Blog Entries: reading
Since it's International Women's Day I want to celebrate a few of the great female characters in fiction by exploring why I love them and why they're so memorable. Their authors too, many of whom are men.
Let's start with Chaucer's Wife of Bath. What a loud, loquacious lady she is, vividly described as "gat-toothed" (in medieval symbolism - a bit of a man-eater). With her red stockings and massive hat in the shape of a shield, she's a woman ready to take on the men. A survivor of domestic violence, she turns Janckyn's (husand number five) rhetoric back on him, ripping up his "Book of Wicked Wives" in the process and tells a fabulous story. Pretty radical, I think, even if she did fall for the wrong chap.
Moving on to Shakespeare, I can't help but admire the wickedness of Goneril and Regan. With a father like Lear, domineering, childish, petulant and narcissistic, is it any wonder they reduce his retinue from 100 to 50 to 25 and then to...1. Mind you, eye-gouging is a little too extreme even for my tastes and their evil is indisputable by the end of the play. So how about, if we're looking for a Shakespearean feminist hero, Beatrice from Much Ado. Witty, feisty, hugely loyal to her wronged cousin Hero, she won't love or marry just to fit in with society's expectations and only takes on Benedict on her own terms. Great character.
Then you've got to have a bit of Jane Austen. Fanny Price is a bit too pious for my liking, Emma Woodhouse a bit too spoilt. But Lizzy Bennet - can we fault her? She won't let anyone put her down, she sees through (eventually) vice and folly and is a loyal daughter and sister.
“There is a stubbornness about me that never can bear to be frightened at the will of others. My courage always rises at every attempt to intimidate me.”
Then there's Hardy's Tess. Oh, I love Tess. Her struggle to deal with Victorian hypocrisy, her incredible sensitivity, curious mixture of both humility and her pride and the cruelty meted out to her never fail to wring my heart. One of my favourite characters and novels ever.
“Because what's the use of learning that I am one of a long row only - finding out that there is set down in some old book somebody just like me, and to know that I shall only act her part; making me sad, that's all. The best is not to remember your nature and your past doings have been just like thousands' and thousands', and that your coming life and doings'll be like thousands' and thousands'.”
Another great female is Prue Sarn of Mary Webb's novel "Precious Bane". Like Rebecca in Black Heart Blue, Prue is marked out by her disfigurement - a harelip, the "bane" of the title. She is a character who battles against her brother, her circumstances and society and who ultimately triumphs. A wonderful, wonderful book and character.
Stand-out characters, noteworthy for their courage and indomitable spirit in more modern fiction include Katniss of The Hunger Games and then there's Harper Lee's Scout, L.M. Montgomery's Anne Shirley, and Dahl's Matilda. As a young reader I adored Tamora Pierce's Alanna series and the eponymous lead character. She dresses as a boy in order to achieve her dream of becoming a knight and goes through all kinds of adventures that test both her physical and emotional strength. But I suppose the character who stands out most to me is Celie of Alice Walker's The Colour Purple. The book is a fascinating study of the power women can find within themselves and from each other when faced with the most brutal circumstances. It's a must read.
This is a long list. I haven't even mentioned Hester Prynne, Jane Eyre, Catherine Earnshaw, Pippi Longstocking. Hope they'll forgive me. If I haven't mentioned one of your favourites, feel free to scream.
“I am no bird; and no net ensnares me: I am a free human being with an independent will.”Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
Here's a post about the abundance of beautiful books I received for Christmas.
First up Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. This is a great read, a chilling story full of mystery and suspense that had me intrigued from the very start. I love sick and twisted narrators and we certainly get one of those here. The first half of the novel is better than the second (I ended up almost laughing at one point when I think I was supposed to be either afraid or horrified) but I don't want to spoil it for anyone so won't go into any more detail here.
Next Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I actually received this for my Birthday, but it's not a quick read and I've been engrossed in Cromwell's machinations for about a month now. It's a wonderful book, fully deserving of its prizes, I think, and I love the feeling of immersing myself in the past Mantel so powerfully recreates (even if I get confused about who's who every so often.) Fantastic.
Next,The Personal History of Rachel DuPree by Ann Weisgarber. Given to me by the same fantastic friend who bought me Wolf Hall for my Birthday, this is a brilliant story of a woman working the land in the Badlands of America in the early twentieth century. It has one of the most tense and gripping first chapters I've read in a long time and is beautifully written throughout. A must read.
I treated myself to Torn by Cat Clarke in the Kindle sale and was pleased I took a chance on an author I'd heard of but hadn't yet tried. Torn has a twisty plot, fascinating characters and relationships and is quite unputdownable. A great YA read.
Joyce Carol Oates is my literary idol. She can be relied upon to peer into the grotesque secrets of the human heart and send the reader reeling. The first story in this collection, "The Corn Maiden" is one of the most disturbing things I've ever read. And therefore I loved it.
Marissa is a beautiful, sweet, but slow 11-year-old. Judah, an older girl from the same school, has led Marissa to a secluded basement. Remaining an unaware hostage for days, Marissa grows weak as Judah prepares to sacrifice her to the Indian legend, the Corn Maiden (Goodreads blurb). Don't read this if you're of a sensitive disposition!
I have heaps left to read including Dare Me by Megan Abbot (very excited about this), So The Wind Won't Blow it All Away by Richard Brautigan (again, I'm desperate to start this), Dear Life by Alice Munro, Weirdo by Cathi Unsworth and a few others too. So 2013 is set to be a great year for reading. Hope you got some fantastic books in your stockings too.
One of the nicest things about being published is hearing from enthusiastic readers. A couple of weeks ago, Beth Kahil from Charles Thorp Comprehensive School got in touch to tell me that the school reading group had read Black Heart Blue and that they'd loved discussing it. She also sent me her own review and those of some of her students. So, I'm posting some of their comments here - thank you so much Annie, Sam and Beth! You made my day.
I was a bit tentative when I first started this book because it is very dark and mysterious but I was hooked from the first few pages! I could not put it down! This book is emo-tional. At times I felt like crying along with Hephzi and I ached inside for Rebecca. Their Mother was too filled with hatred to care what happened to them and their Father was even worse. I got so angry at the Father because the twins didn’t deserve any of what they got. The book is written so that not every tiny detail is explained but that’s good because you sort of got it anyway. Every time the girls were beaten I felt like I had been hit, their pain was so excellently described. As disturbing as this book is, it is also one of the best books I have ever read.
Annie Dab - Year 8
I'm absolutely delighted that Black Heart Blue has been included on the longlist for this year's Carnegie award. Thank you to my nominator!
The longlist is huge and is testament to the number of great children's books being published today; if you're looking for some fabulous reading then have a browse through. I haven't read all the nominated novels (actually, only a few!) so can't make many recommendations. Top of my list at the moment, though, is David Almond's True Tale of the Monster Billy Dean, but this may yet change as I read through more of the longlist.
Read on to see the entire list...
So Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman is being reprinted with a YA cover.
This is brilliant news. In my last blog I wondered if we'd ever see YA up for big awards, like the Booker, and now my question has been answered- for Pigeon English did indeed feature on last year's Booker shortlist. It just goes to show that fiction that crosses over from adult to young adult markets and vice versa can indeed have great literary merit (not that this was ever in any doubt).
I urge you to read this book. It's funny and poignant and so heart-breaking; certainly one of the best books I read last year. Taking the killing of Damilola Taylor as its inspiration, the novel follows the hopes and dreams of eleven- year-old Harrison, a character who it's impossible not to love. Harrison is full of joy and excitement- newly arrived in London from Ghana we see him absorbing the world around him and experience the often terrible and frightening events of the inner city through his eyes. I don't want to give too much away and a lot has already been written about this novel, but it definitely deserves to be read by as wide an audience as possible so I'll be recommending like crazy. Let me know if you like(d) it.
My other big recommendation is Heft by Liz Moore which I'd also see as having huge appeal for YA fans. Any more suggestions of other novels with broad potential readership and fabulous writing will be gratefully received. I'm always happy to add to my pile.
It's interesting to hear that 55% of readers buying books classified as "YA" are adults. And apparently it's not all The Hunger Games either. The last book I bought was Two or Three Things I forgot To Tell You by Joyce Carol Oates and it's excellent, as well as being marketed as Young Adult (review to follow). Oates, incidentally, is one of the greatest American novelists of the 20th/21st century so if she's writing YA it just goes to back up my feeling that this is the place to be.
One day I hope I will write a perfect sentence.
So, it's a great book. I wasn't expecting to like The Hunger Games as much as I did - given the hype which always puts me off- but I reckon there comes a point when you just have to give in and let the books do the talking for themselves. And this novel lived up to its repuation. I've read a few negative things about Collins' book; for example that her dystopian world lacks real origniality and development and is a poor imitation of Battale Royale, but personally I don't think these things matter. For me, the point is that we are confronted with a world that is not so far from our own and thus doesn't need to be any more clearly mythologised than it already is. Famines, wars, natural disasters: Collins pushes the consequences of these events to the extreme, showing human beings turning against one another in the struggle for survival but also exploring the essential humanity that exists within many of her characters - even the drunken and laughable Haymitch. The blurring of the edges between District 12 and life as we know it serves to prove a good point: we're not so far off living in the sort of society Collins depicts. Amalgamate a couiple of continents, swallow a few oceans then places like District 12 would exist cheek by jowl with the great cities of our world. They probably kind of do. We do a nice job of ignoring the poor and the needy on our own doorsteps. Certainly we already live in a world where the distribution of food and wealth and opportunity is hideously unfair. Where dictators torture and murder children, where babies die for the lack of a vaccination that costs a mere five pounds, where child soldiers are forced to slaughter their parents. I don't see any sign of these horrors ceasing any time soon. And as for the concept of the Games themselves, what a brilliantly satricial device to throw our own obsession with reality tv and ritual humilation of vulnerable members of the general public into sharp focus. Collins asks a very pertinent question: just how far are we prepared to go with that format?
Yesterday I read an article in The Guardian by Imogen Russell Williams in which she claimed that she has a shelf of books that she hasn't been able to finish reading because they make her cry. Actually, to be more precise, she can't bear to finish them because of the injustices visited on the otherwise blameless protagonists.