Review: ‘Prophecy’ by S.J.Parris

(This was a preview copy sent by Waterstones for reviewing, and is available for further reviews and purchasing here: http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/products/s-+j-+parris/prophecy/8009847/).

 

Despite the Elizabethan era being a time of rapid change and religious upheaval, Parris subjugates all of this to find a hero, and fails to live up to the excitement of the age.
The plotline is compelling enough, and provides a satisfying current to the novel, although by following Bruno, we follow one too many red herrings, and are only aware of the full truth within a matter of pages, leaving to a hurried resolution. However, the secrecy and duplicity is fascinating at points, as living a lie forces desperate and ingenious decisions to be made, albeit ones that lead to false conclusions up until the big reveal. It’s bothersome having to just assume people are right, with Bruno jumping to conclusions that are not proven constantly, instead of teasing us before revealing all.
Stylistically, I really didn’t enjoy the novel’s attempt to merge the contemporary with the past: the language seems more fitting to a Dan Brown novel than one supposedly set in the 16th century. The language was a bit too clunky: one moment, the intricacies of the Protestant-Catholic divide are being divulged, and the next readers are being directly addressed as if to solicit an opinion, when actually what is needed is guidance down the author’s intended path.
However, I did read through to the end, and wasn’t displeased that I did so, but this is mainly because I forgot I was reading an historical novel quite early on, instead reading it to see the plot through to the end. The biggest disappointment was the evident lack of thought towards the magic plot, which was explored in detail in the Earl of Arundel’s home and then left when it was of no more use, without a fitting conclusion asides from Fowler’s confession, where magic was seen as a ruse, a theme which could have been put to better use.
I see this novel as full of half-starts: we could see Bruno as human, but his fallibility is prevented when he resists all human desires and acts only on behalf of others; magic could be seen as psychologically real, but it is just a means to sorting out Henry Howard’s involvement; the invasion plot could be justifiable, but is left with an inadequate excuse…and so on.
I think as someone who enjoys intricacies and being caught off-guard by a storyline, this book was not for me.

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Review: ‘Last Dance With Valentino’ by Daisy Waugh

At first, I’ll admit, it was difficult to get to grips with ‘Last Dance With Valentino’: it seemed a bit clunky, moving between time frames quite obscurely. However, this all changed after the first three chapters, when the novel gathered its pace, and I’m so very glad I stuck with it, because Daisy Waugh has written a truly enchanting book.
The fictitious account of Jenny Doyle, a.k.a. Lola Nightingale, is sprinkled with factual accounts to substantiate the plot, as well as allowing readers to gain a real insight into both Valentino’s rollercoaster life and the gloss-filled world of Hollywood. The tone never slips, as I don’t think there was a moment I didn’t believe this was a novel set in the early twentieth century: Waugh certainly has done her homework! This is put to particularly good effect with the inclusion of the de Saulles incident, which seamlessly links the novel together and allows the tone to be set for the rest of the book. In fact, I found Waugh’s use of history so fascinating that I ended up poking around the internet to find out more about the characters!
The only (very small!) thing that bothered me was the three uses of slightly colourful language, and this isn’t on principle, but just because it added nothing to the situation, and detracted from what was otherwise an artistically built up scenario.
The title says all you need to know about the ending, and the denial of the happily ever after for most of the novel is a poignant touch: the ability to maintain their love despite the prolonged absence always feels real, it never grates or grows tiresome, and this is in part due to the superb construction of the surrounding characters, particularly Perry. As the nearest to a villain in the piece, he builds tension and causes frustration, allowing the reader to feel almost exactly as Jenny/Lola does, allowing us to share her traumatic and wonderful journey through life.
A definite must-read for anyone who loves Titanic-esque love stories: it’s a simply stunning read, and one that I struggled to put down.

 

 

(This was a preview copy of ‘Last Dance With Valentino’ sent to me to review for Waterstones, the review can also be found at http://www.waterstones.com/waterstonesweb/products/daisy+waugh/the+last+dance+with+valentino/7955227/)

Review: ‘About a Boy’ by Nick Hornby

Nicolas Hoult and Hugh Grant in the film adaptation.

Having finally read the book, I can safely say that the film version of ‘About a Boy’ got it spot on: it relates Nick Hornby’s tale of growing up perfectly.

The story is simple enough: Will is thirty-six, Marcus is twelve, and yet the latter is infinitely more adult than the former. Whilst simultaneously learning to grow-up and act their age, Will and Marcus explore issues that monopolise everyone’s lives: from learning that your parents are fallible to finding the special someone who likes you for you.

Hornby’s success comes in his language: he doesn’t try to explain everything – Fiona is depressed, we don’t know why; Will is aimless, yet there’s no reason for his lack of orientation. In fact, the only thing that truly makes sense, ironically, is Marcus: he is defined by the his surroundings – his mother and her eccentricities, his father walking away too quickly, his friends abandoning him to enjoy a bully-free existence…Despite how odd he appears, Marcus is the only character who can be fully explained. This lends legitimacy to Will and Fiona’s stories. They are able to come to their own realisations because Marcus needs them to react to him without him explicitly saying so. The shoes incident is a major example of this – Will can only realise that life isn’t as simple as wearing the right outfits by Marcus being vulnerable, and likewise Fiona can only realise Marcus’ needs when she feels like she’s losing him. It’s more what Marcus leaves unsaid than what he verbalises that enables the characters around him to finally step out of their own bubbles.

The sidestepping of the over-psychological analysis of everything feels like Hornby is stating that life isn’t always definable. By treating Fiona’s suicide as an unspoken threat, and Will’s relationship with Rachel as something that happened as opposed to over-analysing why it happened, Hornby is able to show his readers that life happens whether we like it or not, and that it is up to us to mould ourselves around these events. Telling the story from Will and Marcus’ viewpoints helps to achieve this – the two people who think least are forced to think, which creates intensity within the sometimes minimalistic information we are provided with. For instance, Fiona’s suicide is seen by Marcus as the culmination of Dead Duck Day, and by Will as an oddity occurring outside of his sphere of interest, therefore when it comes to it, both have to extend themselves to understand and cope with such events. Will’s later relationship also shows his inability to verbalise his comprehension of an alien subject – Hornby could undoubtedly talk too much about this, and fully explore the feelings and emotion of each character, but the reader is left with just enough information to think for themselves – after all, isn’t self-expansion the point of the story?

‘About a Boy’ started off, to me, as a simplistic read, but ended up being more intense than I imagined it could be: by using the two central characters with a limited view of life, Nick Hornby is able to expand both their and our horizons. One of the most poignant moments that spelled this out to me was when Rachel told us why she could never just give up on life: it would be awful to miss out.

Review: “Slave Girl” by Sarah Forsyth

I don’t really feel like this can be a proper review: ‘Slave Girl’ is an autobiography of sorts, chronicling Sarah Forsyth’s tragic life, in which she is abused by her father and carers, and ultimately ends up being sold into sex slavery in Amsterdam.

It’s one of those books where the mind boggles at this girls life – it starts with continual sexual abuse from her father, and both social service and the judicial system continue to fail her throughout her young life, the ultimate example of this failure being when the ‘carers’ send her to live with her disgusting father when her behaviour means her mother can’t house her any more. Nothing seems to go right: Sarah’s plan to start afresh as a nursery nurse in Amsterdam becomes the worst decision of her life, when a pimp forces her to become one of the many girls in Amsterdam’s infamous Red Light District. She ends up on a £500-a-day habit towards the end, with even the authorities being under the control of the pimps.

Throughout the book, Sarah questions herself in order to answer what the reader might be asking. Why didn’t she run away? Why get addicted to crack? How did no one notice she was missing? Sarah’s early life partly explains this – for as long as she can remember, Sarah has been trapped in the prison of her own mind by those seeking to hurt her, which causes her to see no way out, as everything seems suspicious. Even the genuine attempts to help her are seen as the pimps testing her loyalty.

This was one of the strongest emotions I picked up on – the frustration at being unable to turn without a barrier being in the way. If it wasn’t social services inability to help her, it was the carers abusing her and her peers, and even her success as a nursery nurse led to her downfall in Amsterdam. I even thought her relationship with Tracy would end up causing another battle with drugs when it sounded like they would end their marriage, but seeing her pull through her horrific ordeal was testament to the hope she was trying to spread.

The idea of Stockholm Syndrome leading to Sarah’s relationship with Sally was one of the most tragic elements of the novel. It was the ultimate outer sign of her inner conflict: what does survival matter once everyone has left you to continue with a ‘normal’ life? Even though Sarah had her mother and Eddie, it was easy to see that no one could possibly understand her trials. This is the same dependancy we see displayed by Sally and Reece, which shows the deep psychological ramifications of her time in the Red Light District.

The trivial nature of the pimps and their lack of respect for the person behind the girls they prostituted is shown in Par’s murder: her worth was summed up by her entertainment value, which was a sickening price to put on a human life. After having recently been to Amsterdam, it’s something a tourist wouldn’t imagine: it’s a case of ‘Surely if it’s so public, it can’t be like that?’. It demonstrates why people struggled to understand or even believe some of Sarah’s stories, as she aptly points out that people don’t like to confront the monsters beneath the bed. And after reading ‘Slave Girl’, monster seems like too light a term. While the physical nightmare may have ended, it’s easy to see that the psychological impact will never fade with Sarah, and anyone who reads this will definitely find a shadow cast on their tourists view of the Red Light District.

Review: ‘A Room with a View’, E.M.Forster

With E.M.Forster’s novella on my reading list for my Victorian module for next year, I admittedly started out with the smallest of the novels I had been set. However, I am incredibly glad that my laziness forced my hand this time, as this is one of the best Victorian novels I have ever had the pleasure of reading.

The notion of life being nothing without the perfect view is an essential yet often unnoticed principle many of us live by: those who seek travel, entertainment, wild nights out or cosy nights in – we all crave comfort and the view that will create this sense of serenity. Lucy Honeychurch is an entirely relatable character in this sense. Prior to finding her view, she is young and naive, leaving her life to be dictated by those who have experienced a view for themselves, as seen in Miss Bartlett, her mother, Cecil Vyse… Mr Emerson and George provide a divide within the story very early on. Lucy moves from naivety to confusion to understanding, and it is in the purgatory of confusion that the majority of the novel lies in order to develop and detail this journey into adulthood. Cecil and George provide alternative views for Lucy: the straightforward albeit limited view of sense, and the romantically passionate view formed by sensibility. Both men have virtues, yet only one fits Lucy’s world view. Miss Bartlett shows how Cecil can be an appealing view, as her desire to constantly and interferingly gain approval for her actions indicate how she needed a strong guide in her life, as Lucy originally has with Cecil, in order to justify herself. Charlotte’s limitations show just how far Lucy’s horizons expand, and her final interference with Mr Emerson which leads to Lucy’s second engagement shows how critical a thin piece of history can be in deciding the rest of your fate.

As a novella, we can only connect with a limited number of characters, and as such I feel George is under-represented as a character, as he seems to signify a life choice instead of a person, which is why his speech in the final chapter seemed a surprise to me. It almost felt like it didn’t fit: he was supposed to be strong and silent, and I suppose I expected him to be like this because he was always a view; an inanimate object as opposed to a human being. However, where Forster leaves George as unknown, his father shows his origins, particularly his passion. The tale of his wife and George not being baptised shows how far life can survive with true love, and that formality cannot outlive this passion, just as Mrs Emerson’s faithlessness in this belief cost her her life. Mr Emerson, therefore, is pivotal in the novella: he represents a life lived on personal instead of public beliefs, and as such is almost the anti-Cecil in his recognition of Lucy’s own flares and blossoming character. Mr Beebe is the stage before Mr Emerson’s own beliefs: he sees Lucy and George as interesting whilst their personalities are in flux, but as soon as they choose their paths they become uninteresting to his observations. Mr Beebe is on the edge of passion: his position means he cannot live it, but he can recognise and analyse it in others.

Everyone is seeking a room with a view according to Forster, the only question that remains is whether we are brave enough to persist in finding it.

Review: ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ by Audrey Niffenegger

The Time Traveller's Wife

I must admit, I did this the wrong way around: I watched, and was thoroughly enchanted by, the film of ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ before reading the novel. I’ve been told what a wonderful novel it is, even by the woman who sold me the book, and so I was quite happy to pack it as a holiday read, and it certainly wasn’t a waste of packing space.

The biggest flaw in the film, I found, was Gomez: gone was the cheeky blonde harbouring an unrequited love, and in was someone who frankly hadn’t left my mind as the guy who played Burger in ‘Sex and the City’. I much preferred the former, as it added depth to both Clare’s determination to weather any storms that may have hit her life with Henry, as well as showing the intensity of her grief by highlighting her desperation to recapture anything that could be likened to the intimacy she had shared with Henry.

Clare has to be one of my favourite female characters from a novel, and there aren’t many of those, as normally I find females have to be strong and independent, or submit to a turmoil of emotions. Clare managed to be emotional and strong; independent yet craving the uncontrollable love in her life: in short, she wasn’t perfect, but her flaws were legitimate and forgivable. The betrayal of Charisse seemed unimportant compared to the revelation that Gomez had been, and would later reprise the role of, Henry’s standby: Clare needed a physical form to embody everything she felt emotionally, illustrating her desire alongside her fallibility.

Henry is a character I have less to say about, mainly because I feel he was what he was: someone grasping onto his life with both hands once he found a point for it to centre around. His characters is innately wound up in Clare’s, which Niffenegger makes inherently clear in the title of her novel, which both solidifies and legitimises the hold the pair have upon one another: cause and effect cannot be revealed, because the one cannot be without the other.

The only character I really feel was let down within the novel was Benny: he seemed to start out as one of many pathways Henry felt compelled to take to control his future (or past, as it were), and yet while we’re told enough about him to feel a certain connection (his anger as his ex, Allan, for infecting him with AIDS strikes a chord with the cause and effect side of the novel, for instance), after the wedding and until the New Year party he doesn’t exist. Essentially, he is replaced by the more sage and infinitely more legal Kendrick, even down to his son’s suffering from Down’s Sydrome replacing Benny’s fight for his life. Apart from this, the major characters felt fully rounded and able to add to the three-dimensional view of the main storyline whilst also adding their own history to ensure nothing fell flat in terms of vulnerability, the interlinks between Henry’s life and the lives of those around him, and in substantiating how the individual contributed to the whole picture.

The couple of references to Henry playing Humbert Humbert to Clare’s Lolita is perhaps one of the things that caught my attention more than the other literary references: is it wrong that Henry loves Clare both at thirteen and thirty? In my view, I don’t see it as the same relationship as Lolita had with her guardian – I see Henry as more of a guardian angel, knowing he is acting on behalf of the woman he will love entirely by issuing a protective love to her younger self. The gun incident shows this perfectly, as while Henry knows there are limits to his aiding Clare, he cannot let her go undefended, and his return to the present-day Clare shows the difference between him loving the young Clare by his image, and him loving the older Clare emotionally when he kisses the cigarette burn scar. What I mean to say is, that the love for the younger Clare is based around Henry fulfilling a knight-in-shining-armour role, whereas in his present, Henry has to substantiate this image. The borderline of this is seen when he kisses a sixteen-year-old Clare in anger and she proclaims that it ‘wasn’t very nice’, showing that the physical cannot exist happily without the emotional side.

Audrey Niffenegger has achieved a rare thing, in creating a premier novel that can capture both hearts and minds without being overbearing or underwhelming. Whilst ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ is tragic, it is also softly beautiful, and this combination enables it to show both the whole image, as well as highlighting realistically the many compartments that create this whole, in turn causing the novel to be a timeless classic.

Review: ‘Wicked’ by Gregory Macguire

After seeing the musical ‘Wicked’, I felt I owed it to Gregory Macguire to read his prequel to ‘The Wizard Of Oz’, and asked my friend to lend me his copy. He seemed reluctant to give me it, and now I know why: ‘Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West’ is one of the hardest things I’ve ever slogged through.

Credit where credit is due, I kept with it in a desperate attempt to see where Macguire’s story would take flight. Unfortunately this was never to be, and his version of Oz’ remained as unsteady as Elphaba’s own escapades on her broom. Gone were the powerful women who showed that good and evil were choices encountered by all. These strong characters were replaced with an absolute characature of good, doing so only for her own public benefits, and an awkward girls whose animal (sorry, Animal) activism led to the apparent demise of an empire. While the musical ties everything up in a neat bow, the randomness of the story is too much to bear when considering it’s origins: where was the threatening wicked witch when Dorothy’s gale blew her into Kansas? And just how did the wizard bring the Grimmerie to Oz’ when he wasn’t magical, but just mortal? The only promising section was Madam Morrible’s declaration that the young Glinda, Nessarose and Elphaba’s could be assigned geographically opposing posts, but even the promising beginnings at Shiz failed to grow into a fully developed storyline. The lack of depth left the tale two dimensional, and thus unable to resonate with readers.

Even a character like Elphaba, who could have been a major connection to readers, fell short of expectations. She never gained any power, she killed a near-dead woman maliciously yet without actually adding to the ‘wicked’ premise or serving the greater cause we’re vaguely aware of, and essentially became a weak woman in the face of male characters. With the haunting presence of a lacklustre Fiyero and essentially driven by a lack of paternal affection, Elphaba failed to be radical enough to capture our hearts as part of her cause, instead thinking but never doing, making the supposed death of her an absolute joke. Similarly, using Dorothy as a pawn instead of a saviour reduced her from an unaware yet dominating individual to an unknown entity incapable of resisting a lovely tea with an apparently murderous witch. None of it adds up, and subsequently our image feels tainted.

The biggest irritant, though, was the absolutely unneccessary and utterly disgusting sexualised imagery used throughout. Associating Dorothy, who is only supposed to be a young teen, with the notion of being kidnapped by the Gale Force for ‘sport’ was revolting, and while I see that this was hoped to provide the darker and more grown up imagery, all it really left was a vile taste in the mouth. It wasn’t needed to enhance the story or move the plot, it was just a shock factor ploy, with no meaning beyond brutality, and while the politics of the novel may demand darker tones, it could have been subtle nuances instead of in-your-face brashness.

You know what? In short, go and see the musical. It provides the undertones of a disparate political climate without compromising Baum’s original and wonderful world of Oz’.