Day 22 – A plot device that annoyed you – Atonement and The Time Traveller’s Wife

I’ve changed the title of today’s blog a little as I couldn’t think of any plot devices that had annoyed me over and over. I don’t read many series or books that are really similar to each other so instead I have chosen to look at two plot devices that I found so annoying they really spoiled my enjoyment of the books.

I really did enjoy reading Atonement by Ian McEwan. From the opening of the novel in Cambridgeshire, to the scenes of fighting and the horrors of working as a nurse in the second world war, I was convinced by the characters and the way their lives interwove. I think it is the fact that I had been so taken with the novel and its supposed resolution that annoyed me so much when I finally got to the end.

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In the final section, it is revealed that the previous chapters were a novel written by Briony and in fact tragic lovers Robbie and Cecilia were not reunited in ‘real life’ but in a fiction within a fiction. Writing the novel was Briony’s atonement for the fact that she accused Robbie of rape and ruined any chances the pair might have had of actual romance. I admit that I felt a little cheated by this and I still feel it is akin to the sort of ending children write all the time, a more sophisticated version of ‘and then I woke up.’ The story is not the story you thought it was. Briony claimed that she did not want to give readers a hopeless ending but in actual fact the ending was much worse for giving hope and then saying that they could only have it within a fiction. Very disappointing.

My second choice is The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. I found this book interesting and annoying in just about equal measure.

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The concept was exciting and Henry was a good romantic lead. The idea of the time travel wasn’t that hard to swallow once the story got going and I liked the muddled chronology of their romance.

However, what did annoy me was the way that despite the fact that Henry supposedly has no control over when he will travel and where to, he manages to get winning lottery numbers so that Clare will be able to carry on with her art without having to worry. I felt that this was a narrative cheat. Either Henry could control his travel or he couldn’t, but not control when it suited him and Niffenegger.

Incidentally, as this doesn’t directly fit with the title of today’s blog, it goes without saying that I found the end of this novel really irritating. The idea of a women waiting all those years because she knows she will have one more glimpse of the man she loved seems a little too like a fairy tale for my taste. It did not seem romantic, just out-moded and a little depressing. Most of the women I worked with at the time loved it so, hey, what do I know.

DAY 21. – Book you tell people you’ve read, but haven’t (or haven’t actually finished).

There are a few of candidates here. Books that I have made it known that I don’t like despite not having finished them. It doesn’t happen often because I am quite careful to choose things I am fairly sure I will like.

The first is On The Road by Jack Kerouac which I would probably never have picked of my own accord but it was for a class on my MA. Obviously for the purpose of the course I claimed to have finished it and I started to believe myself. It was only recently I remembered that I hadn’t actually finished it.

What was it about this book that meant I didn’t finish it? I found the tone irritating and the style worse. It gained the rare honour of having been thrown across my living room the most times due to the dubious attitude towards women shown. Ultimately I didn’t feel compelled to find out what happened. I just didn’t care.

Similarly, I read (or started to read) Hemmingway’s The Old Man and The Sea when it was on the GCSE syllabus as I realised that I might have to teach it. (How to put teenagers off reading in one easy lesson.) Part of the problem was I already knew how it ended and when I got bogged down in the narrative, it just didn’t seem worth it. I quickly realised there was no way I could possibly teach this book as I could barely summon up the enthusiasm to pick it up, never mind try to get the point across to others. Thankfully, I have never worked in a school where they have taught it. Maybe it’s not just me!

Finally, in a doomed attempt at reading more classics (something I keep trying despite the evidence that I will probably never enjoy them), I decided to try The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne. I picked it because the subject matter sounded interesting. However, I soon found myself ignoring the book in favour of something with less dense prose and it was abandoned on my bedside table for a while before eventually winging its way back onto the downstairs bookshelves. Probably I should give it to charity as I will never pick it up again.

DAY 20. – Favourite childhood book.

This is a little difficult as it seems a long time since I was a child. And also I wasn’t sure whether to try and think of one book to cover the whole of my childhood or to think of different ones to cover different parts of childhood. In the end, I have chosen three different books, simply because if I had to, I’d be happy to read them now.

The first is Charlie and the Chocolate factory by Roald Dahl. Neither of the film adaptations for me really live up to the sheer inventiveness of this book. The ridiculousness of some of Wonka’s inventions is just amazing.

At the start of the book, you have the tension of whether Charlie will actually manage to get a ticket and the reader routes for him from the start. He has to rely on luck and kindness to get his ticket while the other winners can employ more underhand methods.

For me though, the best thing about this book is the sly morality that dispatches each of the other kids. Everyone can appreciate that they got what they deserved until only the deserving Charlie was left. Having since taught this book to pupils of different ages, it is good to know that it is still appreciated.

My second choice is Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery. Anne was another of those boisterous tomboyish girls who just wouldn’t fit in. She was determined and independent and always in trouble in one way or another. I thought she was fantastic. Not only that but she was intelligent and ambitious.

Of course, it was obvious that eventually she would forgive Gilbert for pulling her pigtails but the ups and downs of their relationship are well told and never predictable. I went on to read the whole series of books.

Finally, and in a similar vein, is Little Women by Louisa May Alcott. I loved Jo for similar reasons to Anne (see a theme developing here, by any chance. I was a tomboy and I would rather climb trees than play with dolls.) She was independent and easily my favourite of the four girls.

The story of Beth’s illness is incredibly touching and was probably the first time that a book made me cry. I felt bereft, as if she really was my friend. I read this book over and over as a child and I never got bored of it. Again, I read all the books in the series but Little Women was undoubtedly my favourite.

DAY 19. – A favourite author – Margaret Atwood

I did not have to ponder very long to decide who to write this post about. There were some other candidates (Terry Pratchett, Ian Rankin, Angela Carter.) but the reason that Atwood remains my favourite author is that I cannot think of a novel of hers that I did not like and I also feel that her novels have been there as I was growing up and have helped me become the person I am today.

The first Atwood novel that I met was Surfacing, over 20 years ago now, It was for my BA and it really opened my eyes. (Interestingly a lot of my favourite novels stem from this time: Ready to Catch Him Should He Fall, The Master and Margarita, The Magic Toyshop. Maybe because I had no idea that such books existed.) What I liked about it are the same things I like about all of Atwood’s novels. Her narrators / characters find life difficult in ways that make sense to me. Their relationships are difficult. And they are not always likeable or straightforward or even easy to understand. But they are always interesting, always compelling and always convincing.

It’s hard to say which of Atwood’s novels is my favourite. How could you possibly pick? I do have a soft spot for Surfacing because it was the first but then what about Life Before Man or The Blind Assassin. And what about the wonderful dystopian vision of The Handmaid’s Tale or Oryx and Crake. Impossible. I love them all. And if I could only read her books for the rest of my life, I know I would never be disappointed.

Day 18 – A book you wish you could live in – Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

I suppose, as with a lot of people, when I saw today’s subject I first thought of Harry Potter and the magical world where he resides. However, at the end of the day, the main setting in the stories is Hogwarts. I see enough of schools in my day job so I do not particularly want to imagine myself there in my spare time. After all, a magical school is still a school. In fact it would, in some ways, be worse. Think of all the trouble that could be caused by classroom full of fourteen year olds and then add in magic. No thanks!

I am sticking with magic though. What I loved about Suzanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was the way it mixed magic into the real history of the start of 1800s. It reads like a genuine history of the times, complete with footnotes like any academic book and makes reference to other biographies of Strange and Norrell. Imagine if the during the Napoleonic war, the French were really frightened off by ghost ships

IMG_0024sent to scare them. How much more thrilling than any actual history of this war!

For me, one thing in the Potter books that did not sit well was the use of magic in a modern world with cars and buses and so on. In my head, magic belongs in an earlier time with horses and candlelight and no technology to speak of. The nineteenth century seemed to be more likely a setting for magic than the twentieth. And then there is the dashing, handsome figure of Jonathan Strange who is daring – indeed reckless might be nearer the mark – and will see no limits to his power. I felt strangely sad at the end of the book when he and Norrell disappear into the darkness. As if England were really bereft without the only men who could save it.

Day 17 – Author I wish people would read more – A. L. Kennedy and Patrick McGrath

I want to point out again at the beginning of this post that I really do not know what people read and what they don’t. So, I am only going on my own experience when I mention authors among my friends who read and claim not to know who I am talking about. Also, I could have easily spent the post describing how much I love James Kelman but as I have already written about him when I was talking about underrated books, I decided to choose two other authors. Although it goes without saying that you should read him as well.

My first choice is A. L. Kennedy. My favourite novel by her is Looking

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for the Possible Dance which is about being

female and being Scottish. It discusses all the pressures that are on women, marriage, relationships, children. It has its funny moments – like when she discusses the ways in which she does not fit in on her ‘English, English Literature course’ but is most successful, I think in charting Margaret’s psychological state and her difficulties with fitting into society.

This book also contains one of my favourite images from a book “She remembers seeing waxwings searching the grass when she was at university and suddenly feeling homesick because they were not Scottish birds. There was something a little impossible about them. And that was all it took to make you miss things, a mild impossibility, a slight difference of birds.” It seems a perfect description of homesickness which can sneak up on you at the most unlikely times and for reasons as small as this.

Secondly, I have chosen Patrick McGrath. What I like about his narratives is the ambiguity of his narrators who are always in some ways suspect. They are superbly unreliable and even as you know this, you are drawn into their world, only to discover that you have been duped once again.

My favourite McGrath book is Asylum. It seems an obvious set up; a psychiatrist with a beautiful wife takes over the running of a hospital for the criminally insane. When she befriends a patient, it seems we can see the way that things will go. However, McGrath, while leading us in one direction, is actually taking a very different road and the horror and terror do

IMG_0020not come from the direction you would expect.

The narrator of the story is the one of the doctors Peter Cleave. He opens his narration with the line ‘The catastrophic love affair characterised by sexual obsession has been a professional interest of mine for many years.’ This perfectly sets the scene for the story to come and the reader is given just enough information to come to the wrong conclusion. This is a masterful psychological thriller that plays with the readers’ expectations in a cunning and clever way.

Day 15 – A character who you can relate to the most – Little Women and The Robber Bride

This gave me food for thought as a lot of the books I read include narrators / characters that are not the sort of people that you would want to identify yourself with – Patrick Bateman, for example or Vernon God Little, any of McEwan or Amis’ impossibly difficult narrators. Also, I felt that didn’t identify with any narrators who are mentally ill in The Bell Jar, Surfacing, Catcher in the Rye or One Flew Over the Cuckoos nest, for example.

The first character that I can remember really appealing to me was Jo in Little Women. In fact, I went on to read the rest of that series of books many times because I liked her character so much. One of the first things that Jo does in Little Women is cut off her beautiful long hair and she is frequently found to be doing things that were considered slightly unsuitable for her sex. This appealed to me at age 12 when I first read it as I was a tomboy and really didn’t see the point in make-up, dolls, jewellery or any of the other things that nearly teenage girls seem to be obsessed with. It was good to find a kindred spirit.

It is surprising that I have managed to get this far in this challenge without mentioning Margaret Atwood who is one of my favourite authors and one of the few writers where I have enjoyed all that I have read by her. Her female characters often seem to find life difficult in similar ways to me. The character I have chosen is Tony from The Robber Bride. I related to her straight away as she is left handed (as am I) and as a result of this learns how to write backwards. (This is a logical conclusion. If you have ever watched anyone left handed write, you will see how awkward it is. It would make much more sense to write backwards.) Furthermore, she is constantly reversing words in her head and sometimes out loud in conversation. It often feels as if the world is entirely the wrong way round when you are left handed. It seems that this has even effected Tony’s thought patterns and language use. Often the backwards words were exotic looking, forming a new language that only Tony could understand. It made me wish for the ability myself.

DAY 14 – Book that made you cry – Dancer from the Dance and The Book Thief.

I don’t want to sound hard-hearted but I’m not really given to crying when I read. It’s at least partly because I don’t read the right sort of fiction – or what I imagine is the right sort of fiction. Jodi Picoult for example, I imagine from the subject matter of her books would probably move me to tears. As I have already noted, I am not really romantic so those sort of stories pass me by. So it took me a little while to decide what I was going to write about.

Dancer from the Dance by Andrew Holleran is one of those marvellous

photo (2)books that can have you laughing one minute and crying the next. Set in the New York Gay Scene in the 1970s, it is about one man’s search for some sort of meaning and some version of love in amongst the superficiality. Holleran brings the scene to life vividly. All of the characters are memorable, even if they only swim into the limelight briefly. In amongst all the chaos of the scene is Malone, exquisitely beautiful and extremely lonely. He seems untouched by everything while so desperately wanting to feel something. 

His friendship with the superbly catty queen Sutherland is at the centre of the novel and the reader becomes close to the both of them. It is this that renders the ending so very tragic and is so upsetting, Holleran frames the novel with letters from a friend who has left the scene and the details of the lives that have continued contained in these letters save the book from being too tragic and instead leave the reader with a more hopeful feeling.

My second choice is The Book Thief by Markus Zusak which is set in Germany in the second world war and is narrated by Death. I’m not sure what it was that was so devastating about this book. I have read other books

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with similar subject matter (Schindler’s Ark, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, The Pianist, for example) without getting upset.

Perhaps it is the idea of Death watching us and narrating. The tone is strangely distant from the events that it sees. There are tragedies in this book and they are upsetting but the moment in this book that finally made me cry is a happy one. it is a hopeful moment that speaks of true friendship. And it is a relief.

 

Day 13 – A book that disappointed you. Lighthousekeeping and The Sense of an Ending

I try to avoid disappointment when reading. That is probably an obvious thing to say but I am quite a careful reader and I know what I like and what I don’t like. If, for whatever reason, I end up reading something I’m fairly sure I won’t like then I have lower expectations and so no disappointment ensues. I think the only time I am disappointed is when I read a book by a writer I really like and it isn’t as good as I expect. It is probably still a lot better than a lot of other books I read but my expectations lead me to expect too much from it.

I first discovered Jeanette Winterson when I was at University and The Passion is one of my all time favourite books and I’d liked everything that she had written before. I couldn’t wait to read Lighthousekeeping. The excitement behind reading this book was made all the greater by the fact that as part of Off The Shelf, I went to hear her read an extract from the book. I was really expecting to love this book.

And it still contains all those things that Winterson is so good at;

photo (1)the poetic imagery, the love of language and playing with language, the telling of and de-constructing of the stories we tell ourselves. But at the end I felt dissatisfied. It was even difficult to say exactly why or what the problem was. It just felt a little hollow, as if I had expected this book be a three course meal and to fill me up but I was left still feeling peckish.

It was too insubstantial for me. The language didn’t seem to lead anywhere and I was left with a feeling that I had greatly missed the point.

I had a similar feeling when I got to the end of A Sense of an Ending. Again, I love Julian Barnes and have read The History of the World in 10 and a half chapters a number of times, as well as a lot of his other novels. Again the story is well told, the narration is strong and the main character is convincing

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but it didn’t seem to add up to a lot.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to say that I was both glad and not when this book won the Booker. Glad because it surprised me that Barnes had not won before with say Arthur and George, to name but one possibility. Not glad because I do not feel that this is Barnes’ best work by some stretch.

Perhaps my tastes are changing and both these authors are no longer what I really want to read. I hope not. I haven’t really returned to Jeanette Winterson after reading Lighthousekeeping which seems a little churlish considering how many of her books I have enjoyed. As for Barnes, I will have to wait and see what his next novel will be.