3 Recent Reads

From sheep falling off a cliff, to demanding gnomes and jellyfish attacks, the last three books I read have barely anything in common with each other, apart from the fact they’re all fantastic reads!

*Spoiler alerts*

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The Murdstone Trilogy, comes from the late Mal Peet. I was given this as a Christmas present and I think it’s safe to say that if this hadn’t been the case it would have been very unlikely that I would ever have thought of reading it. Not knowing much about his books (his previous ones leaning more towards YA) and fantasy not being my go-to choice of genre, I turned the pages with the same trepidation as trying Turkish Delight again, another ill-advised christmas present. But perhaps not. Tastes change.

The story follows Philip Murdstone, a failing author living in Devon. His highly attractive agent, Minerva, tells him to write something new, something that’s on trend, something involving swords, a dragon, a quest – fantasy in other words. Or as she says Phantasy, “with a pee aitch”. Disgruntled, Philip heads to his local pub and gets horrendously drunk on an ale called, fore-warningly, Dark Entropy. After this, he receives regular visits from a gnome with the power of writing the most brilliant fanta – Phantasy novel. The gnome is aptly called Pocket Welfare. Various obstacles and hilarious encounters ensue to help Philip write the trilogy and win back the respect he so craves from Minerva.

As you can probably tell, the book is less fantasy and takes more of a satirical look at the genre. The tongue-in-cheek references to stereo-typical character and plot devices are used comically to highlight the copy-cat trends of publishing. Alongside this, the acute observations of Devon life made me laugh out loud. The depictions of the characters, the goings on in the village and general small-town gossip is hilarious.

The Murdstone Trilogy is certainly an odd book, with the blurring between reality and fiction, and also thrown in with that- metafiction – it can become a strange mixture of feeling very close to the protagonist and also rather distant. But with the vibrant descriptions of the inhabitants of Devon and their monobrows, or the witty one-liners from Pocket Welfare, I continued to bounce along when reading it, fully engaged and wanting Philip to succeed.

It’s a shame such a wonderful writer has passed away so early in life.

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I chose to read Far From the Madding Crowd next for a few reasons. Mainly, because I already love Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles and just Victorian Literature as a whole. And also, the release of the latest film adaptation was upon the horizon and I wanted to read it beforehand.

It felt oddly comforting to be back in the Hardy land of hay bales, country fairs and conflicting passions after a bout of more modern novels. The strong-willed, independent and just a little bit whiny Bathsheba, inherits her own farm and sets about trying to make it a success. She finds herself stuck in a love-square between Gabriel, the reliable farmer, Mr. Boldwood, a prosperous neighbouring farmer, and Sergeant Troy, the rogue.

Hardy represents Bathsheba as a woman who knows her own mind. Her first thought isn’t of marriage and having a man run the farm, it is for her to do it herself, stating that she will be up every morning before everyone to check everything is in working order. Highly out of the ordinary for the Victorian period, Hardy depicts the capabilities of a woman in a man’s world. On the other side of this, Bathsheba is excruciatingly naive. She doesn’t understand the intricacies of the heart, first igniting Boldwood’s emotions with a pretend valentine, which makes an all-too-real impact on Boldwood. After this, she falls into a string of bad judgements, marries badly and neglects the farm and her true purpose in the first place. But, unlike a Hardy novel, all ends well.

This is a point I’d like to quickly mention actually. Just a little aside. It annoys me when Hardy’s work is criticised for being overly depressing, as if a novel should always be upbeat and resolved. Some of the best novels ever written are “depressing” in my opinion – Revolutionary Road, Atonement to name a couple – and even then I would call them moving, not depressing, which is often synonymous with the next word that usually follows – “dull.”

Sorry, rant over.

The narrative bumbles along akin to the gentle pace of Bathsheba’s horse and trap, the steady presence of Gabriel’s un-returned love for Bathsheba keeping the spoke of the novel’s wheel turning. Then, out of no where, an epic climax happens that will shock you out of your reading daze. Brutal in its insertion into the plot, Hardy manages to communicate the gravity of Boldwood’s mental deterioration with barely a whisper of it beforehand.

The 2015 film is an excellent adaptation of the novel and although they change a few things, this might actually be for the better. This story is a classic tale of growing up, independence and love.

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My final book to chat about is by one of my favourite authors, David Nicholls. Although I said at the beginning there was no relation between these novels, Nicholls actually wrote the screenplay for Far From the Madding Crowd. This comes as no surprise as I think one of the reasons I adore his books so much is down to the way he writes dialogue.

Notoriously hard, dialogue is the trickiest thing to make authentic, but Nicholls seems to handle it with ease (I’m guessing at this – there are probably copious dictaphones and hair-pulling moments involved in the process). Us is a book that can make you laugh and cry, clench your fists in anger, or squirm at an ill-advised comment. It follows Douglas, who has just been told by his wife, Connie, that she doesn’t want to be with him anymore. In an attempt to prove to her that they should remain together, he plans a holiday with her and their teenage son, Albie, touring Europe. As you can imagine, this doesn’t go well. Albie ends up ditching them for food-stealing accordionist and as Connie flies home, Douglas vows to her that he’ll find their son and make sure he’s safe.

The story is told by Douglas and flits between the present time of their disintegrating holiday and the various memories of Connie that Douglas has accrued and then describes. From the hilarious moment they met involving a spatula, to the awkward introduction to parents, and from the heartbreaking discovery their first daughter has died after one day to when Connie admits she had an affair, the book takes you through it all – life, really. Each character is made believable by their flaws – so much so that I got highly involved in the story.

I hated Connie. But I think I was supposed to. Of course, there were moments, scenes, where I sympathised with her, but her manipulative tethering of Douglas and the fact she cheated, amplified the dislike I felt. At times, I even hated the protagonist and his lack of emotion, empathy, or refusal of anything “Arty” as a serious option for the future, but I still couldn’t help urging him on as his blistered feet stuck to his shoes and he tried to reconstruct an already crumbled marriage.

And this is the thing, how does he do it? I talk about these people as if they’re real. REAL. I don’t think a Tweet has ever spoken to me more than “preferring characters to actual people… #booknerdproblems”. But this is where true writing talent is, the ability to engage the reader, make them laugh and weep. Or make them cringe as if they were actually sat at the table when Douglas inadvertently implies a woman is fat. Us takes you through a roller-coaster of emotions and is definitely worth a read.

Best of the three: Us

Next on the book menu: The Silkworm 

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Praa Sands

Hello!

I went for a walk along Praa Sands on Sunday and it was beautiful. It’s amazing what a change feeling the sun on your skin can make.

To imagine some sort of woodland creature peeking out of its winter soil for the first time is probably not far off what I looked like…

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Book Review – The Kite Runner

I realise I’m very late to the party with this book review but The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini had been on my ever growing ‘to-read’ list and I’ve only just got round to it. Why did I leave it so late??

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It’s rare to discover a book that truly compels you to carry on reading. The grand scope of the book follows Amir from a child to adult, covering Afghanistan through its tumultuous Russian invasion and Taliban rule. These dark times however, enhance the brief moments of the country’s beauty. The novel is written from Amir’s point of view and his relationship with his best friend Hassan who he flies kites with. After witnessing a horrendous act, Amir is riddled with crippling guilt. A tale of redemption, paternity and brotherhood, we witness some horrendous scenes throughout this gripping story.

What struck me was the sheer involvement Hosseini had conjured in me to his main character. I have never read a character that was so gutless, so selfish that I actually felt ashamed of him and yet at the same time whole-heartedly rooted for him. It comes down to Hosseini’s acute observation of human interaction and of what it is to sin.

What underlies the whole book is the all-absorbing longing Amir has for his father’s acceptance. Amir, after finding a talent for writing stories, tells his father he has written his first one:

‘Baba shrugged and stood up. He looked relieved, as if he too had been rescued by Rahim Khan. “Yes, give it to Kaka Rahim. I’m going upstairs to get ready.” And with that, he left the room. Most days I worshipped Baba with an intensity approaching the religious. But right then, I wished I could open my veins and drain his cursed blood from my body.’

This moment not only foreshadows a scene towards the end of the book but communicates feelings of isolation through the supposed bodily connection/tie of blood. Hosseini means to illustrate at this juncture, the apparent futility of blood, when Amir and his father could not have more contrasting dispositions.

Although the journey takes us through scenes of sexual abuse, a public stoning to death and brutal attacks, the narrative, I feel, never loses hope. Through the imagery of the kite itself, the thought that Amir might one day redeem for his past is never cut loose and remains tethered.

These transient moments of beauty are heightened even more so by the overwhelming amount of terror the characters witness. Amir describes the flickering sunlight through the trees when he and Hassan would play in them. When he returns much older, the place has changed, but the memory is still just as fresh:

‘Hassan had said in his letter that the pomegranate tree hadn’t borne fruit in years. Looking at the wilted leafless tree, I doubted it ever would again. I stood under it, remembered all the times we’d climbed it, straddled its branches, our legs swinging, dappled sunlight flickering through the leaves and casting on our faces a mosaic of light and shadow. The tangy taste of pomegranate crept into my mouth.’

The vibrant and sensory imagery forces the past to come back to life, becoming almost tanglible. Almost. Afghanistan, his home, will never be the same again. I believe Hosseini is advocating us to cherish the beauty of the past, but to accept it as the past. For Amir to visit his childhood haunts and expect them to be the same is pointless. Just as it is to find atonement in the past.

I could go on for days and days about The Kite Runner, it really is a spectacular book. I’ll probably go on to watch the film, having heard good things, and experience it all again through the lens. You may come away from the end of this book emotionally drained and tear-soaked, but it’s worth staying up to read “just one more chapter”… even if that does mean you nearly fall asleep at your desk the next day.

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Pattern Portrait

Drawing head

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An apple a day

Spent the whole day in bed unwell, but I managed to do a drawing of an apple, which ironically has not kept the doctor away…

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Gone Girl Review… spoiler alerts!

The Boy That Should Have Really Gone.

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I read Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn a year ago and was utterly gripped. It’s a rare thing to become totally submerged under the pen-wielding thumb of the writer in a novel, but Flynn’s book had that John Fowles kind of narrative viewpoint – restricted to the point at which you can’t trust anyone.

I read it at break-neck speed (an all-too relevant choice of words there) and couldn’t wait to tell someone about it – the trope of every good read. The story follows a husband and wife who are both disastrous and perfect together. In a nutshell, Amy fakes her own murder after discovering Nick’s infidelity (among other things) and sets it up to look as though he is the murderer. This revelation however, isn’t conveyed until about half way through. You spend the first half thinking the arrogant, lazy; careless Nick is the killer and the second half witnessing the extent of Amy’s psychotic intensions.

The way Flynn manipulated my reading of both characters was masterfully slick and unpredictable. I somehow admired, sympathised and despised both characters. So, when they announced that David Fincher would be directing the film version of the bestseller, I was filled with anticipation for how the story would work blown up on the big screen. How would they reveal the major twist? When would they expose the reality of Amy’s character, and would it be as much of a shock to people who knew nothing about the story?

The opening scene started exactly like the book. We observed an image of Amy’s head, accompanied by eerie nursery rhyme music and I was hooked, sold. This depiction summed up the notions of the body explored in the novel. Her skull is contemplated as a sphere of crushable bone, as Nick notes, which plays against the interior thoughts that we are shut out from. Fincher, like Flynn, had me from the get-go.

There were moments of genius that illustrated Fincher really understood the novel. A part that particularly stands out clearest is when it cuts instantly from a shot of Amy and Nick kissing in a sugar mist (something that I don’t actually remember happening in the novel, but still a nice, sickly, touch) to Nick having a mouth swab carried out for a DNA test. This not only epitomized the jarring of romance and violation in the book but also evoked the duplicitous nature to the whole story itself. The entire film, in fact, although long and noticeably so, worked at creating a thorough and intense build up to the horrific climax.

Rosamund Pike writhing around in underwear and satin sheets, drenched in the blood of the man she has killed, is an image that will stay with me forever. It’s up there with The Red Wedding. Pike was incredible at playing both the sweet, innocent Amy that everyone admired and also the bitter psychotic Amy, mastermind behind the scheme to frame Nick for her “murder”. I could have watched a whole film about Amy and be both mesmerized and horrified.

On the other hand, if anyone should have ‘gone’ and never returned, it should have been Ben Affleck. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Affleck was good at playing the laidback Nick, complete with droopy-eyed nonchalance and general lack of motivation. But Nick was also supposed to be a character that you despised, loathed even, in the first half of the story. He’d been having an affair with a student, he stood up at a press conference about his “presumed dead” wife and smirked and all I should have wanted to do was leap through the screen and force the police to arrest him sooner, but I didn’t. Instead, I sat there and wasn’t sure if I cared. His arrogance should have been palpable but, for some reason, I didn’t hate him, as I should have.

Besides the portrayal of Nick, the rest of Gone Girl was brilliant. I was absorbed in the plot, bewitched by the action and I will never look at the neck of a wine bottle in the same way ever again…

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Walk With Me

So, a mixture of finishing university, performing at a show, securing a job and finding a cozy nook for me to dwell in like Bilbo Baggins has meant I haven’t posted anything for far too long! But I have been thinking about something that happened a few weeks back…

I walked down a steep hill into Falmouth town after a stressful morning of reading through my dissertation chapters. I needed fresh air, a change of scene and a breezeblock-sized slab of coffee cake.

I wasn’t even thinking of him. Nothing had made me think of him, but I knew he was there. Out of nowhere – or, maybe, everywhere – I heard my Grandpa humming beside me as if he were walking with me down this sloping hill in perfect rhythm. One of those sounds that only I would recognise and that only I could relate to him. He was there and he was not there.

Walk With Me

Fall in step with me,
Back to the ground, to me,
So we can travel as one,
Simultaneously
And drift in space,
Like headlights in the dark.

Hum your tune as we go,
That I can’t recall, but I know,
And bounce back into time
Melodious flow,
So we’re birds on a wire,
A piano chord.

Stay by my side,
And help me, or try,
To equate my parts,
When there’s no add, just divide.
You see, I’m both lodged and moving,
Shrapnel in scattered wounds.

©

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