Burmese Days by George Orwell

Myanmar has only had 69 years of Independence. The past is closer than you think- and you can immerse yourself in it in Orwell’s first novel.

Imagine the existence of places centuries ago. We are all familiar with the concept of Victorian London, or the America as Columbus saw. But can we ever really believe in that place, petrified by the weight of history? Not simply in terms of overpaid actors, but understand the place that existed only a lengthy string of years ago?

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Yes- if you read Burmese Days. Since Orwell himself was stationed in Burma as a policeman there is an inescapable authenticity to the novel, and the blank way he causally refers to cultural customs illustrates that he wasn’t desperate to impress readers with his knowledge. (Unlike those authors who adopt the manner of *And here is a recipe for a rare national dish, inserted for no purpose whatsoever except to show you that I didn’t intend to spend countless hours trawling the internet for no credit.*) Due to his experiences (Orwell could even speak Hindi and Burmese) the novel felt genuine and gave me a clear idea of life at the time, and should be regarded as a valuable resource to anyone studying Burma in the early 20th century.

The plot itself could be considered mundane. There is a languid pace; it moves at the speed of someone overwhelmed by the summer heat. It’s mundane, almost. All that happens is that a British man abroad struggles (and fails,) not only to secure his Indian friend a membership to the European club, but the marriage of a girl. This is what the story is driven by, and after awhile it does become rather repetitive.

But then again the ending was shocking, and ends the sense of banality that had been previously lurking. It was so depressing (and tragically realistic,) that it made you ponder the entertainment value of reading it after all. (Why do I spend hours of my life, in happy solitude, staring at bits of paper?)

Thankfully this is interspersed with Orwell’s vivid descriptions of the scenery- he indulges much more in the literary side here than in his other works. For this reason, it would be useful for any fan of Orwell to read this first novel, so that not only can they enjoy the contrast to his later more refined tone, but see how from the start he was interested in discussing political and social ideologies. In fact, Burmese Days foreshadows the themes that would be seen so boldly in his books later on; the individual flailing against the tidal wave of an inhumane society.

A bold and unashamed novel, Burmese Days challenges British colonialism in Burma, offers a rich insight into the life of officers and has an unnerving finish despite the light hearted manner veiling the rest of the novel. If you are interested in political affairs (for Burma/ Myanmar, is rising globally currently), then this is an essential read. After all, if you seek to know something, you must first understand it’s history.

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Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

A playful, charming, yet striking anti-war novel on the lives of children growing up during the war.

This novel is a follow-through sequel to a prized and beloved trilogy; it is so highly regarded it’s practically a national treasure. Can you guess the novel yet? I’ll offer one word; the Psammead. No? Alright a few more; grumpy, sand fairy and wishes. Yes, that is correct. The Five Children on The Western Front tells us what takes place after all the children from Five Children and It have morphed away from their adolescent selves and are fully fledged adults. Anthea is no longer a naive little girl; she’s at art college, Jane is a nurse, Cyril’s off tending to that awfully impractical First World War and Robert is (a scholar) at Cambridge. The Lamb is no longer a sweet chubby baby, but a mischievous 11 year old, who is always keeping his younger sister, Edith, in check. The two youngest miss their other siblings’ company, especially the magical stories about the queer Psammead, that they were often told.

Except suddenly he is no longer merely the figurehead of far-fetched tales: he surprisingly reappears in their sand pit. It is the perfect excuse to distract the siblings from the gloomy war, yet it turns out that the Psammead is no longer a wish dispensing machine, and he actually has a vaguely serious purpose behind his resurrection in their lives.

I have mixed feelings about the Psammead; sometimes he is a moaning, whining creature, which can get tiresome, whilst on other occasions he is veritably sweet and charming. He has a complex character to say the least; a lot of attitude from such a small being that’s for sure. Through the Psammead, the Lamb and Edith are introduced to the brutal nature of war; they experience it from every point of view- soldiers in trenches, nurses, those left in the country and more. But soon it becomes apparent that the youngest siblings don’t require these adventures to experience the impact of war. Eventually it wriggles it’s talons into the Pemberton’s lives, and brings the reek of sadness with it.

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I admit it. I haven’t read Five Children and It. Yes, it is utterly frustrating, and I really ought to have read it before hand, but unfortunately it didn’t happen. So…despite this slight setback, I loved this novel. I wholeheartedly adored it, for so many different reasons; it preliminarily was simultaneously light hearted, making it an enjoyable fun novel, whilst having also having more serious undertones. I have been enveloped with heavy, hard hitting novels that scream about the outrage of society in general recently, and so it was massively relaxing to be enjoy a more vivacious novel. Having said that, when I was feeling in a more receptive mood, I appreciated the anti-war cries and the solemn messages about character that were being emanated. So this novel essentially can bend itself to your emotional needs. Importantly, it displays a touching account of the war, that is made hugely personal through our connection to not only one, but actually nearly all the characters. Not an easy feat to carry, so I applaud you Saunders. Also, it was impressive to see the story undertake metamorphosis; at first it is bursting with innocence and naivety but soon experience crawls in and before you know it we are struck with aching issues like the cruelty of war. We reach a point that none of the children can return from, not with without shedding the blinds of the innocent. This was executed masterfully; I was so easily engrossed in the story (I read this novel in a day) and I felt like the storyline was unforced and flowed beautifully.

So take a chance, pick up this novel and enjoy a comedic, memorable and above all heart-warming wartime novel. Have any of you read Five Children and It- what are your thoughts on the novel? Have you in fact read that novel and Five Children on the Western Front- which one did you think was better?

Lies we tell ourselves by Robin Talley

An eloquent, impressive and poignant novel about the integration of black students into the previously segregated Jefferson High, Virginia, 1959.

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Sarah is one of the ten black students starting at Jefferson High this year; after years of persistent battling in court, she’s finally going to get the best education possible. But the abuse she and her friends receive when they start is overwhelming, and they all feel a wave of despair when it doesn’t even start to cease. And then Lindsay Hairston catches Sarah’s eye. The daughter of the state’s most influential pro-segregation journalist, and Sarah can’t stop thinking about her. And now Sarah isn’t only afraid of what society will think of this aching desire, as tendrils of disgust and fear are already writhing around her own heart. Because not only is she afraid of everyone’s opinion, but startlingly, she’s frightened of what she is feeling, too.

Firstly, this is a novel which admirably recreates and explores the racial tension that society strongly felt at the time. It is an arduous topic to write about, especially to such high standard, so that Talley deserves credit for that. But occasionally I felt that the plot became slightly flat because Talley got so caught up in the issues she was writing about, that there was less of a drive in certain parts of the novel. It is told from the alternating viewpoints of Sarah and Lindsay, which enhanced the novel because it was useful to see the contrast between the two characters’ lives.

Sarah, the protagonist, is a resilient, intelligent and kind character, which is fortunate for her, because everyday at school she faces physical and mental abuse. In fact, soon after you pick up the novel, you will find yourself cheering for Sarah as she starts to forge her own destiny out the prejudices she faces.

The title is smart; it relates to the rest of the novel because every chapter title is a lie; the lies the various characters tell themselves. I thought that this was a clever touch because often the title of a novel is seemingly irrelevant, detached to the actual content of the novel that follows. On the other hand, there was one major fault; eventually, the chapter names became increasingly similar, to the point of sharing the same meaning with previous titles i.e ‘Lie no. 11 If I keep pretending everything will be alright’ and ‘Lie no. 15 Pretending will make this go away’ or “lie no. 17 I give up” compared with “Lie no.19 There’s no use fighting”. I understand that at one point there will only be a limited amount of options, but I doubt that it is not so limited that there is a lack of variation in this when performing this smart idea.

The themes in this novel are obviously racial tension and violence, (as there are several aggressive episodes in towns and public places throughout the novel where the black and white students are locked in confrontation), and then, there is LGBT+, as Sarah finds herself falling in love with Linda. Truth be told, I was disappointed with this aspect of the novel; admitted, there were instances when thoughts were uncovered showing that they both had feelings for each other, but there were only a few romantic moments, and most of the romance was lost in the  violence towards the end, or two characters lamenting about how sinful and evil they both apparently felt they were. I wasn’t convinced in the end that they were going to become an interracial lesbian couple because there were only a few instances where they honestly faced their feelings.

This novel is great if you have an interest in civil rights, or historical YA fiction. This topical novel is definitely one to watch, and overall is a great debut! Also, please note that this appeared first on the Guardian’s site. So have you read this novel? What did you think of it?

 

Passenger by Alexandra Bracken

This novel flits between centuries and is more than a thrilling adventure; it is a combination of romance and remorseless conflict between families.

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Passenger starts with off renowned teenage violin prodigy Etta Spencer preparing herself for her first debut. She is fizzy with nerves, and after overhearing a mysterious conversation between her reclusive mother and her beloved instructor, she suddenly feels overwhelmingly confused. But then as soon as she starts playing her piece, Etta hears a bewildering screech that whines throughout the hall. None of the audience can hear it though, and as she exits the room in panic her hand is grabbed by a stranger, who races her through the venue, dragging her past the shocking corpse of her instructor and through a blazing white door.

Etta wakes up several days later, centuries from her home and lost in a vicious tangle for power, with Etta wrapped tightly in the middle. Only Etta can drag herself out of this mess and back home. Only Etta, and perhaps the handsome Nicholas Carter who crosses her path on the ship she finds herself on.

Etta is the protagonist of this novel, and she’s incredibly affable- not only because of her feisty character that ensures she always stands up for her beliefs, but because she is an adventurous and determined person. Having said this, she’s not perfect; Etta has a poor relationship with her mother, and a lack of any sort of parental figure in her life. She is dedicated to the violin, and so has no friends either. All this combined, and we experience extreme sympathy for Etta, as she appears to be a genuinely pleasant person, and doesn’t entirely deserve this.

Well, she’s not all alone; Etta has her violin instructor Alice. I do not entirely understand their relationship and was annoyed when Etta was desperate to go back in time and save her life. From the moment Etta uttered this idea, despite it frequently recurring throughout the novel, I could tell it was never going to take place. It seemed to be task that would ultimately satisfy Etta too much, and therefore could never take place. Also, I didn’t feel particularly attached to Alice- I’m sure she was an amiable old lady but honestly she wasn’t particularly outstanding and was going to die in several years anyway (she was 90!).

I enjoyed reading about the reinvention of time travel, and the certain things that limited it. It did indeed seem realistic and believable in a way many books in the past, despite the employing an overactive imagination, have not quite achieved. The whole process appears all rather practical and thought through, without the explanation given by science. I thought that generally it was a strong plot, and it was fabulous to see Bracken fully explore the characters and push them to their respective limits, whether mental or physical. One weakness though was that at one point I was not entirely convinced by the plot; it was at the stage when Cyrus was blackmailing Etta to find the astrolabe. This was because, although I knew that she was intimidated, I also knew that Etta was smart and could see that Cyrus was desperate and actually needed her. I was disappointed because I expected Etta to work things out on her own terms, being the strong-willed person she is; I felt that she acted out of character, and that that scene took place because Bracken needed it to go in that direction, not because it was driven by the characters.

Also, there is a bit of romance in it, but I was not impressed by it. Although it wasn’t instantaneous, there was a sense of instalove as there was hardly any tension between them, and when there was it was over in the same paragraph, which frankly is disappointing.  On another note, I loved the settings that cropped up  we travel through time and thought that it would have a much more engaging novel if as readers we had more time to explore as opposed to just hurling through them.

So, despite this novel being too long, I still think it was respectable and worth a read if you are interest in a time-traveling, slightly weak romance, new interfamily conflict novel. Seriously though, if you don’t have time for a 500 page novel, do not bother. It is good, but not worth all that effort.

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.

The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

I had to read this book. I simply had to, because how else would I join in the bookclubesque chats that my friends had about the Miniaturist?  Well, I can safely say now that whenever the Miniaturist is brought up I can offer an honest opinion…

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The Miniaturist was a bold book with streaks of originality, with interesting and elusive characters that lit up the pages. I like that it offers you an insight of 17th Century Amsterdam, which I thought was an unusual idea. The plot is gripping, and certainly got me staying up late at night…

I loved the characters. I honestly think that Burton did an excellent job, hinting here and there surprising and occasionally mystifying hints about the characters. I think that it would have been interesting to see parts of the book written from the different points of the Brandt household, because each have such a rich history. However, it is written in third person. I think if Burton really did write it from multiple view points it could either be a complete success or an utter failure, because much of the whole atmosphere of the book relies on hidden secrets, and if it is from many viewpoints, that mystery may either be enhanced, or destroyed.

Nella Oortman, the protagonist, is a witty bride who has moved to Amsterdam from the countryside to start her new life. Nella barely knows her charming husband, Johannes Brandt, yet she has already envisioned a future for herself. However, upon her arrival at her new home she is met only by his icy, unfriendly sister, Marin. After her husband almost completely avoids her for the first few days at her new home, he gives her a gift, something to replace his absence and occupy her. A miniature version of her own home. Frustrated and bored, she sheepishly takes up the offer and furnishes her home, hiring a miniaturist to create objects to put in her dolls’ house. But then the miniaturist starts sending Nella things on their own accord, and they surprise her in more ways than one.

As the book progresses we see that Nella starts to become more mature as she reacts and learns from her experiences in Amsterdam, as she was sheltered from a lot of things by growing up in Assendelt. Slowly, she is integrated into the Brandt household, occasionally confused by the mannerisms of some of the people. The maid’s audaciousness, for example, complexes her, but as the novel progresses we realise that the Brandt household is not so much a household, but despite it’s limited number, more similar to society.

I thought that this was an awesome book and that you should read it if you’re up for something a bit edgy and despite it being set in the 17th century it still reflects modern times. Enjoy and let the haunting prose twist and turn through your thoughts, as well as learning something about the history of Amsterdam