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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The Book of Strange New Things- Michel Faber

Have you ever dreamt of being missionary to another species? To aliens living in a settlement, half the universe away? If so, then this is a novel engage your fantasy, and if not, you should still read it anyway.

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It is set in an indefinite time in the future; all the notable landmarks of our time period are still there, such as Heathrow airport, but there is a menacing undertone behind the news. In the opening scene, Peter discusses with his wife the monumental collapse of businesses and how many transport systems have simply slipped out of reality. But Peter doesn’t have to worry about that: there’s also a space travel at this point, too, and he is about to be transported to another galaxy, to a growing settlement called the Oasis, which run by an elusive corporation called USIC. Half the universe away. With his co-workers being mechanical engineers and elite geologists, he is surprised at having landed a role so out of this world. Peter is not a scientist, a genius whose name is framed by the list of letters succeeding it. His main function will be to satiate the native beings’ desire for Christianity. He is a priest, and his ‘people’ will be the Oasans. Oasans, with faces Faber insisted on continually describing as like “two foetuses”.

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On that note, the writing in general was elegant; like a minimalistic house gracing an interior design magazines- there were hints of simplicity, but that added to the beauty of his writing. However, as with all magazines, you are bound to find repeats, and Faber would often use the same word to describe the same object at various points in the novel. This is a large book- nearly 600 pages and by the fifth time he describes the air as swirling you’re bored.

The idea fuelling the novel itself was intriguing, and was embedded in the classic science fiction duvet of; “Let’s put a major concept out of context and see how it floats”. The concept in question here was religion, specifically Christianity, and thanks to Faber’s portrayal of Peter, the novel is not only engaging to those who do, or don’t share the faith, but it is also not offensive without Faber being overly cautious in with his language. This is largely due to Peter’s characterisation, I believe, because although the novel oversees his tantalising mental transformation, in essence he is a mild mannered man with firm morales. (Do not conceive him to be merely a meek man though…he has a startling history, which is agonisingly drip fed to you throughout the novel.)

Faber’s strengths were shown when he wrote about Peter’s time with the Oasans. Firstly, his style came across as more fresh there, and it was interesting to read as it contrasted starkly with Peter’s time spent back at the USIC base with humans, which frankly was largely mundane: there were chapters of him merely wandering around the corridors, uncertain of what to do with himself and where to find something to eat. Relatable, perhaps, to ravenous nights at a hotel, but not as engaging as reading about alien races with bizarre rituals and delightful dressing habits.

A notable proportions of the book was also written in letter form: Peter can only maintain contact with Bea, his wife, through this way, and the insights Bea gave into the world collapsing around her, whilst Peter was working, isolated from the news, in another galaxy, was insightful. These letters were not only fascinating in themselves, illustrating the changing dynamics in the pair’s relationship as their separation became prolonged, but it also offered variation. There was a balance between the prose and letters which was struck sublimely.

Whilst I would recommend this novel to anymore who is attracted to science-fiction novels, I would also say that those fantasy readers with an inter-galactic taste would enjoy it too. The pace is erring on the sluggish side though, and is more contemplative than action-filled. The Book of Strange New Things offered me an insight into the world of science-fiction, which I am tentatively exploring, and generally, it has done a brilliant job in doing so.

Who should judge YA awards?

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The Alex Award, the Carnegie Medal, Michael L. Printz Award and the Bookseller YA Book prize. Just a few of the most prestigious YA awards on Earth, prestigious to such an extent that if any young adult author was bestowed one, happiness and pride would be positively emanating from their being. Yet who should be on that committee: who truly deserves to have the right to decide which authors can smugly plaster ‘award stickers’ across their novel’s front covers, and others be content with the trudge to the longlist? When the award is related to Young Adults, there are many controversies as to who should be in charge of making the final decisions.


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Who makes up the actual audience of YA books? 

When considering who should be the judges of a YA book award, it is essential to consider the intended audience, because what appeals to elderly women will probably not coincide with the interest of teenage boys. Of course, young adult books are read by a vast amount of teenagers, but that isn’t the full extent of it; ultimately the actual audience must be taken into consideration, as the novels must be judged against the suitability for the audience. Yet today more adults from across the age spectrum are immersing themselves into the genre too- does that mean that having adults as adjudicators is wrong though? Because if they aren’t the direct target audience, then the novels aren’t aiming to please them, and shouldn’t their opinions then be ignored? Definitely not! If there are enough people from a certain catergory interested and engaged in that type of novel, then what they think is just as important as young adults.

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Who is judging YA awards right now, and why?

Right now, the vast majority of prizes are awarded by a committee of adults. This irritates me, because surely it should be the reverse: that most of them should be awarded by adolescents, with only a sparse number of adults on each judging board? Generally what appeals to teens, regarding their experiences and perspective on the world, will be different from that of an adult- this can affect what aspects of novels engage and please them.I only mention this, because for example, toddlers can’t decide who wins picture book prizes, as they are not objective enough yet. This situation is not similar, and is  unique because of the entire intended vs. actual audience dilemma, and which would be the better in terms of decision making.

As for the why, well I feel that all we need to do is look at the YA Bookseller award’s committee: the judges are embellished with impressive titles, like Director of World Book Day, Director of the Hay festival and columnists from famous newspapers like the
Guardian Weekend. The point is, these people are leading industry figures, and thus have a certain type of status- something which appeal to some people as it can warrant their final decision as more reasonable, if any dispute should come of it like it did with the book that won the Carnegie, The Bunker, a few years ago. Even if the choice is controversial, it is widely accepted because they have these fool-proof CVs. This is most likely intended because when comparing the judgement of a  person with an accolade of impressive experience that of a student, unfortunately people are often prejudiced to vote against the student.

Naturally this is merely a hypothesis, but I think that teenagers are being excluded from judging committees because they aren’t renowned in literary circles and haven’t built a name for themselves. (I must mention that with this particular prize, teens themselves are involved with the final standings, but I am referring to prizes in general, not the YA Bookseller prize in particular). The frustrating element is that this doesn’t mean young adults can’t spot a decent novel, just because they haven’t personally edited 25 themselves! Similarly, despite the unescapable fact that most young adults haven’t been a senior librarian for over 5 years, it doesn’t mean that they are any less adept and useful as part of the judges board. As a whole, young adults cannot gain the qualifications to become “renowned enough” to be a judge and have these various required occupations (such as librarian) that are after sought after if you would like to apply, because they are actually previously engaged with a marvellous pastime called school.

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What am I suggesting as a solution?

I suggest that more teenagers become involved on judging panels, and that their view is represented fairly with the majority of awards. This is not disrespecting the previous outcomes of awards in the past, because it is clear to see that amazing novels have been shortlisted previously, but I believe that introducing a contrast in age on the committee will involve in offering differing perspectives, the younger generation’s perspective, and will change the outcome these honours for the better. I think that we can initiate this change by nominating adolescents with a keen passion for reading to be on the these boards, and perhaps one day our point will get through!

So what do you think of this idea? Do you think that more young adults should participate in judging the winners of prestigious YA awards, or are you satisfied with the current state of affairs?

Happy 1st Blogversary to the Ink Cloud!

Hi Inkers! Can you believe it? It is The Ink Cloud’s first birthday?! The very first birthday indeed, and because of this, I am holding an honorary tea party *passes cups of tea around* and you as my dedicated Inkers, are all invited! As you can see, there is plenty of scones, cake and sandwiches, (but mainly cake, but let’s face it, it is the most scrumptious choice by far) so let me begin proceedings by chatting about this past year:cake!.gif

Firstly, I have learnt a lot about how to write book reviews! It sounds crazy, but honestly practise does actually have its benefits; it might make you a tiny bit better. I looked back recently at what I’ve posted a year ago, and even this short space of time later, it seems slightly laughable. (I hope this is in fact not because all my blog posts are utterly hopeless, but because I was a bit inexperienced to start off with!)

I have also had so much fun reading some of your comments and having conversations with everyone. I truly really appreciate it; it is so encouraging for me- please keep it up! In fact, soon I will be posting a book review of an absolutely awesome novel which I never would have dreamed of reading if it wasn’t recommended by one of our fellow Inkers. It does show that if try something new you may be surprised…

As you may be guessed, I have always loved reading, but there has been so much work on this year, that making finding time to pick up a book was at difficult. But, fear not, thankfully this blog has nudged (well, more like shoved) me to do my duty and post reviews.To find scraps of time, in the car and in between meals, to read! So yes, I understand, all my posts have been reviews so far but… BIG REVEAL… this will change! I am going to proactively try to mix things up a bit, now that The Ink Cloud is one year old (*smug grin*). And that is the fabulous thing about having your own blog; you can do whatever you want with it.

I am going to go. Your tea is probably getting chilly, and I know your only here for the cakes anyway. But before I leave, please comment on how many years you’ve been blogging for, and what kind of things you would like to see appear this blog in the future. Thanks!

 

Risuko by David Kudler

This dramatic novel will transport the reader into the perilous world of Japan, entangled in the ruthless civil war of 1570.

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Risuko fulfils every opportunity to climb; trees, castles, walls- in fact, she earned her nickname Risuko- Squirrel because of her curious hobby. Risuko is content, although since becoming fatherless her family have been trudging on the weary road of poverty, and Risuko is surviving on what pitiful rations her mother can afford. Yet suddenly Risuko is snatched from her peaceful existence by  a glamorous, frail figure, and her life morphs into one of bewildering lessons. Yet, as the civil war surges on, Risuko is far from sheltered by the brutality in her protected academy.

Unlike many novels that haunt our bookshelves today, this one isn’t tiresomely long, and at roughly 200 pages, the emotional plot slotted in perfectly into the pages, without dragging on. I enjoyed the most reading about the in-depth research that went into this novel, particularly the extravagant names for items and people, such as Murasaki, Chiyome and a miko. Also, thankfully it deviated somewhat from the stereotypical samurai stories, but at the expense of possibly only being enjoyed by a mainly female audience. I say this because the novel is absolutely dominated by female characters (the only thing saving it from flailing in the seas of another samurai sword flashing book is because of the original, nearly all female, Mochizuki academy) and despite the handful of male characters featured, they cannot salvage the novel in that sense. This novel will only have a target audience of realistically around 10-14, and at that age I doubt many boys are interested in an overall female cast (where they disappear once a month to the Retreat, during their “Moon time”-I found that weird because it didn’t seem entirely pragmatic).

There was an almost informal style to the writing because of the simple language used, which is unfortunate because the foundations of this novel is superb, but in the actual literary sense it is disappointing. Often, there were phrases repeated, which is irritating as a reader because a skim through of the novel is all that is needed to solve this issue. Also, I noticed several spelling mistakes (in one instance I saw the word “exarcise” which jolted me in shock and surprise out of my flow of reading). I was also bemused by this extract; “I was thinking of Lady Chiyome’s interrogation that morning: Who are you working for?” This ultimately was the worst sentence in the novel, because this is one of the most overused sentences in a spy blockbuster film. This is not Hollywood Kudler, this is 1570 AD Japan. The sentence was glaringly obvious; out of place and incredibly cliche.

On the sense of stylistic devices, there was a rather minimalistic approach, where only adjectives would suffice. Having said that, the world encapsulated by Kudler did feel extremely substantial, yet at times visualisation of the characters was tedious. All the information I receive about Emi, for example, is that she is taller than the protagonist Risuko, and frowns a lot, with the latter repeated relentlessly. Agreed, repetition is a useful tool to gain emphasis, however I am still lacking a severe amount of other details about this character, which makes reading stilted as I have to create a character’s face every time the name crops up.                                                                                                                                    Then there was Kee Sun, the chef, who always pronounces his “you”s like “yeh” (‘”…I don’t think it’s someone come in from outside o’the wall over and over without anybody knowin’, do yeh?”‘) Unfortunately, Kudler has created the effect of, not a Korean chef, but a rusty English pirate, which was frustrating.

So, for the novel to be improved, I suggest that the editors could reread the novel, and replace all repeated sentences or phrases, check for spelling mistakes, (as there should be no reason for them in the age of auto-correct), and for Kudler to try and appropriately describe in more depth the characters, so that the readers can see beyond their two outlying characteristics.

I would recommend this novel to girls (or openminded boys) of the age of 10/11 years old who are looking for an action packed, historical adventure. It is generally thrilling with a twist of mystery, and you will benefit from this atypical insight into Japanese history. There are some issues with the novel, but it is  going to be released on the 15th June 2016, so I hope that by that time most of them will be solved, enhancing everyone’s reading experience!

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.

Book of the month

Hi Guys,

So I thought that it would be a nice idea if every month I chose a book which I thought was particularly snazzy and made it book of the month… YAY

I’ll start in March with The Beach. That’s all there is to it really, apart from one thing. I’ll use the acronym BOM to mean Book of the Month. Got it? Great.

MG