End of the Eclectic Reader Challenge

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I wasn’t sure I was going to get this finished in time. I was doing well at first. In fact, I was well ahead of reading one book a month. Then suddenly, I had three to read and not very long to do it in. And for all of them, I had no book in mind. However, thanks to Goodreads recommendations and an Amazon voucher for my birthday, I have managed to read them with a month to spare.

It’s been a mixed bunch this year. Some of the genres were not ones I would normally read. As ever, the challenge forced me to read some books that have been on my shelf for a long time and even though I didn’t enjoy all of them, it was good to have read them.

My favourite books from this year were The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern for the genre paranormal romance. I was definitely not looking forward to this genre but I was hooked by this novel from the very start. Next was Chavs by Owen Jones, an excellently angry analysis of the way our culture has demonised the working classes. Finally, Small Island by Andrea Levy had been sitting on my shelf for a long time. I was really glad to have been made to pick it up as it was a very interesting read.

Disappointments were plenty as well. I decided to read The Power of Beauty by Nancy Friday for the psychology genre, thinking it might be an interesting feminist analysis but I just ended up irritated with it. I was in a mood for the entire time it took me to read it. (About a month, it seemed to go on forever!) For the first time in a long time, I decided to read a Stephen King novel for the serial killer genre and I don’t know if it was just my tastes have changed but it was very disappointing. It must have been 20 years since I last read one so that is definitely a possibility. Perhaps I was a bit hard on it. I used to love Stephen King and so was expecting greatness. Joyland definitely didn’t give me it.

For all that, I’ve enjoyed the challenge and I’ve enjoyed reading things I might not normally read. I’m not sure whether I’m going to sign up again next year. I’m thinking I might not do any reading challenges at all. I quite fancy going back to just choosing any book of my shelves and reading that.

Eclectic Reader Challenge 2016 – Behind Closed Doors – B. A. Paris

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Genre: Thriller, Debut Author 2016

Narrative Style: First person, chapters divided between past and present.

Rating: 2/5

Published: 2016unknown-2

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Grace and Jack Angel seem to have a perfect life. They are newly-weds who can barely stand to be apart from each other. Jack is a renowned lawyer who works with battered women and is chivalrous almost to a fault. However, behind closed doors, the story is completely different. 

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2016 – Debut author in 2016

I don’t tend to read books as soon as they come out unless they are by an author I already like and even then, there are only a few I would dash out and buy straight away (Margaret Atwood and Julian Barnes are two that spring to mind). As a result, I didn’t have much of an idea who to read for this genre. I decided to look at the Goodreads awards for debut authors. Behind Closed Doors looked interesting and it had quite a lot of four and five star reviews so I decided to give it a go.

I have to say I was disappointed. Although if I’d realised that it was published by an offshoot of Harlequin, I’d have known that I wouldn’t like it. I’d also have realised that it wasn’t going to be very challenging. All of the ‘twists’ were signposted so clearly that there was very little suspense and the characters were so flat it was impossible to care whether they lived or not.

What is most troubling about this novel is the archaic sexual politics. It reminded me of an essay Iread when I was at university by Joanna Russ called ‘Someone’s trying to kill me and I think it’s my Husband‘ which is about the modern gothic, books she describes as being in the tradition of Rebecca. There is a heroine in peril with a husband who appears charming but may, in fact, be a killer. This seemed an old-fashioned trope to me and one I could not get to grips with.

Part of the problem is that there is no ambiguity. We know that Jack is evil before we even start to read. It says on the back cover that Grace is a prisoner. There is no ‘is he isn’t he’ about this. The only tension exists in wondering exactly how much of a psycho Jack is. Quite a big one, it turns out.

Still, it was hard to care. Grace has no personality of her own but is merely a foil to Jack’s great evil. I found it difficult to cope with a novel that so squarely placed man as aggressor and woman as victim. There was a little interest in seeing exactly how she would escape – because escape she would, that was equally apparent – and that was the only thing that kept me reading.

 

Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Classes by Owen Jones

2016eclecticreader_bookdout2016 Nonfiction Challenge

Genre: Journalism, politics

Narrative Style: Academic

Rating: 5/5unknown-1

Format:paperback

Published: 2011

Synopsis: Jones investigates where our current image of the working classes as layabout, trouble making chavs has come from. He analyses political decisions made by Thatcher, New Labour and the current Tories as well as analysing newspaper headlines and shows such as Little Britain.

Reading Challenges: Non-Fiction Challenge, Eclectic Reader Challenge – Genre Investigative Journalism

When it comes up in conversation, I tend to say that I come from a working class background rather than I am working class. There are two reasons for this. First of all, I now have a lot of the trappings of a middle class life. I’m a teacher, I live in suburbia, I read the Guardian and have a veg box delivered and people are keen to point that out. I don’t really believe that class is something that you shrug off the minute that you start to earn more money. Just like if you are upper class and you lose all your money, you are still upper class, you just have no money. It makes more sense when you think about it that way round but it is just as true of working class people who have climbed up the ladder a little bit.

The other reason is less pleasant. I want to disassociate myself from the popular image of the working class chav. I want to say I’m working class like it was perceived 30 years ago when I was growing up rather than working class as it is perceived now. Having read Owen Jones’ book, I feel more than a little ashamed of myself.

It’s not that the things that Jones discusses were news  to me and it’s not like I’m supportive of measures to cut benefits but it is easy to forget that there are genuine reasons and real people behind the stereotypes.

Jones outlines the systematic destruction of working class culture by first, Thatcherism, then New Labour and finally, the Tories again. It is easy to see how this program of cultural demolition has pushed many of the working classes into the open arms of the far right. The role that Labour used to play in many working class communities has left the ideal space for the BNP and UKIP. Cleverly, the BNP have started to play a community role in some of these areas, organising events and dealing with problems.

As Jones points out, the demonisation of the working classes has allowed this Government the most almighty get out clause. It has allowed them to avoid dealing with tax evasion, instead focusing the public’s eye on the much smaller problem of benefit fraud. It paints working class people as lazy and shiftless rather than deal with the fact that there aren’t enough jobs and a lot of the jobs there are are insecure. Focusing working class minds on the problem of immigration has allowed them to avoid putting in place legislation which would stop businesses being able to pay lower wages to immigrants. The list goes on, each item more deplorable than the last.

It is very easy to see why immigration is seen as such a big problem in working class communities. Of course, it would be easy to dismiss this as racism but as Jones points out, this is a far more complex problem than that. Immigrants who are willing to work for a low wage – but probably higher than they were earning at home – drag the entire job market down. Similarly, immigrants are less concerned about having permanent contracts so jobs become more insecure. It is in this atmosphere that parties such as the BNP and UKIP thrive, playing ruthlessly as they do on these insecurities.

Jones describes an experience he had while knocking on doors during the run up to the 2010 election. He describes what seems like a normal working class conversation about immigration except that the woman was Asian. I had a similar experience more recently in the run up to the Brexit referendum. Pupils were very keen to share their opinions (or their parents’ opinions, I suppose.) One Asian pupil was particularly vocal about how we should leave so we could get rid of all the immigrants. There was no point in saying that at some point, somewhere in his family history, they must have emigrated to this country. At the time, I was annoyed with him, I must admit. It seemed unfair that he should wish to stop the very process that had at some stage brought his family to this country. Having read, Jones’ book, I feel like I understand a little more. It is to do with feeling threatened and insecure and that is the motivating factor for the working classes and the issue of immigration, not racism.

After reading this, it is easy to see why so many working class people voted for Brexit. At the mercy of right wing politicians who made promises they could not keep and abandoned by mainstream politics, it is little wonder so many voted to leave. It is the logical result of the systematic ruin of working class communities.

Jones is rightly angry and after reading this book, you will be too. It is frustrating to think that things are only going to get worse when we eventually leave Europe. Brexit will compound problems in working class communities without actually doing any of the things that it promised to do about immigration.

One thing is for sure, this idea that we are all middle class now or that class no longer exists is a big lie. It is unlikely to be challenged any time soon, as it is so helpful to the Government. I’m not sure what the answer to all this is. A stronger Labour party who were genuinely concerned about working class issues would be a start but until they can stop all the in-fighting, that doesn’t seem all that likely.

Eclectic Reader Challenge 2016: Queenbreaker: Perseverance – Catherine McCarran

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Genre: Young Adult, Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: First person, chronological29117059

Published: 2016

Format: Kindle

Rating: 3/5

Synopsis: At the beginning of Anne Boleyn’s reign as queen, Mary Shelton is sent to court. She must learn to survive in a world of secrets, lies, and ambition. Will she get what she most desires – a good marriage – or will she fall victim to those around her who are fighting only for their own interests.

Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge – YA Historical Fiction

I have always had a bit of an interest in the Tudors since doing it for my A-Levels so a book about life at court under Anne Boleyn seemed like a good choice for this genre.

The novel is written from the point of view of Mary Shelton as she learns to navigate  her way through life at court. She is a country girl and is treated as such. She is unable to see through the lies of others and as such finds herself – more than once – in a situation that will bring shame on her family. This element of the novel is convincing as it captures what I imagine the intrigue at court would be like.

Mary herself was difficult to like and I found I watched dispassionately when she found herself on the wrong end of John De Vere’s lies. It was hard to feel sympathy for any of the characters or to care about their reasons for revenge. Maybe reading this as a younger person, I would have had more sympathy for Mary who was trying so hard to be one of the grown-ups. At least she had the excuse of actually being a teenager. The rest of them just behaved like spoiled children.

It was a little hard to keep on top of exactly who was double crossing who. A lot of the women had two names and I found it difficult to remember who was who and who was one whose side. Mary ends up with a finger in every major intrigue which seemed unlikely. Would a teenage girl, not aristocratic or from London really have become such a lynchpin?

Towards the end, it becomes clear that someone must rescue Mary from her plight (as there are two more books in the series) and I felt that removed some of the tension that there might have been. By that point, I just wanted the story to be over as it had become a little repetitive. I can’t imagine that I will read the next one.

 

 

Eclectic Reader Challenge 2016 – Small Island – Andrea Levy

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Genre: Historical Fiction

Narrative Style: A variety of first person voices

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2004unknown

Format: paperback

Synopsis: Gilbert Joseph is finding England after the war is a difficult place to be. No one cares that he too fought for his country. All they see is the colour of his skin. His wife, Hortense arrives in England expecting to find a golden future. She too is disappointed. Their landlady Queenie is kind enough but is at the mercy of her neighbours who don’t approve of her renting her rooms to ‘coloureds’. When Queenie’s long lost husband returns from the war, tensions reach boiling point. 

Reading challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge – Genre Immigrant Experience.

I’ve been meaning to read this for a while. I have read another of Levy’s books (Every Light in the House Burnin’) which I really enjoyed so when this genre appeared on the Eclectic Reader Challenge, it seemed a good choice.

Levy uses four different narrative voices – Gilbert, Hortense, Queenie and her husband, Bernard – to tell her story. All get a section to explain their past – before 1948 – and also explain current events. The voices are all distinctive and all allow the reader to feel if not empathy, then that they at least understand.

The racism faced by Gilbert and Hortense is dealt with unflinchingly. Immediately post-war is not an era I know much about but Levy appears to portray the hardships that people faced successfully. She draws distinctions between American segregation – which the British thought was terrible – and our own particular brand of racism which was in some ways more subtle but just as horrible.

I worked out some of the twists in this novel but not the final one. I won’t spoil it for those who haven’t read this book but it was heartbreaking. I would recommend this book wholeheartedly.

 

Eclectic Reader Challenge: Treasure Island – Robert Louis Stevenson

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Genre: Adventure, Classics

Narrative Style: First person

Rating: 4/5

Published: 1883Treasure-Island

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: Jim Hawkins is tasked with telling the story of how he came into possession of a treasure map and then how he took to sea to get the treasure. He comes into contact with a host of exciting characters along the way – Long John Silver, Ben Gunn and Captain Flint to name but a few.

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge – Set on an Island. (I know that it isn’t entirely island set but the island is such a crucial part of the story, I decided to stick with it.)

When I mentioned that I was going to read this book, my husband was astonished that I hadn’t read it, as he had, as a child. I pointed out that Treasure Island wasn’t the sort of book that was bought for female children. I got Little Women, Anne of Green Gables and Black Beauty (a list confirmed when speaking to female friends who are my age). And then once I was buying books for myself, it retained some of its boyishness and I assumed for a long time that I wouldn’t like it.

This was not the case. This is a very enjoyable adventure story. I’m not sure, however, that I would have liked it aged 12 when I was reading Little Women. The single female character is Jim’s mother and she is barely in it. I’m not so in need of female companionship in a book now though.

The story itself is straightforward. Jim comes into possession of a treasure map and with the aid of Doctor Livesey, Squire Trelawney and Captain Smollet sets out to find the island and then the treasure. There are many bumps along the way but as this story is being told in hindsight, it is apparent Jim will survive. Not that this means there is no tension, there are plenty of moments when you wonder how Jim will escape but escape he does.

The best – and probably most famous – character is Long John Silver. He is superbly amoral, shifting allegiance so frequently, it is impossible to get a handle on him. He seems genuinely affectionate towards Jim but this may just be part of his ploy to avoid the rope. I like the fact that this is read by children and it isn’t just a straightforward morality tale.

I did find the ending a little bit disappointing but possibly only because I didn’t want it to be over. This is really good fun with an exciting plot and larger than life characters. Well worth anybody’s time.

Eclectic Reader Challenge 2016: The Night Circus – Erin Morgenstern

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Genre: Paranormal Romance, Magic Realism

Narrative Style: Third person from a variety of view points. Non-chronological

Rating: 5/5

Published: 2011Unknown-1

Format: Kindle

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2016 – Genre paranormal romance

Synopsis: Celia is trained by her father to take part in a mysterious magical competition. She is bound by the scar on her finger. She has no idea what the rules are or who her opponent will be. Marco is rescued from an orphanage by a strange man who trains him in the art of magic. He too has a scar. 

The Cirque de Reves appears in towns with no warning. It is the most amazing thing that people have ever seen. They go back night after night as there is always more to explore. Then the circus disappears just as suddenly. Could this be the playing field for two extraordinary young illusionists?

I was dreading this genre, conjuring up as it did images of vampires and ridiculously twee films. I’m not really a romance fan and the addition of some supernatural creature didn’t make it any more appealing. When I started to read The Night Circus, I didn’t realise that it would fit but it soon became apparent that this was a romance.

From the start, there is a magical atmosphere. Celia’s father is an entertainer, a magician who has to make his illusions less good so that the public think it is not real. His training of Celia is ruthless. He is determined to win the game and Celia is his pawn. Marco is trained in a different way but his trainer – the mysterious man in grey – is equally determined. The stage is set straightaway for a magical battle.

Admittedly, the pace is slow but I liked that. There was so much illusion, so much beautiful description that it would have been a shame to miss out on it. The circus is almost like another character in the book as it quickly takes on a life of its own. We learn of the different personalities and are given hints of future events. The act of reading this book was not unlike a visit to the circus. You want to take it slow so you can take in every detail.

The romance is equally slow burning. It takes a while for Marco and Celia to realise they are adversaries and then when they do, they are frightened by the intensity of feeling when they are together. Finally, they discover that the only way to end the game is for one of them to die. They realise they have to find a way to escape.

I did find the changing chronological sections a little confusing. I spent a lot of time looking back at chapters to see when they were set. However, I think that it worked. The importance of the character of Bailey becomes apparent and I realised why Morgenstern had structured it the way she had.

This was one of those books that I didn’t want to finish. It was so beautiful, I felt really sad leaving it behind. Still, it is good to think of the circus carrying on, appearing suddenly to charm people before disappearing into mystery again.

Eclectic Reader Challenge 2016 – The Kraken Wakes – John Wyndham

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Genre: Dystopia, Disaster

Narrative Style: First person

Rating: 4/5Unknown

Published: 1953

Format: Paperback

Synopsis: The first sign that anything is amiss is when strange globes start to appear over the sea and then sink under the waves. Nobody thinks anything of it at first but then ships start to disappear and worse, islands start to be attacked. Mike Watson and his wife, Phyllis are caught in the reporting of the events as they quickly escalate. 

Unlike a lot of disaster style fiction, this novel takes you through events as they happen rather than what happens afterwards. At the beginning, Mike and Phyllis Watson are watching icebergs flow past them. Clearly something has gone very wrong. They decide that an account needs to be written of what has brought the world to this sorry state.

There are three separate stages to events. The first is the seemingly harmless phenomenon of strange red balls in the sky that seem to disappear under the waves. Next ships start to disappear and attempts at discovering what may be beneath the waves end with ships being destroyed along with strange creatures starting to invade islands and coasts. When people start to fight back and the creatures are curtailed then the icebergs start to mysteriously melt and the flood waters start to rise.

Mike and Phyllis are journalists and this is apparent in the report that Mike writes. There is a distance between them and events – with them often reporting back about events that they have not actually seen. Consequently the reader is a little distanced from it as well. There was little in the way of emotional response from Mike even when he describes having to get away from it all because he is stressed by events.

Wyndham allows Mike to comment on world affairs and reactions and this is much more successful. The comments about Russian and American reactions and about Government propaganda were apt and clever. The character of Bocker, who in the beginning prophesies doom, goes through many stages in the book – starting off being ostracised until finally he is the only one who has actually got anything right. This shows how the media works to create heroes and villains when it suits them.

I found the ending a bit disappointing. Perhaps because it seemed a bit too neat. It reminded me a little of my disappointment at the end of H G Wells The War of the Worlds. It was almost like a cheat. Or like Wyndham had got fed up with telling the story. Apart from that, this was a very enjoyable and very clever tale of disaster and the way that Governments respond to them.

Eclectic Reader Challenge 2016 – Joyland – Stephen King

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Genre: Crime, Supernatural

Narrative Style: First person recount

Published: 2013 – part of the Hard Case Crime series9781781162644

Rating: 3/5

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Devin Jones takes a summer job at Joyland funfair and discovers the ghost of a girl murdered on the ghost train. After he and his friend Erin investigate, they discover other girls killed while the carnival was in town. Was there a serial killer on the loose?

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2016 – genre Serial Killers

That synopsis makes this story sound a whole lot more exciting than it really is. I was hoping for a hard boiled crime story with some blood and gore on the side. I haven’t read any Stephen King for a while (in fact that last one I read was probably Needful Things when that came out in 1991) but I was hoping for good things.

To be fair, a lot of the things that King is really good at are present here. The sense of Devin looking back on his life with a sense of nostalgia and pain was very well written. Devin himself was believable and likeable. The ghostly elements were quite well handled and I was willing to suspend my disbelief.

The problem was there was just too much other plot going on. The ghost is introduced quite early on and then there is a lot of setting the scene with Devin explaining about his soon to be ex-girlfriend. I kept thinking, when are we going to get on with the action. In the middle, there is a flurry of activity and we learn that there is indeed a serial killer but this is quickly put on the back burner again.

This is supposed to be a crime novel but it really wanted to be a romance. The story of Devin and Annie and her disabled son Mike was necessary to the plot but I felt it took up too much time. It really slowed the pace. As a consequence, when the killer is revealed at the end, it seemed rushed and unbelievable. I didn’t spot who the killer was although the clues were all there. That wasn’t the problem. I don’t want to give any spoilers but I found it unsatisfactory.

I haven’t read any of the other books in this series but in this case Hard Crime is a misnomer. There is nothing hard about this book. It is completely soft and the ending was overly sentimental and corny. I couldn’t help feeling that King could have done better.

Finally, I feel the carnival setting was ultimately wasted. Carnivals are a little strange and sinister at the best of times. This could have been exceptionally creepy. Instead, it is all giant dogs dancing the hokey cokey and disabled kids getting the ride of their lives. Too sweet for my tastes, I’m afraid.

Eclectic Reader Challenge – Half Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan

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Genre: Historical Fiction, War

Narrative Style: First person moving between present and 2nd world war11076123

Rating: 4/5

Published: 2011

Format: Paperback

Reading Challenges: Eclectic Reader Challenge 2016 – genre – nominated for the Booker Prize (2011)

Synopsis: In 1940, rising jazz star Hiero Falk is picked up by nazi soldiers in Paris. No one is sure what happened to him after that but he is presumed dead. In 1992, a documentary is made about him that brings Hiero’s friends and bandmates Chip and Sid back to Berlin. Sid was the only witness on the day Hiero disappeared and he finds memories coming back to him that he had thought long buried. 

Edugyan’s novel is written from Sid’s point of view and in his voice which gives the prose an almost jazz like rhythm. It was very easy to read and also gave a clear picture of what Sid was like.

At the beginning of the novel, he and Chip are preparing for a trip to Berlin for an airing of a documentary about Falk and the record they made called Half Blood Blues. Sid is clearly reluctant. Even more so when Chip announces that he has been contacted by Falk who is not dead but living in Poland and he intends to go to see him. It is clear what Sid has secrets and memories that he does not want to face. Nevertheless, he goes with Chip to Berlin.

The story shifts easily between the present day (1992) and 1939-40 in first Berlin and then Paris. Sid is a bit of a nervous character and his fear and worries give the reader a good impression of what it must have been like to be black at that point in history. It was an angle I hadn’t really considered and it certainly made me want to find out more it.

Sid and Chip are both scarred by their experiences, as is Hiero when they finally meet up with him. The revelation of what Sid has done is shocking and his final confession to Hiero is touching. I felt that the novel ended a little awkwardly and it could have been taken a little further. As it was, it just stopped suddenly, leaving a lot of questions unanswered.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable story which gave an unusual (to me anyway) perspective on the second world war.