Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman (July Book of the Month)

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A darkly hilarious and witty novel exploring the day the world will end.

In a typical science fiction style, there is a concept, widely known- such as the end of the world- but through the lens of literature is spun around and examined deeply. Here, the embodiment of Good, Aziraphale an angel and Evil, Crowley a demon (formerly Crawley the snake from the garden of Eden) battle over who can manipulate the Antichirst into siding with them, so that when the fateful Judgement day arrives with the expected war, the child would launch a particular side to victory.  Not that the pair wanted a war. Both the angel and demon rather enjoyed being on Earth, having gotten used to human schisms in the way that their compatriots hadn’t. In fact, the Crowley and Aziraphale have a close friendship: not only have they known each other centuries, but they realised that they actually had more in common that anyone could imagine. Yet thanks to a mishap in the baby-swap securing the Antichrist, the forces shadowed and prodded the wrong child for over a decade, meaning that instead of bursting with virtues or spewing threats, the 11 year old antichrist Adam was just a defiant country boy, and an ordinary boy Warlock had been wrongly harassed by demons and angels his entire life. That’s where the trouble started.

When two of the funniest, most renowned authors in their field join to write a novel, it will produce something glorious. There are a wide range of characters, from Metatron (the voice of God) to KGB agents who feed ducks. The hilarity, but not obtuseness, that pervades this novel is astounding, and is guaranteed to provoke reactions from even the sternest of readers. (It even says in the Afternote that all the pair were trying to do was to make each other laugh.)

It started off as a parody of the Just William books, where William was the Antichrist, but soon evolved into something much smarter and engaging: after all, on the Judgement Day there are Four Horsemen, although as it’s modern day, it’s now Bikers. Famine, for one, sells diet books and invented nouvelle cuisine, whilst War was a war-correspondent, who somehow always managed to be in areas of conflict before they even started (the other two Bikers can be a surprise for you to find out). All said, it’s amazing. Even better is Anathema Device, a self-procclamed occultist with a book from her ancestor- The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter- that predicts correctly the future. (As it was so accurate, nobody bought it.) This supernatural element is counter-balanced by Newt Pulsifer though, who is a begrudging member of the Witchfinder’s Army, and has the awkward history of his ancestor burning alive Agnes, making the union between the two incredibly interesting.

The highlight of this book for me was undoubtedly the intricate footnotes. Apparently Gaiman and Pratchett would write footnotes for each other’s work, resulting in quips  bursting with puns, which always lightened the mood. On the other hand, the subplots added a great twist to the story, helpfully giving the reader a refreshed perspective of the main plot as they often added useful background information. But occasionally they were spasmodically inserted and felt random, being often obscure and hard to follow, and felt like sometimes they were only there so that a few jokes could be made.

I would recommend this novel to fans of fantasy, science-fiction, or anyone who is vaguely interested in the works of either author. It’s a fantastic reading experience!

 

1984 by George Orwell

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Are classic works beyond criticism? Perhaps. Since literary professors have devoted their careers to hallowed sentences, should one dare to question their opinion, with the threat of passive aggressive comments later (or is that just from fandoms)?

Yes. One should continually review and question the work of the professors, not just to discover the merits (or the conceived merits) of classic pieces, but to learn of your own stance on such controversial topics discussed.

The most notable thing that spruced from this book was the lack of tangibility concerning the characters. The protagonist, Winston Smith, had no defining traits or features, except for his rebellious streak which might not even set him out to be individual, but as one of many aspiring revolutionaries. My hope was to discover a Bonsai: a character that had been nurtured, not necessarily sheltered from action though, and cultivated into their own skin of ink and imagination. Sadly not. Driven by a desire for sex and Victory gin and not much else, Winston is a pathetic man to spend your afternoons with. When he is tortured, it’s not painful to read- unpleasant certainly- but the fires of anguish and sympathy are not ruthfully burning. You would think that Orwell would have devoted a bit more time to fleshing out, but if Winston was to be discovered on paper, it seems like paper he would remain.

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English Socialism-a political philosophy

It is common knowledge that 46% of American adults cannot understand the label on their prescription medicine, so perhaps the language used in the mid-20th century would be a problem for the masses. Alas, alas, if only it were so. The writing is bland. Bland like builder’s tea (I’m much more a green tea person myself). Or cardboard. Perhaps this is the message that Orwell was trying to spread to us: we should inherently not use paper for anything like writing stories as it’ll only bore you: all theses papery references must count for something. I did count down the pages until the end which is never good a sign either.

The pace is unforgivable. My tortoise could waddle 100m faster: yes, there’s a climatic moment (Orwell was not an idiot after all) and perhaps intrigue, but generally it plopped along with an agenda that would horrify all overly zealous 3rd Grade teachers. (The  high intonations and tattooed on smiles never seem to go out of fashion in the education industry.) In fact, only a tree would grow slower than the pace. Coincidence? I think my point is proven. The arc of the plot is predictable to say the least, so it seems that there is little of interest in literary terms with 1984, except…

On the other hand (always a risky sentence starter) the ideas that are conveyed do hold significant weight. The themes of the proletariat rising to power, a theory cultivated by Marx, and their potential to do so was intriguing. At the time it must have caused the upper society to melt into enraged philosophical discussion, however today our society has evolved into something more unusual. The nature of the working classes, when nations are compared, is that they are astoundingly contrasting, so for a society like the one in 1984 to be created where the lower classes rise to power, it would have to be localised to a country or region, with people rebelling against a certain government/ specific policy. Not a worldwide movement as many people stand for many things.

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There is a flaw in the argument as at the moment not only are people under different governmental regimes, which means when the proletariat united rise to power their idea  of how power should be would, realistically, differ depending on culture (so not all inherently communist), but that at the moment many people are happy with the status quo.

Jo Brand said 1984 was ‘more relevant today than almost any other book’, however I feel that whilst identity and freedom are discussed, the underlying motives of the plot are entirely mischaracterised by Brand. Of course with more digital products entering our lives, it is easier to collect personal data. So the concept or value of privacy has undoubtedly evolved, but it is not eliminated like it is the book. In 1984 people are ruthlessly violent and racism is rife towards the prisoners of war with insults breeding everywhere:​ in the age of `Generation Snowflake’, there hardly seems a time where people are more emotionally protected or more sheltered from raw comments. But perhaps because now more than ever, they have to be.

Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit- Jeanette Winterson

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Winterson based this novel on her own childhood

The bones of this book are made from the Bible. Yet it is also constructed from the joyous shredding of beliefs, when Jeanette starts to question her religious upbringing by her Pentecostal parents.

Religion? You might say. Religion; today the cause of wars, shootings and fear. Religion; a burden on society that is as addictive as it is dangerous. Why would I want to read about something like this? I’ve enough of it in the skirting the tabloids next to gruesome photojournalism. Why should you read this? Because it’s hilarious. It opens with the frank lines; “Like most people I lived for a long time with my mother and father. My father liked to watch the wrestling, my mother liked to wrestle; it didn’t matter what.” There is an honesty behind these words, a vivid way that the characters are illustrated that it seems like the story can be nothing but genuine. It follows Jeanette’s childhood, where her predominant influences were her strict (adopted) mother, driving her to be a missionary and the local church community. Initially homeschooled, legal obligations forced her to school;

‘”Why do you want me to go?’ I asked her the night before. “Because if you don’t go I will go to prison” … “But if you go to prison you’ll get out again. St Paul was always going to prison.”      “I know that” (she cut the bread firmly, so that only the tiniest squirt of potted beef oozed out) … “but the neighbours don’t. Eat this and be quiet.”‘

Jeanette struggled with fitting in with her decidedly non-Christian classmates, as well as  with desire, when she falls in love with one of the girls at the Church. At sixteen, she is forced to decide between religion and love, family or girlfriend.  And the question that rages in Jeanette’s mind is; why can’t I have both? 

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Personally, I do think that there is a slight inequality in the amount of male and female characters, but given that this is a book about matriarchy in society and lesbian love, there isn’t much room for omnipresent male characters…. maybe not such an appalling thing, actually. (It’s worth mentioning that there are a few but they’re more secondary/ tertiary characters, hence the visibility of this ‘inequality’.) It doesn’t detract from the quality of the plot though, even if the storyline is more thought-provoking pace than action packed.

One issue, however, was the slight irrelevance of the myth theme of Percival which was introduced; it did offer variation from the wintry grey industrial scene, and it was an unusual way to represent Jeanette’s story (I presume that’s what it was), however it did appear to be part of the novel as a mystical exciting feature, rather than something which was actively contributing to the story.

The wonderful thing about this was observing the transformation of Jeanette, and the way her comically awkward tone dominated her perspective of childhood. Although it’s set in the drab Midlands, this novel is a sparkling example of fiction at its finest. Like all novels, there’s an interesting reflection of author in it, too: the fact that the protagonist has the same name is the author is not the only similarity- the novel is actually based on Winston’s own upbringing, where she explores her childhood by turning herself into a fictional character.

Anyway, generally a great 20th century novel that is worth the title of a classic. If you’re a literature fan, then you should have read this by now (!), so I recommend this specifically to teenagers, mainly because the book discusses the pressures of conformity. A pressure they are no doubt familiar with, so reading this might just be an eye-opener on the topic.