Full House Reading Challenge – 84 Charing Cross Road – Helene Hanff

Genre: Epistolary, Non-fiction

Narrative Style: Exchange of letters between Hanff and Frank Doel of Marks & Co.

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1976

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Helene Hanff is an American with an interest in classical literature and old books. Marks & co are the British bookshop that she writes to to try and get her hands on some of these books. What develops is a funny and touching relationship between Helene and Frank mainly but also others who work in the shop and Frank’s wife. 

Reading challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Set in a bookshop 

I was quite excited by the thought of reading this as I loved the film. Really, I should know better. This is already the second post I’ve started off in this fashion this year. It is truly amazing that they managed to get such a rewarding film from such a slim volume.

Not that this was terrible. It certainly wasn’t. It was interesting to watch the relationship between Helene and Frank develop. The contrast between her open and easy going personality and Frank’s careful British reserve was amusing. Watching Frank slowly let his guard down was one of the more interesting aspects of the book.

But I have to admit, Helene got on my nerves. And nothing really happens. Books are ordered and received. Gifts are sent both ways. I suppose if you were reading this blind, then you might have the wonder of whether Helene was going to get to visit London but having seen the film, I knew that wasn’t going to happen.

The main thing I thought when reading this book was how old fashioned it seemed and also how difficult it would be for this  to happen these days. Not only because we don’t really communicate be letter anymore but because these friendly, small businesses with time to treat their customers so well also seem like a thing of the past. I must admit that it gave me a strong sense of nostalgia for when we used to write letters to each other and we didn’t know every aspect of each others lives  through social media.

 

 

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Full House Reading Challenge – 1984 – George Orwell

Genre: Dystopia

Narrative Style: Third person from the view of Winston Smith.

Rating: 5/5

Published: 1949

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Winston Smith lives under the eye of Big Brother in a land called Oceania. Constantly observed by tele screens that look outwards as well as showing images and unable to discuss subversive ideas with anyone, Winston wonders if he is the only one who realises the issues with the regime. Before long, he meets fellow subversive Julia and they start meeting in private. This sets in action, a series of events that is unstoppable and inevitable. 

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge: Genre – Reread.

I realise I am following a trend in reading 1984 but it sprang straight into my mind when I realised that I had to reread a book for this challenge. The alternatives were both equally timely – Animal Farm and The Handmaid’s Tale. However, both of those had been reread more recently than 1984.

And it was timely. With Trump’s determined manipulation of the media and his hatred of the press, the idea that “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” felt all too real. “The best books… are those that tell you what you know already.” also seemed fitting in a time when experts are ignored in favour of unsubstantiated opinions that support what people would rather believe. Now, more than when I last read this more than twenty years ago, did the idea of the loss of the freedom even to think really resonate.

This is not a perfect book. The character of Julia was irritating and she was little more than a tool to help Winston on his journey towards thoughtcrime and his inevitable punishment. Even Winston himself is not a fully drawn, three dimensional character and felt a little flat. However, maybe it is fitting. There is little way to express personality under such a regime particularly on the surface.

Also, the inclusion of the Goldstein’s treatise halfway through slowed down the pace and was quite a dry read. However, I feel it was necessary in order to fully understand what followed during Winston’s torture and to appreciate O’Brien’s position. But these are quibbles really. The message of the novel, the cleverness of the message of Oceania’s government overrides these issues.

I had forgotten how bleak the ending is. It is absolutely devastating that what little personality that Winston has is destroyed and he is now completely unable to think a false thought. The scene where he meets Julia for one last time and they explain their betrayal of each other is particularly depressing. There is no happy ending, no obvious way to escape the regime. And it is true that the level of control exercised by the government in this novel would be impossible to overcome. Winston is merely waiting for the bullet that he knows will come. All you can think in the end is at least it hasn’t got as bad as that here.

 

Full House Reading Challenge – The Mandibles – Lionel Shriver (Contains Spoilers)

Genre: Dystopia

Narrative Style: Third person, chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2016

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: When every other country in the world changes its currency to the Bancor, the United States finds itself with a problem. When it doesn’t accept the currency, the dollar quickly loses its value and prices start to rise. The Mandibles find their much relied on inheritance disappears and they suddenly are left with nothing. The novel covers their reactions to events from 2029-2047. 

Reading challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Most recently added to TBR.

This book was a struggle at times. In fact, it took me a month to read it. It is testament to Shriver’s high quality writing that I kept going. She certainly can string a sentence together. That is not the problem with this novel.

Nor is it the idea which I think is a solid one. In fact, given the current economic situation (particularly with Brexit causing so many worries in the UK) some of it seemed a little close to actual reality. There seemed to be dramatic possibilities in the idea of the once privileged losing everything. I always enjoy the rich taking a tumble.

The problem is that nothing really happens. Or it happens off page. An awful lot of  this novel is taken up with dinner party talk – or the equivalent when no one is having dinner parties anymore. In some ways, this is an interesting way of marking the changes in society  – with the way that a simple event changes – but it just isn’t very exciting. There are lots of intellectual debates about what might happen next which would be fine if this were an economic treatise but it’s novel and so it fell a bit flat.

I had some issues with the names in this novel – Willing, Goog, Fifia, Bing. It felt as though Shriver were trying a little hard. And the slang that these young folk used never really rang true and I never got used to it. Maybe that is just a sign of my age but it just sounded false.

When, at last, it feels like things are as bad as they can be, Shriver again doesn’t give  us the details but jumps past it all to a future where things are kind of settled again. The Mandibles are ousted from their house by their neighbours who play on their middle class naivety by pretending their child is ill. Willing, the teenage son, suggests they need to walk to their Uncle’s farm, a whole state away. This, I thought, would make for interesting reading. At last, something terrible was about to happen on the page. But no, this walk and their time on the farm was not described – perhaps because, in actual fact, their surviving this walk would have stretched incredulity to its limits. I felt cheated all the same.

The final chapters are largely taken up with the modern day equivalent of a dinner party where the young folk all sit around and discuss what became of everyone else. Not a very satisfying way of tying up loose ends. Again, there are some clever ideas about the way the world turns out but I felt I was being lectured to rather than being shown events unfolding.

Finally, the ending is a cheat. Nollie, Willing’s ancient aunt has been carefully lugging a box of her old manuscripts around with her from pillow to post. Willing thinks she may be becoming old and senile but, it becomes apparent that their is something precious in the box. Nollie has a large quantity of gold which it just so happens, she can now convert into currency in their new home in the state of Nevada – the one state that has not opted into the new economic rules. So there is a happy ending. Although the last line of the novel suggests that the future might not be exactly perfect, the whole thing ended a bit too nicely. Overall, it was disappointing.

Happy Sixth Birthday to me.

So it has been six years since I started this blog. It doesn’t seem that long. A lot has happened but mostly what it made me think is how rubbish I have become at blogging recently. I have neglected my blog lately and not because of the usual workload excuses either – or not just because of those. Mostly out of writer’s block.

For the last year or so, I have found it increasingly hard to think of things to write about. Not just blog-wise but in my fiction writing as well. I have been working hard at editing Choose Yr Future but new projects have not been forthcoming. I seem to have started dozens of things. Starting is not so much the problem but continuing once I have started.

Over the last six years, a lot has happened. I published Shattered Reflections which was an interesting experience rather than an out and out success. Don’t get me wrong, people said good things about it. It garnered a couple of good reviews on Goodreads but I found it hard to promote myself. On top of this, life events (such as my mam’s illness and then death) made it difficult for me to entirely concentrate on my writing career.

Still, I think I learned some valuable lessons. I think I’ll be better at it this time. And even if little more than my close circle of friends read it then I will be happy enough. I never aimed to make a fortune. Writing has never been about that for me.

I’m not going to promise that I will blog more. I know that those sort of promises can fall flat easily. But I do enjoy it and I quite often it helps me get my thoughts together. And as for finding the next project that is going to take off, perhaps I just need to be a bit more patient.

White Rose, Black Forest – Eoin Dempsey – Full House Reading Challenge

Genre: Historical  Fiction

Narrative Style: Two third person narratives that alternate. 

Rating: 2/5

Published: 2018 (Kindle First Purchase)

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Franka is about to end her own life when she discovers the broken body of a German pilot in the snowy forest outside her family cabin. Instead of committing suicide, she manages to get his body back to the cabin and begins to nurse him. But all is not what it seems. Why does he cry out in English in his sleep?  Who is this man and will Franka be able to trust him? 

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Genre Dual Time Line. 

This was a Kindle First purchase. It sounded interesting, claimed to be based on a true story and had some good reviews so I went for it, despite having read some not so great books through Kindle First. This was no exception.

The story starts from Franka’s point of view. She is wandering through the forest, looking for a spot in which to commit suicide. However, instead she stumbles across the body of an Luftwaffe pilot, still alive but badly injured. She finds herself with a moral dilemma. Should she save the pilot or not, given her ambivalence about the war?

Fairly quickly, we are given the idea that all is not what it seems and the pilot may be a spy. This only furthers the moral issues for Franka, for while she does not approve of the Nazis, she also had issues with the allies who had killed her father in a bombing raid. Nevertheless, she decides that she cannot leave him to die and by some feat of superhuman strength manages to get him back to the cabin.

This was the first time – but not the last – that I felt my incredulity stretched to the limit. How would this one woman manage to move a badly injured pilot and  his heavy kitbag through the snowstorm. Everything is set up just a bit too neatly for my liking.

Then we start to get the story from the pilot, John’s,  point of view. Naturally, he is wary of Franka even though she claims to hate the Nazis, he thinks it is an elaborate plot.  After all, how likely was it that he had fallen precisely into the hands of a nazi hater. I thought it unlikely too but as it was based on a true story, I let it go. After all, strange coincidences do happen. However, when I finished reading this I was curious to know exactly what these events were and it transpires that John and Franka were made up by Dempsey and the ‘true’ elements were the situation in Germany at the time and the details of the White Rose movement. By that logic, all historical fiction could say it was based on a true story.

Over the course of the book, the pair share stories and start to trust each other. Neither story fully convinced although the darker details of Franka’s story were suitably disturbing. In fact, neither character really worked for me. They never truly escaped their stereotypes e.g. the good German and the American hero. As the book continued, the details just got more and more ridiculous and I found the ending particularly irritating. I guess I’m just not enough of a romantic to appreciate this sort of book.

 

Full House Reading Challenge – The Quiet American – Graham Greene

Genre : War

Narrative Style: First Person, Non-chronological

Published: 1956

Rating: 4/5

Format: Paperback

Synopsis:  Fowler is a cynical journalist following the battles of the French against the Vietminh. Pyle is the naïve American who has idealistic ideas about how to end the war. When Pyle is murdered, everyone is suspect, including Fowler. As Fowler recounts his story of meeting Pyle, it transpires his own motives are less than pure.

Reading Challenges: The Full House Reading Challenge – Less than 250 pages.

I can’t say that I fully understood the political situation in this novel. I haven’t very much knowledge of the Vietnam War but Greene paints his picture in a very human way, looking at individual motivation and personality so it is relatively easy to follow.

As with other Greene novels I have read, motivation is nothing if not complicated. Fowler is attempting to keep himself on the side lines. But he finds it harder and harder to remain uninvolved. His relationship with Pyle is complicated by the fact that Pyle’s first act is to steal Phuong, Fowler’s beautiful mistress.

The story unfolds in flashbacks after Pyle’s death and the reader slowly realises that while it is true that Fowler did not kill Pyle, he is also not completely innocent. Fowler cannot let Phuong go. Pyle has to be removed from the picture. The novel shows how complicated personal and political motivation can be.

The one thing that made me a little uncomfortable was the way Phuong is passed between the men. I’m not accusing Greene of sexism or anything. I’m sure it is an apt description of the way Vietnamese women were treated by Western men.  But nonetheless, it made the novel a little less enjoyable for me.

All in all, an interesting novel that made me think about war, about the personal and the political and about relationships in general. Definitely worth a read.

Full House Reading Challenge – Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides

Genre: LGBT, Family, History, Bildungsroman

Narrative Style: First person, non-chronological

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2003

Format: Kindle

Reading Challenges: Full House Reading Challenge – Genre Over 500 pages.

This has been on my list for a long time so when it came up for £0.99 on my Kindle, I jumped at it. I’m not really sure what I expected from it (I’d read The Virgin Suicides and had been suitably weirded out by the tone and subject matter) but the story of Calliope / Cal wasn’t it. That isn’t a criticism. I couldn’t have possibly imagined anything as wildly exciting and interesting as the novel actually is.

The story actually starts long before Cal’s birth, on a completely different continent. Admittedly, I know very little about recent Greek history but the details supplied by Eugenides seemed to make sense. And as ever, with really evocative writing, it made me want to find out more. The boat trip to America and the treatment by the American authorities were also emotionally described and I really felt for Lefty and Desdemona (Cal’s grandparents).

Although this novel is described as being about Cal’s transformation from Calliope to Cal, it is a long time before we actually get to this part of the story. Hints are dropped and events alluded to but the main story moves through Cal’s grandparents to parents and then to the present day in order to explain the presence of the genetic mutation that causes all of Cal’s biological problems. There was no sense of impatience on my part though. No detail felt superfluous. The beginning of the novel in particular is a story beautifully told.

Later, it becomes more sensational and a little like a bad TV movie at times. Cal’s hermaphroditism is eventually discovered and he is taken to a doctor who is excited by the possibility of such an exciting case study. Cal is displayed and photographed in a way that seems just as seedy as later on when Cal has run away and ends up in a freak show with other transsexuals at various stages of transition. There is a certain element of magical realism in this part of the novel as Cal tries to come to terms with a new identity. It reminded me of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus when Fevvers lives with other freaks such as Sleeping Beauty.

What was pleasing was that Eugenides doesn’t make it straightforward for Cal who feels there is nowhere that he fit. Not male fully or female, not able to fit in with the intersex community, Cal was a little lost. In the present of the novel, Cal is working through a possible romance. Having revealed the entirety of his family history, he was ready at the end, to reveal his body to his lover. It felt like the right place to leave the story with the future possibilities wide open.