2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – No Surrender by Constance Maud

Genre: Feminist, Political

Narrative Style: Third person, chronological

Rating: 2/5

Published: 1911

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Jenny Clegg is a mill girl in Lancashire when she gets involved with the Suffragette movement. The novel follows her and her friend Mary O’Neill through marches, prison and force feeding during their fight for the vote. 

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup: Author Edition

I first heard of this novel in the BBC Two program, Novels that Shaped Our World in November, last year. It sounded interesting so I downloaded it onto my kindle. I’d never read a novel about the suffragette movement before – indeed, I don’t think there are many – and so I was quite excited to read it. Unfortunately, it did not live up to my expectations.

The main issue with this novel is that it is purely political. So you might expect when dealing with such a subject but there is nothing else in this novel, no subplots, no romance and no other way of separating characters. The players in this novel are good or bad depending on whether or not they are for or against women’s suffrage. In a lot of cases, this is their only personality trait. On both sides of the argument this led to stereotypical and hollow representations. The suffragettes were all good, moral women and those against them often seemed ridiculous. No one ever wavered in their feelings – no suffragette anyway. Some of the disbelievers come across to the suffragette side.

Secondly, the majority of this novel is dialogue. Not only that but a lot of it is written in dialect which is often hard to decipher and did make me wonder if Maud had ever actually had much to do with the working classes. It made the reading experience jarring at times. All the dialogue also made the pace quite slow. There wasn’t much action, more people describing action.

There are good things – important things – in this book. It describes a lot of the reasons that women wanted the vote really clearly and shows the injustices that women – particularly working women – faced at that time. It described the force feeding of Mary O’Neil in detail and showed how badly the suffragettes were treated in prison. All of this is important historical detail but unfortunately it didn’t override the other issues with the novel.

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishigoru

Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Narrative Style: First person

Rating: 5/5

Published: 1989

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Stevens, the butler from Darlington Hall, is allowed some holiday and takes a driving trip to see the former housekeeper, Miss Kenton, who left the house some years earlier to get married. On his journey, he begins to think back over his time as butler and his relationship with Miss Kenton.

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup: Author Edition

I really enjoyed this book. I wasn’t sure whether I would or not as I’ve read two Ishiguro novels previously – When We Were Orphans and Never Let Me Go – and I didn’t particularly enjoy either of them. All three are quite different from each other though and as such, I was unprepared for the emotional effect of this one.

The novel begins as Stevens, a butler for many years at the prestigious Darlington Hall, begins a journey to see the former housekeeper. At first, he is preoccupied with the idea of what makes a good butler and the idea of dignity. He gives the first details of his relationship with Miss Kenton when he describes an exchange after she tried to bring flowers into his office, an act which clearly baffles him. It is clear to the reader – although seemingly not to Stevens – how Miss Kenton feels about him. She is often frustrated by him and seems determined to provoke some emotion in him.

This is a very subtle novel. Stevens does not discuss his own emotions and the reader has to read between the lines to understand how he feels about events. At one stage, Stevens praises his own sense of dignity when he manages to keep working on the evening that his father dies. It is heartbreaking to read. Stevens, also never seems to realise that Miss Kenton is constantly trying to make him step outside of his professional persona. However, it seems like there is no man underneath the persona, Stevens so perfectly personifies the role of butler.

The reader is also made to think about the nature of loyalty and the relationship between master and servant. Lord Darlington, it becomes apparent, is part of a faction that is fascist and anti-semitic and during the war, he holds conferences with the aim of appeasing Hitler. Stevens thinks that he is right to have remained loyal towards his master and refuses to think that Lord Darlington could have been wrong in his ideas. Even when he is instructed to fire two Jewish members of staff, he follows these orders without question. It is one of the times that he disagrees with Miss Kenton as she thoroughly disapproves of these actions and threatens to leave if Stevens carries them out. Miss Kenton presents an emotional counterpart to Stevens’ repressed and proper personality.

The ending of the book, when Stevens finally meets with Miss Kenton, was very sad as they both realise what their lives could have been like if they’d been able to admit their feelings to each other. At the very end, Stevens ends up crying when talking to a man about his employer, his only show of emotion in the whole book. This suggests perhaps, that Stevens will at last be able to acknowledge his emotions and perhaps gain more enjoyment from what remains of his life.

Alphabet Soup Author Edition – Paris Echo – Sebastian Faulks

Genre: Literary fiction, History, The effect of war

Narrative Style: two first person narrators

Rating: 3/5

Published: 2018

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Two very different visitors to Paris meet and end up sharing a house. Hannah is in Paris to research life for women during Paris’ occupation during the second world war. Tariq runs away from home to try and find some information about his mother who was French. They both come to a greater understanding of themselves through their interaction with the city. 

Writing Challenges: Alphabet Soup: Author Challenge

This didn’t grab me. A while ago, I decided that I ought to read more by authors where I’d read one book which I’d really enjoyed. About fifteen years ago, I read Birdsong. I don’t know why that didn’t lead me to read more of Faulks’  novels then. Anyway, hence reading Paris Echo.

There are a lot of interesting ideas in this novel – about history and its ongoing effect on the present, about personal and political views of events and about our sense of self. In fact, the transcriptions of the interviews with French women who lived through occupation were probably the most interesting part of this novel and I found myself wishing it was more straightforward historical fiction. I would definitely have been interested in reading more about these women.

The main problem is that the two main characters never came alive for me. Neither of them really convinced. It also seemed unlikely that Hannah would have just opened her door to Tariq. A lot of interesting things happen to Tariq – he sometimes feels like he is watching himself from the outside, he meets a woman who may or may not be a ghost – a woman he has seen in a vintage photo shown to him by Hannah. But he isn’t really all that interesting and at the end of the novel, he is back home with the same girlfriend, taking up his life with no real changes. He has learned things and is perhaps more observant but his basic character is unchanging.

Hannah is even less convincing. It seems that Faulks feels for her. He describes her vulnerability well but she doesn’t have much else going for her. She has been scarred by a a relationship ten years earlier and while she eventually feels strong enough to start a new relationship, it isn’t entirely obvious why this has happened.

So not exactly successful but definitely interesting. And it did make me think. Also, it reminded me of a period in history I would like to know more about. And that is always a good thing.

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – Survivor – Chuck Palahniuk

Genre: Satirical, anti-heroes

Narrative Style: Stream of consciousness, First person

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1999

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: We meet Tender Branson as he has just hijacked a plane and is telling the sorry tale of his life to the black box recorder. He has let the crew and passengers go and has the length of time it takes for the fuel to run out to tell us of his life. What follows is a tragic tale of manipulation, fame, murder and suicide.

Reading Challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup – Author Edition

This is a very strange book. I had some idea what to expect – I’ve read Fight Club and Choke – but even so this is an odd read. For a start, it is numbered backwards and the chapters run down to one which makes it difficult to judge exactly where you are in the book. It also gives the feeling of running to a huge event which is apt given that we are waiting for the plane that Tender has hijacked to run out of fuel and crash.

We are thrown into the middle of Tender’s story with little context and at first it is a little confusing. Tender works as a servant and we gather that this is the fate of the majority of young people in the Creedish cult. They are sold as servants. allowed out into the outside world only because they’ve been convinced to never have sex by means not explained until near the end.

It transpires that Tender is a survivor of the mass suicide that has killed the rest of the cult. Even those who are already out in the world have been trained to obey this call to heaven so eventually Tender is the only one left. At this point, he comes to the attention of The Agent and is thrust into the limelight – once they have made him camera ready, of course.

Palahniuk takes aim at the media industry as they completely take over Tender’s life, treating him like a product rather than a person. He is consistently manipulated throughout the novel – first by the Creedish church and then by The Agent who has already planned out his entire life before he  even meets Tender. He was just waiting for the right body to put before the cameras.  The take down is savage and I felt a huge amount of sympathy for Tender especially when he is eventually rescued by his twin brother, Adam and his friend Fertility Hollis. Stripped bare of all routines, not being told what to do, he is unable to cope. He has been told what to do his whole life. Even when it comes  to hijacking the plane, Fertility has to push him in the right direction.

This was a very enjoyable read. It is easy to get used to the stream of consciousness style and the characters were well-drawn and interesting. The ending is open-ended so it is possible to believe in a happy ending should you want to. It is darkly funny in places, as you might expect from the writer of Fight Club but ultimately I felt a lot of sadness when reading it.

Strange Days Indeed

It seems like the world as we know it has ground to a halt. It is strange to think of everyone, all in their houses, streets empty (largely) and shops and pubs closed. It is three weeks now since I have been into the middle of Sheffield. Normally, I’d pass through most days.

I was on long term cover before but that is not continuing. So I’m at home with everyone else, trying to work out what being furloughed really means. My husband is also not working. No pubs means no beer needs to be brewed. Luckily, our house is big enough that if we get sick of each other or just want some quiet time then we can sit at opposite ends and not see each other for hours.

I’ve been trying to keep to a routine. To be honest, at the moment it just feels like an extended school holiday. As my husband isn’t a teacher, I would spend most of that time entertaining myself and keeping busy. I’m very much a creature of habit, even down to eating when I’d normally have my lunch at school so at the moment, I’m relatively content.

I have a lot of things to do. Editing, writing, reading are all being caught up on. It’s nice to have an unlimited time to read instead of the rushed 15 minutes or so I’d have while eating my breakfast. Having said that, I’d normally read on my kindle on my commute and I am kind of missing that. (Fancy missing being able to get on the bus – not something I ever thought I’d say.) Catching up with a lot of watching as well – Good Omens at the minute which is really enjoyable. If only the apocalypse was really so much fun.

Not to mention all the household jobs that need to be done and now we have the time to do them. I’m trying to vary my days so I do a little bit of everything each day so I don’t get bored and all the jobs aren’t done immediately.

The worst thing is the unknowable elements but at the minute I am able to ignore them quite successfully. I’m imagining it will be at least June before this is over. Worrying about further into the future will have to wait until then.

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – The Stories of Eva Luna by Isabel Allende

 

Genre: Magic Realism, South American Literature

Narrative Style: A series of stories told by Eva to her lover

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1989

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Eva’s lover demands that she tell him a story that she has never told anyone before. The stories mix the real and the fantastic and cover revenge, love, obsession and much more. 

Reading Challenges: Alphabet Soup 2020 – Author Edition

It’s been a long time since I read Eva Luna – about 25 years as I was at university – but I remember that I really enjoyed it. I’m not sure why this book has languished on the shelf got quite so long. Possibly because I’m not a huge fan of short stories.

As you might expect, these stories slip easily between reality and fantasy. Ghosts and miracles happen in the same way that ordinary every day things happen. Allende’s prose is rich and poetic and the stories are not reigned in by the constraints of prose. They are poetic in their nature.

There are many themes touched on here but the main thing I came away with was the power of love in the face of the worst situations. There is something hopeful and encouraging about these stories even when they are talking about the worst atrocities committed by man.

My favourite stories are’ Two Words’ and ‘Our Secret.’ ‘Two Words’ which tells of Belisa Crepusculario who learns that she has power over words and uses this power to sell words to people. When she is kidnapped by the Colonel, he tells her he wants to be president. She sells him the words to say but also gives him a bonus ‘Two Words’ for his exclusive use. With these words, she binds the Colonel to her and he becomes unable to think of anyone else. ‘Our Secret’ tells the story of  the story of a couple who cannot truly know each other until they have shared the secret traumas of their lives under the Chilean dictatorship.

Some of the stories are erotic like ‘Toad’s Mouth’ which tells of a  Hermelinda and her erotic games or ‘Wicked Girl’ which tells of a young girl’s sexual awakening and the effect it has on her mother’s lover. Others, like the final story ‘And of Clay we are Created’ are tragic and sad. All are unusual and exciting.

My only problem is one with short story collections in general and that is I like to get my teeth into stories, get to know characters. Here, whenever I felt like I was interested in a character, the story changed.

2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition – A Wizard of Earthsea – Ursula Le Guin

Genre: Fantasy, Magic

Narrative Style: Third person

Rating: 3/5

Format: Kindle

Published: 1968

Synopsis: Sparrowhawk is set to become one of the most powerful wizards in Earthsea. He has natural talent and it isn’t long before he comes to the attention of the other wizards. Taken away as an apprentice to Ogion, he is impatient for power and accidentally evokes a shadow creature that will haunt him forever. The rest of the novel covers his quest to rid the world of this evil. 

Reading challenges: 2020 Alphabet Soup Author Edition.

This really wasn’t for me. I gave it three out of five because it really isn’t badly written but it didn’t grab me at all. I think I was expecting it to be more science fiction and less magic based fantasy – not a genre I particularly like. It’s also a bit boy’s own for my taste – boy does quest at expense of everything else in his life is not something that is interesting to me.

To be fair, at first I thought it might be okay. Sparrowhawk (or Duny as he is originally called) has a natural talent for magic and is taught as much as he can be by his aunt. When his village is threatened by a neighbouring tribe, he manages to save them by conjuring a magical fog. This was quite exciting and well written. Even Sparrowhawk’s school days were quite exciting with rivalries with other wizards, one of which nearly leads to his death.

It is really the second half of the novel – which focuses on the chase after the evil shadow that Sparrowhawk has accidentally unleashed on the world. A lot of the time Sparrowhawk is alone and at sea – not very exciting to be honest. After all the chasing and running, you might hope that the final confrontation between man and shadow would be exciting but even that was anti-climatic.

I know that this is children’s literature and maybe I am too old to appreciate the innocence of this tale. I did find the ideas of good and evil simplistic as was the final solution to merge with the  shadow. It could be considered a bildungsroman with Sparrowhawk learning what it means to be a man in his world but because I found the story so unexciting, I didn’t really feel like Sparrowhawk developed all that much.