being an important rule of fiction, you often find unrealistic, overly successful characters . As a reader you could sympathise with their fears, relate to their worries. The stories were all ideal lengths too: even if they were only a few pages long, you seeped into the characters’ mindset seamlessly, and I never felt bored or disengaged with the narrative. Fresh, too, with Keegan’s voice gleaming from under the printed words.

‘”Why didn’t I think to rewrite Mrs. Dalloway? I should have thought to chronicle a schizophrenic ballerina. It’s inexcusable. Everyone is so successful, and I hate them.” and “I’m so jealous. Laughable jealousies, of everyone who might get a chance to speak from the dead…I worship the potential for own tangible trace. How presumptuous! To assume specialness in the first place.”

I won’t tell you how Marina Keegan wrote this incredible collection of short stories and essays as part of her graduation piece, and how, only five days after she graduated from Yale in 2012, she died in a car crash. I won’t mention how she was only twenty two, or how she had acted in and wrote numerous plays, was the President of the Yale College Democrats and had already secured her ideal job for her life after Yale. Because, instead I told you how inspiring her collection is. Marina wouldn’t want to be remembered because she’s dead. She would want to be remembered because she’s good.

 

August- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

The device, or computer you’re looking at, is stoically emitting a soft electric light, and my words, mere dark pixels in a sea of white, make a message. And then the email  from Peter flashes at the top your screen, briefly dragging your attention away as you connect with the words of a person miles away, without any physical strain. In Station Eleven, the human population is scarred by a pandemic, the horrific Georgia Flu. Those who remain, do not waste their breath on trying to maintain the internet. Or electricity. and running water. They simply can’t: when 99% of the human race is decaying, the chances are that the people who do know how to harness the wind turbines, or restart the grid, are dead. And everyone who is left, is battling for survival.

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This was an incredible novel, because it made you start to appreciate what a miraculous world we live in. Yes, you’re reading this whilst stuck in the airport because your plane was delayed, but isn’t the mere thought of heavy panels of metal levitating into the sky and transporting us wherever we want to go in the world, in an under an day, fantastic? When the world is put into a context where all of these modern inventions are suddenly taken away, the luxury of our society suddenly becomes apparent, especially when St. John Mandel returns to a thread of storyline set before the disease, which creates a sharp contrast. I liked that part of the novel because it followed a famous actor Arthur Leander. His life was portrayed in a way that was fascinating because I felt that at times, it was genuinely similar to the alien lifestyle of a modern day celebrity. There were however, parts which I thought were not realistic, like his recklessness in interviews where the  PR manager let him spill his secrets to a random journalist.

Do not be fooled into thinking this novel is a glittery tale about middle aged actor trying to pull himself together; the other part of the plot is dark and thrilling. We are twenty years into the future, in a world desolated by the flu, and we follow the Shakespearean actress Kirsten on her journey travelling around settlements in America, as part of the Travelling Symphony. In a world where there are no laws and no one to enforce justice except leaders of the small societies, the desperation that many people face in the wilderness takes threat and danger to a completely different level.

I absolutely loved this novel, the writing style was surprisingly beautiful and eloquent, and variance between the cruel reality of Kirsten’s world on the road, and the puzzle of the glamorous Arthur Leander’s life worked perfectly. Definitely put this on your TBR list, especially if you’re interested in young adult, fantasy or science fiction.

July Book of the Month- Red Rising by Pierce Brown

The current plan is to send another unmanned spacecraft Mars for 2020, eventually resulting (several decades later,) in permanent human settlement. If the plans of the nonprofitable charity, Mars One, succeed, that is. This makes Red Rising a more topical novel than ever, as there is only 4 years to the proposed rocket launch date. Why? It is a thrilling science fiction set on the fearsome terrain of Mars, and will delight fans of the Hunger Games.

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Darrow is part of an indefatigable race of miners, called Reds, who have been dispatched on Mars to extract crucial minerals from te entrails of the planet- minerals that are vital if humans are to eternally inhabit the planet. Allegedly. But when Darrow is suddenly ripped from his isolated, primitively set up society of Red, by a rebellious organisation, his perspective shifts as he realises that he has been hooded by a pretence his whole life. However, Darrow can’t dwell on this shocking revelation; he was enlightened for a purpose: to infiltrate the most revered race of human society- the Golds. Yet first Darrow must not only survive, but flourish in the bestial academy- where the competitors are savage, and the stakes sickeningly high.

I was captivated by the concept of this new unique society, where rank and status are conveyed by a certain colour, with the Golds mercilessly towering above everything else in the Universe. I thought that the quirky civilisation on the surface of Mars was written with a mesmerising flair, and I am intrigued to discover more about in the sequels that will undoubtedly emerge. However, the battlefield, also known as a school, is definitely an altered Hunger Games arena. Instead of Districts though, there are Houses, and there are still patrons overseeing the entire affair offering gifts to a favoured few. Although this glaring similarity was writhing throughout my thoughts as I read the novel, I still enjoyed the dynamics of the characters, as well as seeing how the plot unfolds. But yes, it is interchangeable with the Hunger Games. Just on Mars.

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There were scrupulous descriptions in this novel, splattered with vibrant bursts of poetic language- this incontestably added to the rising tension and suspense.

This fierce novel is teeming with nauseating deaths and repugnant violence, so this plot will resonate and affect YA most affectively. I can assure that you will be exhilarated as you’re hurled directly into the harsh world that Darrow endures- even if Katniss Everdeen is lingering in your thoughts. After my first excursion into science fiction was less positive than I hoped, I was recommended this by someone through my blog- I just want to quickly say thank you as I truly enjoyed this novel, and I doubt I would have discovered it without you!

Book of the Month June- The Ghosts of Heaven by Marcus Sedgwick

An astounding, sharp novel, with a twist (literally…) I adored this smart novel- the concept behind it was original and I loved the refreshing style using the short stories: the book is split into four stories, and each one has a completely unique storyline, set in various stages of our time on Earth, including the future:

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The first story, Whispers in the Dark, is set in the stone age, and is written in lyrical prose, which is a contrast to what is normally found on YA bookshelves. It was interesting. Except personally I found that the language was too simplistic, although this may have been intentional on Sedgwick’s part because it is told by a girl whose community haven’t formulated language yet. Still admirable what can be illustrated with few words though.

The second quarter, called The Witch In Water, is set in the Puritan times and opens with the funeral of the protagonist’s mother. It is during this time period being accused of Witchcraft was common practise, and when a replacement priest starts to dominate the town, the unsuspecting girl is put on trial for being a witch.

The next story is the Easiest Room in Hell and personally my favourite out of the four. This was because it was took place in a 1920s lunatic asylum and was a bizarre, yet slightly unsettling setting. It follows the work of a new doctor, as he not only befriends one of the inhabitants, but learns of the dark secrets lurking between the asylum’s walls.

The final story is The Song of Destiny, which is set on a spaceship. It is set in the distant future and is not only an incredibly philosophical tale, but also brimming with mystery. This is because the meagre number of passengers onboard the spaceship is starting to rapidly deplete- but clearly these deaths are not natural. There is a murderer onboard the ship. But who?

The best thing about this novel is that it is written in a way that these quarters can be read in any order, (that’s 24 different combinations,) and it will still make sense.

I enjoyed reading these short stories because they were completely self-contained, and each one was entirely distinct to the others, both in form and style. This means that the stories can not only be enjoyed as snippets of a wider message, but as creative stories in their own right.

Each quarter has a slither of information linking it to the next, (whichever next story you may choose that to be) and this aspect is ingenious and fabulously well-thought through.

Most notably, the spiral is a core motif in this book, recurring continuously, as it reminds us of the continual nature of the universe; after you read this novel, you start to notice them everywhere! I chose this novel to be the book of the month because I think that this is one you can read again and again and you will still find intelligent nuggets of information you didn’t notice the first time around. Also, it is utterly unique to any other book I have encountered before (which is quite a few). So it definitely deserves credit.