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.

 

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One by Sarah Crossan- May BOM

This beautiful novel, comprised of lyrical free verse, will make you reconsider everything you knew about friendship, sacrifice and freedom.

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Tippi and Grace are sixteen, and after a lifetime of homeschooling, they’re going to an elite private school, with their space paid for by the government. They’re grateful; they come from a suffering family who can barely afford to pay for all their medication. They’re are lucky too; this new opportunity would not be possible if they couldn’t only take up one space at the school. Some people might marvel them, other shrink away in disgust. But one thing is clear; these two twins are beyond the group of ordinary they desire to be in. Tippi and Grace are conjoined.

I absolutely loved this novel, and the way it is written in free verse so that it resembles a trail of thought. I think that this is a very effective way of writing because it shows the reader that the two girls are in fact separate entities, each with their individual desires despite their shared body. Also, because of this original style of writing it is more striking and memorable, and because not many author care to experiment with forms of verse anymore and stick only to conventional prose.

I thought that the plot was well executed; Crossan immediately makes us engage through pathos, as we see from the start the sacrifices each girl makes for the other in order to have a happy, compromised life, and that, in turn if something effects one person, there is a knock on effect for the other. I have only ever heard of one other book about conjoined twins, but it seemed to serious and heavy for my liking. Here, Crossan deals with delicate issues too, but she makes them as relatable as they can be. For example, Tippi and Grace go to school for the first time; high school. Everyone can remember that in one form or another, and can relate to that daunting experience even if they didn’t have the issue of being the centre of attention. Also, Crossan does not weaken the plot at any point in order to make it more bearable on the reader’s behalf; it is extremely emotional as we see their family battle against poverty, suffer with an alcoholic father and bear the injuries of given to them through the public eye.

This is an amazing book; I would definitely recommend it because it is short and concise, without babbling on at all! It investigates such an unusual crazy condition perfectly and has an utterly breathtaking story. Tell me now; why wouldn’t make this book of the month?

 

When We Collided by Emery Lord

This novel is a classic summer love story with a difference; not only does contain moments of unrivalled hilarity and it’s counterpart bitter sadness, but it stars two damaged teenagers struggling to face their scarred past in a demanding, unforgiving world.

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It is finally Summer again, and Vivi is new to Verona Cova, and is a vacationer, as they are known to the townies (the people who live in Verona). Whilst working in a pottery shop, Vivi, a burst of colour who refuses to be tied to reality by her medication, comes across Jonah and his younger sister. Jonah is a slowly recovering; his father recently died, leaving his mother to recoil into encompassing grief, and now rarely leaves the safety of her bedroom. Chirpy and energetic though he may seem, Jonah feels excruciatingly weary from the strain of now sharing the role being the parent, and looking after his other siblings , especially since he is only 17. So when he meets Vivi, he is fascinated by her optimistic take on the universe, flamboyant nature and creative ecstatic mind. And Vivi loves how Jonah cares for his younger siblings, and his tender, thoughtful nature. But they belong on different planets; Vivi is a dreamer and can never be pinned down, whilst Jonah is always trying to be responsible, always trying  do the right thing. So when the two planets so different collide, it is clear that this inexplicable attraction between them will have consequences. But to what extent?

I thought that the title was a shame because it does not reflect the novel honestly enough to do it justice! In some ways, the title is completely irrelevant, because it is never referred to once in the novel, and to add to that, it is cliche! Every other love story has a slightly metaphorical, romantic sounding name like that, so the title in my opinion drags the novel down instead of exalting it, which is a shame because I love the novel and I think that it deserves better.

The novel is written in the contemporary style of alternative points of view, switching between the two protagonists Vivi and Jonah.  I adored the novel and thought that it was fantastic until I reached roughly second half; then it became saturated with the details of Vivi’s bipolar disorder: there were some awesome sentences in the first half, where I thought that the imagery created was incredibly strong, even for the such abstract ideas mentioned, but as I neared the end of this novel, this writing flair displayed earlier quickly dissolved, as Lord tried to handle everyone’s reaction to her disorder. Having said that, you will fall in love with the essentially flawed characters as they try and navigate themselves through their darker times, and always try to find that the perspective of hope wherever they go.

It was a fairly typical plot ( wild girl + good boy= fun filled summer), so nothing completely revolutionary will take place, but the characters were developed enough, and the plot was well written, so despite not being ground-breaking, it is definitely worth a read (if you are interested in this side of YA literature). Also, it wasn’t the fact that Vivi was bipolar that set this novel apart, because increasingly there are characters with mental illnesses featured in novels, but the quirk of Vivi loving the whole of Jonah’s family, not just him exclusively, which evolved this love story to becoming much more exclusive.  Aside from that, it was slightly unoriginal, it must be said (e.g skinny dipping happens in most of these types of novels, ice creams on the beach, sneaking into rooms…).

This novel is perfect for a relaxing holiday read, where you can sink into the romance, sea and sunshine, particularly as it is not an overly taxing mentally. I would recommend that the target audience for this novel be teenagers.

 

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula LeGuin

I should note now, before you have any misconceptions of my reading habits, that I am not an overly large fan of science fiction; admitted, I enjoy dabbling in the genre, yet only generally in the moderner novels. So it will surprise you to hear, that a month ago, when I went to the rather unique and charming Shakespeare’s Bookshop in Paris, I bought exactly what I have been trying to avoid reading for years.

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The book was small, only 248 pages (but more on that later) and I thought to myself, as the popular press often tells one, that I should take a risk. So, a perfectly appropriate way to do so would be if I submerged myself in the unfamiliar waters of strange science fiction plots, planets and pulsesars , in the hope of being rewarded by enjoying the novel.

Unfortunately, it turns out that I will forever will know that The Left Hand of Darkness has 248 pages, due entirely to the fact that I was constantly flicking to the last page, hoping that the numbers had blurred and metamorphosed into a much, much, much smaller one. Yes, it turns out that my brave leap into the world of Gethen was not, as I had hoped, rewarded.

The novel is in itself is based around the fascinating concept of an entirely single sexed society; despite it being written in the late 1960s I think that in a way it is almost topical, because of the drive for more equality within gender today. Although, this book (as far as I am aware) is not written as a response to gender issues in the 20th Century, it is an unusual and under-explored idea that I was excited to read more about. Thus, I bought it.

Yet strangely enough, even though the single sexed society aspect was a clear theme in the book, it was almost pushed out of the spotlight which disappointed me. I would much have preferred it if more was written about it, because granted that although novels should not be theme-driven, I was disappointed about how LeGuin neglected to further explore this rare idea. Part of this idea was destroyed due to LeGuin having everyone addressed with the male possessive pronoun so that one automatically assumes it is a male-only society, not a neutral one as LeGuin attempted to illustrate. To add to that, I feel that it, or some other neuter pronoun would have been more suitable, so that the reader does not receive the impression of one sex being more dominant than the other in these world.

An aspect I enjoyed in the book was that there were multiple perspectives; in the first half of the book it was that of Genly Ai, whilst littered chapters were ancient stories that held a certain relevance to the rest of the novel. Then, for the second half, it was predominantly Genly Ai’s perspective (again) with several chapters from the viewpoint of Estraven. This definitely improved the reading of the novel because the two characters, whilst being physically contrasting (Genly Ai is an envoy sent from Ekumen to persuade Orgota, Karhide and the other countries on that planet, to agree to a trade agreement, whilst Estraven is a native to the planet, and therefore initially thought of Genly as an alien), they are even more so mentally and therefore it was refreshing to notice a change in style in the narrative.

Incontestably, the multiple viewpoints was a relief because of the dry content. It was so dry it was desert with only infrequent adjectives to relive the my stultified brain; thankfully those rare stylistic devices were beautiful, creating incredible imagery. Why then, could there not be more of them? Honestly, did LeGuin’s editor set her a limit? Anyway, I was frequently checking how many pages I had left (248!) and willing the whole thing to be finished. The fist part of the novel was definitely the most interesting, and at that point it wasn’t that insufferable. At times, dare I say it, I even enjoyed it, but then Ai gets rescued from that farm, and they start that trek through the snow. Until the very end, a very large proportion of the novel is merely “It’s snowy and hard to pull the sledge.” Up until that point it was going so well, so to see the death of such a strong, young plot was heart-breaking. And I had to suffer the consequences in order to be fully qualified to write this review. Needless to say, I was unbelievably satisfied to be finished with the novel.

Another reason I believe I had a lack in interest generally was because the protagonist was generally weak and was difficult to relate to (except if you suffer from the cold badly). Genly Ai, admittedly, was a stranger on the planet, but there was a gaping hole, charred around the edges perhaps, where tales of his past should have been.

The same issue is associated in my mind with Estraven. The fact he lives on an alien planet is irrelevant. He is a dull, boring character and the most exciting thing that has happened to him his whole life is being exiled, which is poor if you happened to be the prime minister. I was looking forward to some jovial anecdotes about his time in residency but, as a wise man once said, some things just aren’t meant to be. (Spoiler!) I sense that the ending should have been emotional, but when Estraven got shot down, I didn’t even feel a pang of remorse or sadness.

Obviously, I am not an original Science Fiction fan, so there may be those raving about The Left Hand of Darkness further afield, but that was my just opinion. I would recommend this if you are looking for something a bit interesting, and have a lot of time on your hands, (because if you only have several hours a week, this isn’t what I think you’d want to be spend it reading), but if you are on holiday and are open minded enough to endure a new experience, who knows? Perhaps you’ll like it much more than I did… all 248 pages.

My Name is not Friday by Jon Walter

My Name is not Friday is an emotional novel about hardship, courage and friendship.

Samuel lives at an orphanage, and the resident priest and teacher thinks that he is a model student; quiet, clever, kind. In fact so much so that Samuel’ll even take responsibility for something he didn’t do, even if it is just to save his troublesome brother, Joshua, who is constantly getting up to mischief. But suddenly it’s all gone wrong, and things have escalated quickly, with Samuel tossed into a world of slavery. Now the wrath of God is not the only thing he has to worry about, but lashings from his new masters.

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I thought that there was a good mix between serious issues and humour, to prevent the novel from being too downcast. There were very imaginable and life-like characters which made the novel seem incredibly realistic, however at times the novel was slow to get going, making reading at times slightly tedious. On the other hand, let’s not let this overshadow the fact it is written very vividly and sounded, at points, like a genuine story. Even though these slaves where incredibly lucky in the way they were treated by their master, it tells a (relatively) unvarnished version of the past. The part I am referring to is that, as someone from the 21st century, it was weird that none of the slaves on the original plantation thought that it wasn’t iniquitous that they weren’t allowed an education, and it was shocking when Samuel (or Friday as he is called in that part of the book) tried to persuade them to read and some of them resisted quite heavily- I think this just intensified that race inequality was the norm, which people don’t often appreciate until represented in a literary form. However, some aspects of the plot felt equally unrealistic to me; I think that it was incredibly easy for Samuel to find his brother Joshua. Yes he had to wait for several years, and there was a few obstacles along the way, but it felt too easy in my eyes. In those few years, Joshua, who has an established reputation for a troublemaker, would probably have run away to find his brother, whom he is apparently incredibly loyal to. To add to that, I think that although it was sweet, and although there were some half-hearted attempts from the boy’s mother to try and stop it, the ‘secret’ friendship between Samuel and the boy who owned him seemed unlikely to have happened in the real world.

On a positive note, this book gives an exceptional perspective on how the American Civil War affected the slaves at the time. Most of the novel takes place on a Mississippi plantation, and is written with utter originality, and stands out for me because of the intriguing twist in the plot line at the end; when Samuel was partially blinded, devoid of an eye. Why is such a gruesome thing a supposed highlight for me? It is because the novel illustrates well that not only at the time of the injury is the pain and frustration insurmountable, but that the pain and frustration stays with you long after the bleeding has stopped. Even today one might read about an amputee in a newspaper, and there might a flash of sympathy. But the point is that this is a person’s life, and for Samuel, missing an eye is an issue that will stay with him for the rest of his life. It also means that lots of people are prejudiced against because of it, even when you see through the narrative that his personality is still as thoughtful and kind-hearted as ever.

I think that this could a perfect half-term read, and although it requires a bit of patience in the first instance, you should make time in your day to pick up the novel! I read this novel as part of my reading challenge to read a historical novel.

Buffalo Soldier by Tanya Landman

Buffalo Soldier is an eye opening account of the Cavalry Regiment in the Civil war, told through the eyes of soldier Charley.

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This is a stunning historical novel, particularly for those who are ignorant about America’s civil war. Admittedly, I knew very little about the American civil war, and this book, for the historical information alone, was fantastic (at filling me in, to say the least). However, it is also an interesting read because it reads into the fate of slaves once they’ve been freed. Many assume that once the slaves were freed, the world was theirs, but as we learn, that was far from the case. As well as that, Landman uncovers some of America’s darkest history, making it a challenging, yet worthwhile read.

Charlotte grew up as a slave, facing years of hardship and deprivation, and was mistreated, to say the least, by the family that owned her. Then the war came around and she was ‘freed’. Yet freedom turned out to be far from the salvation that she desperately sought out, and as a result, Charlotte spent years after her master’s house had been burned down, facing severe hardship and extreme prejudice. It turns out that she was far from free, and after years of insecurity, she finds herself with incredibly limited options. So Charlotte turn to the army, the Cavalry to be precise.

Charlotte, (from this point on called Charley, because she had to pretend to be a man; after all only men were allowed in the army,) and the rest of the soldiers in her regiment, bond through their shared experiences, and they find strength in each other’s companionship. I thought that her fellow soldiers had very rich characters, and it was clear that their friendship with Charley was valued highly, so it was slightly bizarre that we were given only basic information about them.

They were the Buffalo Soldiers, the members of the U.S 10th Cavalry Regiment, and yet even in the army, where they were all working towards the same goal, there was still signs of racial tension. This reminds the reader again, that although the slaves are freed, this by no way means that they are respected and treated equally.

Charley is a bold, independent, resilient and intelligent person and I think that her character will appeal to everyone. She is evidently naive, yet after everything she has experience, she is ultimately wiser. The book is written from her point of view and gives us an utterly unique view of the civil war. Notably, the novel is written in Charley’s dialect, so it can be quite difficult to adjust to, and I think that whilst others will love this style, because it makes you feel immersed in the character, it can on the other hand be quite off-putting.

I thought it was fascinating to have a direct comparison to the way the pioneers of America were treated and the freed slaves, because often the freed slaves were viewed as lowest in society, and yes, they were treated appallingly, but in comparison to the Native Americans, they were living in luxury. It was also interesting to observe that instead of sympathising with the Native Americans, slaves, or ex-slaves, shared the same opinion as their master/ everyone else. As the book progresses though, we see that Charley’s opinion of them changes, as she realises that although so of the pioneers’ actions were questionable, they had unfairly been given a label.

Overall, an intriguing novel, and will delight those interested both in historical novels and YA. This book is not recommended for those under 13 because of the human cruelty and violence featured and is also probably not for those who find American history dull!