Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Award Winners (page 1 of 2)

Life After Life – Kate Atkinson

How often do you read a book where the main character dies 17 times? I’d wager not often, especially if you rule out any sci-fi or fantasy elements. Here, we have no time machines, no medical miracles, and no religious resurrections. Life After Life tells the life stories of Ursula Todd, a girl born on 11 February 1910. It takes the reader through all the twists and turns that her life could have taken, and shows how differently things could have turned out. Cool, eh?

Now, I was a little disappointed to realise that I had, unintentionally, picked up another fictionalised WWII narrative (how many can there BE on the List?). I’ll tell you up-front that I probably would have enjoyed Life After Life and its unique structure more if it had been placed against a different backdrop; I’m starting to get a bit weary with WWII re-tellings. That said, it was still a very interesting read, and it gave me plenty to sink my teeth into. I think the premise is best summed up by the blurb:

“During a snowstorm in England in 1910, a baby is born and dies before she can take her first breath. During a snowstorm in England in 1910, the same baby is born and lives to tell the tale. What if there were second chances? And third chances? In fact an infinite number of changes to live your life? Would you eventually be able to save the world from its own inevitable destiny? And would you even want to?”

So, in Ursula’s first “life”, she is strangled by her umbilical cord. Next, she survives her birth into a middle-class Buckinghamshire family, but later dies, drowning at sea. Then, she lives a little longer, only to fall to her death from the roof, where she was trying to retrieve a toy.

I’m going to state the bleeding obvious (even though it took an embarrassingly long time for it to dawn on me as I was reading): a 600-page story about a girl who gets to live her life over and over again until she gets it right… well, it gets a bit repetitive. More than a bit, actually: before I was a quarter of the way through, I’d lost track of the Ursula Death Toll. She’d died at least three times from influenza alone. The sequence repeats itself again and again, but Ursula seems mostly unaware (unlike the reader, who is painfully aware). She just gets an odd sense of foreboding now and then, when she approaches a point where she died in a previous life. It’s like playing a video game again and again, but completely forgetting the experience of having played it before; your subconscious tells you “hang on, there might be a bad guy behind that bush”, and you get a little further each time without really knowing it.

Atkinson doesn’t really address the reader’s logical questions about this repetitive cycle, except to hint at it through Usurla’s therapist. In one of her lives, as a child, she pushed her housekeeper down the stairs. This caused her mother to (quite rightly) question her sanity, and send her to a shrink. The good doc weaves in and out of the stories and lives, always spouting wise shit about reincarnation but stopping just short of giving any real answers.


Ursula’s first crack at her adult life, having finally survived her whole childhood, is pretty miserable: she is traumatised by a rape that she experienced in her teens (resulting in an unwanted pregnancy and an illegal abortion), and she finds herself trapped in an oppressive marriage. Her husband kills her when she tries to escape. In her next life, she ends up on a different path by aggressively defending herself and fending off her rapist in the first instance, which I found really gross. It seemed to imply that rape survivors can be “saved” from their trauma if they just try hard enough. Sorry, Atkinson, but you lose points from that.

A somewhat random storyline pops up a few times, in different lives, where Ursula’s neighbour (a young girl called Nancy) is raped and murdered by a child molester. On a couple of occasions, Ursula uses her foreboding former-life Spidey Sense to prevent it from happening, but the threat is never really explored or explained. I’m guessing Atkinson describes it further in the sequel (A God In Ruins, published two years later and focusing on the story of Ursula’s brother). I wasn’t a huge fan of that, either; it seemed like a bit of a ploy to get readers to buy the next book.

Anyway, later iterations of Ursula’s life see her experience WWII from multiple perspectives, mostly the Blitz in London but also once from Hitler’s compound in Germany. Sometimes she’s a blast victim, sometimes she works for the War Office, sometimes she volunteers as a rescuer, sometimes she has a baby with a Nazi. This is where I do give Atkinson credit: it’s certainly not a one-sided book, and Ursula’s fear of the Allied bombings and her love for her daughter is just as emotive when she’s on the “other” side. And I should mention here, I also loved Atkinson’s use of language. She had a real knack for brilliant similes, my favourite being the corpse that was picked up by his arms and legs only to “split apart like a Christmas cracker”.


I kept hoping/waiting for a big “twist” that never really came. I’m not sure if that’s my fault as a reader (I love plot twists that knock me on my arse, like this one!), or whether Atkinson kept setting things up that never quite came to fruition. I thought Ursula’s long-lost cousin (born to her aunt and adopted in Germany) would turn out to be Hitler. Or perhaps Ursula’s father was actually the murderous child molester. There seemed to be a lot of those types of loose ends that could have been turned into something really interesting, but alas. If you’re a fan of the shock-twist-ending, this isn’t the book for you – none of that shit happens, I’m afraid.

Towards the end of Life After Life, Ursula’s Spidey Sense has grown much stronger, and she starts to recall more definite details from previous lives. She uses this knowledge to try and prevent WWII by (of course) killing Hitler. The whole book builds up to this moment, and yet we never actually find out what happens! Ursula shoots Hitler, but his posse retaliates quickly, and she dies almost immediately after firing the gun. Every time Ursula dies, Atkinson tells us “darkness falls” (ahem-CLICHE-ahem), and the reader’s experience of the timeline stops with her death. So, maybe killing Hitler worked, maybe it didn’t – only Atkinson knows.


So, on the whole, Life After Life is murky. It’s full of plot-lines that aren’t completely resolved, and kind of appear and disappear at Atkinson’s will. The philosophical questions raised by Ursula’s endless Sliding Doors moments aren’t really answered. We don’t even know why or how her life happens over and over again. It’s not fantasy, it’s not science-fiction… it’s a really hard one to classify. I guess I’d say it straddles historical and speculative fiction, right in the middle of the Venn diagram between them. I think Life After Life is a good one for book clubs, because it will undoubtedly spark a lot of debate. It’s hard not to start thinking about your own life in a butterfly-effect-y kind of way (“maybe it’s a good thing I’m running 20 minutes late because in another punctual life I’d get hit by a bus!”, and that kind of thing). Still, there was enough in this book that didn’t sit right with me, and I won’t be seeking out the sequel.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Life After Life:

  • “What a mess. One of the worst books I’ve read in a long time. Writer needed to pick a story and stick with it.” – Carol J. Tady
  • “TOO MUCH.” – Kathryn J. Byerly
  • “This book has all the makings of a fabulous alternative fiction or something, but ultimately all the wonderful vignettes of a life endlessly repeated (and truly the writing and imagery are superb!), got tedious because there was never a real resolution. Something always went wrong until suddenly it didn’t, but by then the book is over and we have no clue what went right and what actually happened.

    This book was either far too long or far too short, I’m not sure which.” – Kindle Customer

  • “The author actually knows English. Imagine that! She is funny and holds the readers attention even though there is a real story.” – Clint
  • “repetitive by nature, boring by design” – Sophia
  • “We tried to do a book club and this was the first book…. This book was so bad, the book club died. This book single handedly killed our book club. And darkness fell.
    Deaths were tedious, ending each chapter with “darkness fell” made a very good inside joke among the cancelled book club but a terrible way to get your readers to take you seriously, I tried to read the book three times and just couldn’t get passed all the deaths of the main character to get to anything substantial…actually the worst book I have ever tried to read.” – Carly Stewart



The Narrow Road To The Deep North – Richard Flanagan

Another confession from the life of the would-be booklover: I haven’t kept up with the Man Booker prize winners. In fact, The Narrow Road To The Deep North was my very first. The Booker is pretty much the most prestigious international literary award that a book can win, so I had high expectations for Richard Flanagan’s sixth novel…

From the blurb: “August, 1943. In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Thai-Burma death railway, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle’s young wife two years earlier. Struggling to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from beatings, he receives a letter that will change his life forever.” So, we can tell right from the outset that The Narrow Road To The Deep North ticks a bunch of boxes: historical WWII novel, love affair, heavy themes, horrific setting, a sliding doors moment… and, to top it all off, in the Acknowledgements section Flanagan says he was inspired by his father’s experiences as a Japanese POW, so we can probably tick off “write what you know” as well. These are all the criteria for a Man Booker, right?

OK, I’ll stop being sassy. (Just kidding, I can’t turn it off.)

It’s the story of Dorrigo, a POW doctor who can’t stop obsessing over a few lusty weeks with his aunt-in-law back home. It’s another jumpy timeline, which I didn’t love, especially given that in this one there were no helpful year/place markings at the beginning of any of the chapters; the reader is expected to just bloody well figure it out as they read (even though the chapter might be happening ten years after or thirty years before the one preceding). Flanagan really wanted the reader to work for it. He didn’t even bother with inverted commas around his dialogue; I know it’s “artistic” to do that, but it always strikes me as pretentious and try-hard. Hmph.


Anyway, The Narrow Road To The Deep North spirals out around one particularly horrific day on the Burma Railway in August 1943. Some chapters build up to it through Dorrigo’s pre-war childhood and courtship with his wife, while other chapters focus on the post-war lives of Dorrigo, his fellow prisoners, and his prison guards. So, yeah, it’s kind of sprawling and epic; the timeline runs to about a century all up.

(Oh, and you might think that the title refers to the railway they were building, but actually Flanagan borrowed it from a 17th century haiku poet, Matsuo Bashō, whose book “Oku no Hosomichi” translates roughly to “Narrow Road To The Interior” or “The Narrow Road To The Deep North”.)

From the beginning, the book is kind of a mixed bag. Some passages are really great and poignant and immersive, while others seem really over-wrought and ridiculous. The Romeo and Juliet-esque plot twist was a bit much (both Dorrigo and his aunt-in-law, the one with whom he was having the affair before he went off to war, believe the other to be dead, and this little miscommunication fucks up their entire lives). I’m not a romantic, so their whole tragic love story really didn’t “move” me in the way I think Flanagan intended. All the chapters set in Australia basically amounted to a bunch of bellyaching about how Dorrigo really enjoyed fucking women who weren’t his wife. That just wasn’t fun for me, and – taking off my sassy-pants for a minute – I’m not sure it makes for good literature.


On the other hand, I quite enjoyed the sections focusing on the POWs on the railway. That sounds twisted, I know, but those parts were straightforward, no bullshit, and totally gripping. Flanagan did not sugar-coat the realities of war at all, and for me that’s huge points in his favour. There were no ellipses, no fading to black: he described the full physical horror and indignity suffered by the POWs, not to mention their mental anguish, in complete and gory detail. So, as I’m sure you can guess, The Narrow Road To The Deep North is not one for readers with sensitive stomachs (or souls) – I’m a tough bitch, and even I felt queasy in places.

So, it covers off two major themes: the effects of war, and the nature of love. They’re pretty lofty themes, and a lot to tackle in a single book (which is probably why it seemed that Flanagan did the former so much better than the latter). To be quite frank, I think Flanagan would have been better off just chopping off the entire first third off the book, getting rid of it altogether. The story wouldn’t have lost anything that wasn’t reiterated and reinforced later on anyway. It’d be like cutting off a gangrenous limb (the way Dorrigo had to do on the Burma Railway, incidentally).

It’s a better book than All The Light We Cannot See, I’ll give it that; in fact,  it’s probably one of the better historical WWII fiction books I’ve read in that it highlights quite well the ongoing and intergenerational effects of war (setting it apart from the ones that end on V Day). I suppose I can even (begrudgingly) see why it beat out We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves for the Man Booker in 2014; it’s a more “literary” book in that snooty, elitist sense… but I know which one I’d rather read, and which one I’d recommend more highly. Can you guess? 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Narrow Road To The Deep North:

  • “I picked 4 because of the start of the book. It tired in well, but took a bit to catch my attention. It was dreary and sad and I enjoyed it.” – Megan Vandewall
  • “Why can’t writers just tell a story, instead of trying to be clever? I’m not sure Flanagan actually has a decent story to tell, but this is a piece of junk.” – ggh
  • “The protagonist is an unappealing narcissist with a sophomoric attitude towards love.” – S. Luke
  • “Had trouble reading and staying interested in it. Too much narrative.” – saunabear
  • “Horrible pictures in my mind! Don’t need any more examples of man’s ability to be cruel and stupid. I’m going to go hug my cats.” – Diane Denham

The Age Of Innocence – Edith Wharton

The path to equality and representation for women is paved with the works of women like Edith Wharton. The Age Of Innocence was her twelfth novel, published in 1920. It went on to win the 1921 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The committee had initially agreed to give the award to Sinclair Lewis for Main Street, but the judges wound up rejecting his book on political grounds… making Wharton the first woman to win, in the award’s history. She had the hustle, she fought the good fight, and she won in the end, which makes me so damn happy. Plus, The Age Of Innocence is one of Roxane Gay’s favourite books, so…

The most important thing to know when it comes to The Age Of Innocence is that you need to guard against being fooled by its subtlety. On its face, it’s a slow-moving society story of upper-class New York City at the end of the 19th century, but its critique and commentary goes so much deeper than that! You’ve really got to keep your wits about you as you’re reading, because it’s all so subtle – it’s a lot like Jane Austen’s Emma, in that regard. You’ll fall into the trap of thinking you can let your mind drift for a second, because Wharton’s just describing the carriages in the street or something, but next thing you know you’ve missed a crucial insight into the politics of this Gilded Age society, and you’ve got to go back and read it all again (as I did, on more than one occasion). It’s not a fast-paced story, but a lot is communicated very quickly, if that makes any sense. Even the title itself, four simple words, is an ironic comment (with multiple layers) on the polished veneer of “society” in New York, given its nefarious undercurrents and machinations. So, Wharton don’t play, people: strap in.

The Age Of Innocence starts with Newland Archer, rich boy heir to one of New York City’s “best” families, all set to marry the naive pretty-young-thing May Welland. Newland’s at the opera, fantasising about how wonderful his upper-crust life is going to be… until his fiance’s beautiful cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, shows up, and it all goes straight to hell.

The Countess is “exotic” and “worldly” (the number of euphemisms they all find for “slutty” is amazing), everything Newland’s fiance is not. He quickly announces his engagement to their families, figuring that the declaration would “lock him in” and get the Countess out of his head, but (as I’m sure you can guess) it does diddly-squat to temper his arousal.


The Countess announces that she wants to divorce her husband, and her family freaks the fuck out. This is the 1870s, after all, so divorce is a very dirty word. Newland, being a lawyer and a friend of the family (a cousin-in-law to be, ahem!), is charged with convincing her to just stay married to the creepy old Polish guy that beat her and locked her in a closet (or something like that, the reasons for the marital discord aren’t made all that clear). Newland manages to convince her, but it’s tough going; he keeps getting distracted by his boner.

When he finally gets his hand off it, he marries May, but (surprise, surprise) he’s fucking miserable. He works up the nerve to leave her, with a view to following the Countess back to Europe, but when he tries to do his “it’s not you, it’s me” speech, May interrupts him and tells him she’s pregnant. And the Countess knows – May told her a couple of weeks ago (even though she “wasn’t sure” – I guess they didn’t have early-detection pee sticks back then?). The implication, and you might have to read it a couple times over to pick it up, is that May suspected the affair all along and magicked up this pregnancy to put an end to it.

Newland pretty much just gives up on life at that point, and anything resembling joy. He settles in for a lifetime of baby-making and boring New York dinner parties. The novel concludes twenty-six years later, after May dies and Newland takes his son to Paris. The kid, completely innocently, had heard that his mother’s cousin lived there, and he arranges for them to pay her a visit – the cousin being… the Countess! But don’t worry, there’s no romantic reunion happily-ever-after bullshit here; Newland is too chicken to see his former paramour, so he just sends his son up to visit while he waits outside. The end.



Wharton later wrote of The Age Of Innocence that it allowed her to escape back to her childhood in America, a world that she believed had been destroyed by the First World War (a fair call, that particular conflict really fucked shit up on a number of levels). Generally, it’s thought to be a story about the struggle to reconcile the old with the new, and Wharton stops just short of landing on one side or the other. In fact, even though it’s dripping with social commentary and satire, Wharton’s book doesn’t outright condemn pre-war New York society. It’s like she recognises its ridiculousness, but wants to reinforce that, well, it wasn’t all bad. Basically she’s saying that the past was just okay, but the present isn’t all get-out either. Seems fair enough, no?

This book really resonated with me in ways I didn’t expect. You’d think we’ve have come so far as a society over the past century that the behaviours and mores of late 19th century New York would be virtually unrecognisable. But take this, for example: the scene where Newland is trying to convince the Countess not to go ahead with her divorce is eerily reminiscent of the remonstrances received by people who came forward as part of the #metoo movement.

“Well, then: is it worth while to risk what may be infinitely disagreeable and painful? Think of the newspapers – their vileness! It’s all stupid and narrow and unjust – but one can’t make over society.” – p. 96

Plus, there’s a really interesting dichotomy between the two primary female characters (May and the Countess – the latter being a character I once described as one of the best bad women in fiction). Of course, upon its initial publication, reader sentiment was pretty heavily weighted in May’s favour. After all, she was the good little wife, standing by her man and making babies and all that. But in the intervening century, the tables have turned, and now she’s often read as a manipulative bitch who basically trapped a man in a loveless marriage through pregnancy. She’s the woman all the Men’s Rights Activists warn us about. On the other hand, the Countess has become the poster child for The Woman Question and the constraints of gender roles for women in society. To be honest, though, I think they’re both alright; Newland is the one who’s deserving of our disdain, the sooky little fuck-boy…

Anyway, even if you’re not into all this social commentary stuff, The Age Of Innocence is still worth a read, for Wharton’s mastery of the craft of writing alone. Her subtlety, her insight, her cleverness – it’s all sublime. And the story itself isn’t half-bad, if you’re paying close attention. My tl;dr summary is this: a bunch of WASPs in old-timey New York pretend that a bloke isn’t having an affair with his wife’s slutty cousin (even though he very obviously is), and he stays with his wife after he knocks her up (because he’s such a swell guy). It’s a challenging read if you’re used to fast-paced action and sparse prose, but it’s well worth the effort.


My favourite Amazon reviews of The Age Of Innocence:

  • “Excellent book, as relevant today as when it was first published. The song that comes to mind is Dolly Parton’s Jolene.” – Amazon Customer
  • “There’s no violence, no sex and nothing to hold your interest …” – SMMc
  • “#richvictorianpeopleproblems” – Taylor
  • “I do not consider this an annotated book. It only has a few definitions.” – Susan B. Banbury
  • “We purchased one for my mother when she had shingles and was in incredible pain. It helped her, and she raved about it so much that we bought three more! I have arthritis throughout my body, and I’m getting the best sleep I have in years.” – Kindle Customer
  • “I found this very aggravating to read. I just wanted to grab Newland Archer and shake some sense into him. Written by a woman who made the male characters look stupid.” – Jim W
  • “Poor plot and well written” – Marilyn Austin

 

We Were Liars – E. Lockhart

It’s a compelling title, isn’t it? We Were Liars. Hats off to Lockhart and her marketing team for that one! It’s all the more enticing for the blurb on the back, which reads: “We Were Liars is a modern, sophisticated suspense that will leave you reeling. Read it. And if anyone asks you how it ends, just lie.”

We Were Liars was published in 2014, debuting at #6 on the New York Times Best Seller List in the Young Adult category (spending 13 weeks in the top ten), and it went on to win the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult Fiction. Most impressively, in my mind, it achieved massive cross-over appeal. In fact, I struggle to think of this as a Young Adult novel at all, because even though it ticks all the right boxes and it was marketed that way, most of the people I know who have read and loved it are adult-adults. Grown ups. “Old”. It’s probably the best example, in my mind, of the way in which Young Adult fiction has infiltrated the book-buying world to become a genre and a movement in its own right.

Anyway, We Were Liars is the story of the wealthy, seemingly-perfect Sinclair family. And I mean “wealthy”, as in 1%-every-summer-they-gather-for-a-holiday-on-their-private-island-like-that’s-normal welathy. Stories about rich kids aren’t new, and they have wide appeal – think Gossip Girl, and The OC, and Beverley Hills 90210 (I’m assuming, I’m a bit young to have seen that last one the first time around). What makes We Were Liars differently is that it seems to treat issues of class and race a lot more critically than the rich teenager stories of yore, which was really refreshing. The Sinclairs appear wealthy, and they certainly have the trappings of wealth, but the irony is that none of them are actually able to support themselves without family money. The wealth, and the power it supposedly affords them, is an illusion. It’s the kids, the teenagers, the protagonists, who see through it all. It’s very zeitgeist-y, in a world where kids are leading the revolution.

So, the supposedly-wealthy white-bread Sinclairs gather on this island near Martha’s Vineyard every year… until one summer when Cadence, the narrator, is found seriously injured in the water. She suffers severe migraines and some kind of trauma-induced amnesia; she is completely unable to remember the circumstances leading up to her injury. Her mother refuses to tell her what happened, and packs her off to Europe the next summer… but then, two years later, Cadence returns to the island and begins to piece her memories back together.

The whole “Liars” thing was a bit clumsy, if you ask me. Like I said, it makes for a compelling title, and you’d think that’d be enough, but Lockhart has parlayed it into this Famous Five-esque relationship between the Sinclair cousins. Their family, unironically, calls them collectively “the Liars”, but it’s not 100% clear why until it (kind of) plays into the big shock reveal at the end… and, just, eugh. I wasn’t a fan. It seemed a reach.

Still, the relationships themselves are interesting and well-crafted. Lockhart has said she was inspired by her own fantasies of having a close group of friends growing up, and her curiosity about the potential consequences of those bonds. In fact, We Were Liars‘s appeal to adult readers is probably rooted in nostalgia for the days of childhood friendship, and a new perspective on how those children and teenagers interact with adults we know to be imperfect.

Amy Bender, from the Los Angeles Times, said that We Were Liars was “a classic story of decaying aristocracy and the way that privilege can often hamstring more than help”, and I don’t think I can say it better myself. The metaphor of Cadence’s amnesia was masterfully done (it mirrors the WASP-y family tradition of denial), and I haven’t seen that kind of complexity in many other Young Adult novels to date. All told, I’d say this is a good one to start with if you’re an adult-adult who’s curious as to why so many readers your age are turning to Young Adult fiction (and I’ll be writing more about that later this week). It’s definitely right up your alley if you liked The Girl On The Train, and don’t mind your female protagonists young, waify, and unreliable.

My favourite Amazon reviews of We Were Liars:

  • “Meh, more teen drama than I thought it would be.” – T. Lenahan
  • “GREAT BOOK FAST DELIVERY” – Rachael
  • “Suspenseful. I identified with the central character….don’t know why. Perhaps it was the pain of growing up. Teen years are so hard.” – AvidReader
  • “Was very disappointed with this book. Enjoyed it until the end.” – Jen L
  • “The ending really makes no sense unless the characters are extremely stupid and have no common sense. Very disappointing, would not recommend.” – Juan Blanco
  • “I’m emotionally dead inside but that’s okay because it was very ver very well written” – brandi e huskey

A Game of Thrones – George R.R. Martin

Fantasy is not my first choice for genre fiction. I really struggle to keep track when there are eight hundred different characters, who all seem to have similar names, spread across a huge world that is completely unfamiliar to me… so I was pretty hesitant cracking open A Game of Thrones. I don’t live under a rock, so of course I’m already familiar with the HBO series, and I hoped that having watched it (a couple times over, no less) would help me keep track of what was going on. And, on that note, if you’re one of those people that completely pooh-poohs the television adaptation, we’re on completely different levels. I went so far as to make a solemn vow before I started reading that I would never become one of those arseholes that interrupts every GoT conversation by saying “Have you read the books, though?”, and I fully intend to stick to that. I like the series, and I’m no elitist. So, proceed with this review at your own peril.

And a note on the title: the original publication was, indeed, called “A Game of Thrones”. It wasn’t until after the HBO series premiered in 2011, and the book soared to the top of the New York Times Best Seller List, that the publisher released this paperback tie-in edition that excluded the indefinite article. Better brand recognition, and all of that…

Anyway: A Game of Thrones is the first in Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series. I was pretty surprised to learn that he first started writing it back in 1991, and the debut wasn’t published until 1996. I had no idea it was that old! I know everyone bitches about how long it’s taking him to finish the sixth and seventh books in the series, but when you look at the timeline of releases so far, and how long it took him to write each one, the long delay is hardly out of character for him, so maybe we should all just back off. Whoops!

So I start reading. Before I’m fifty pages in, I’m already thinking “Yep, I’m very glad I watched the show first!”. I would have had a devil of a time following what was going on if I hadn’t. There are several points of view, and Martin switches back and forth between them super-fast, telling three different storylines simultaneously.



First, there’s Ned Stark, a Lord from the North, who is called to King’s Landing to serve as Hand of the King (the King being an old war buddy of his, if you went through what they did you’d understand). When he arrives in the southern city, he discovers that the King’s children are actually the product of an incestuous FWB thing going on between the Queen and her twin brother. (And don’t bother saying “ewww”, being disgusted by Queen Cersei and Jamie Lannister’s all-family fuck-fest is so 2011.) When Ned threatens to reveal the Queen’s secret, the King is mysteriously “killed by a boar” while hunting (read: low-key murdered), and Ned is executed as a traitor. His family arcs up, and declares war on the whole Kingdom. (Yes, this is the Land of the Great Overreaction.)

Meanwhile, further north, Ned’s bastard son has joined the league of the Night’s Watch, who protect The Wall (a giant block of ice that separates the Kingdom from the Northern wilderness). They’re there to keep out The Others, a kind of Zombie army (i.e., the “bad guys”). The Wall serves as a default penal colony, and all the undesirables from the Kingdom end up there, so it’s a pretty motley crew and not at all what the bastard expected.

And then there’s everything that’s going on Across The Narrow Sea. The Targaryens are the former royal family, ousted by now-King Robert Baratheon (the one that got boar-ed). Generations of in-breeding sent them a bit bonkers, but the two remaining kids – Viserys and Daenerys – seem to be holding up alright. Well, except that Viserys sells Daenerys in marriage, hoping that her new Dothraki (read: savage) husband will give him an army that he plans to use to re-take his throne. He’s a right prick, actually, in case you hadn’t guessed… and an impatient one, as it turns out. Daenerys’s savage husband brutally murders Viserys (is it wrong to have a “favourite murder”? I hope not, because this is mine!) because he keeps nagging him about the whole army thing. Daenerys thinks she’s home and hosed, but she has a bit of a rough trot; her husband dies, her kid dies, and she goes full bad-ass bitch and takes over the whole situation. She marshals her remaining followers and figures out how to hatch three live dragons – the throne is gon’ be hers, make no mistake. The story ends there (gasp!), with the lingering threat of a burgeoning dragon queen.


So, yes, A Game of Thrones has a really intricate and complex plot, but that’s not exactly uncommon for fantasy. The unique circumstances for this book, though, is that you’d pretty much have to be dead not to have at least some idea of what it’s all about, given the popularity of the TV show. I liked picking up on some of the interesting details that I missed in the show (like the symbolism of the stag killing the direwolf in the opening scenes). It was just enough to hold it all together for me, but – like I said – I’m damn glad I watched the show first, and I would have really struggled reading A Game of Thrones if I hadn’t.

The main recurring themes are (1) choosing between stuff (usually the people you love and some kind of honour/duty), and (2) the fuzzy distinction between good and evil. Martin himself has said:

“Having multiple viewpoints is crucial to the grayness of the characters. You have to be able to see the struggle from both sides, because real human beings in a war have all these processes of self-justification, telling ourselves why what we’re doing is the right thing.”

A Game of Thrones hardly revolutionises the fantasy genre in that regard, so I can see why die-hard fantasy fans roll their eyes at it a bit. I’m not really here for the fantasy, though, so it didn’t bother me enough to write it off entirely. And on the other side of it, you’ve got the ones that turn their noses up at anything with a popular adaptation, so you’d think that would really limit its market… but Martin seems to be doing okay regardless, so my heart doesn’t exactly break for him. In the end, I’m here for the politics, the underhanded wheeling and dealing, and he absolutely nails that aspect. If that’s not your style, there’s also a lot of internal conflict and character development to keep you entertained.

I did notice a few typos in this edition, especially towards the end – I guess the editor just got tired? It’s hard to blame him, this bad boy is several hundred pages long…

In the end, it was quite comforting to read a storyline with which I was already familiar (that doesn’t happen often with The List, given that every book is one I’ve never read before and I rarely take the time to watch TV or film adaptations). I really enjoyed A Game of Thrones… but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to someone who hasn’t already seen (and loved) the show. If you didn’t enjoy the show, you definitely shouldn’t bother with the book – what you see is what you get.


My favourite Amazon reviews of A Game of Thrones:

  • “3 of the books are printed upside down from the cover. Very disapointed.” – Alex M.
  • “I enjoyed reading the book and it made the library happy also as the replacement for a book me and my puppy damaged. The price of the book was well worth the purchase. So no complaints.” – “Ichi
  • “Not thrilled at how small they were for real other than that they are books” – Curtis G.
  • “I have had these books and still have not read them but I feel great just having them.  10/10Why did I buy these” – Alex G.
  • “After 3 pages of reading I remembered I don’t actually like reading. Love the show though.” – Stewart S. Smith
  • “Swords and Knives are cool. Liked the book.” – Richard Beck
  • “What can I say, Winter is Coming! Excellent read with the spattering of sex. (More then I like but George didn’t ask my opinion before he started writing the books)” – Hope

 

The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion

It’s hard to believe that The Rosie Project was Graeme Simsion’s debut novel. Shortly after Text Publishing released it, in 2013, it won both the ABIA Book Of The Year award and their General Fiction Book Of The Year award. International sales have topped 3.5 million copies. A couple of years ago, when I started putting together The List, this book was everywhere! It hardly seems fair that a debut novelist has that much success that quickly, eh?

The main character is a genetics professor, Don Tillman. He’s never had much “luck” with women, which will come as no surprise when I tell you that his proposed solution to that problem is to create a questionnaire to assess the suitability of each “potential mate”.

Tillman doesn’t fit in particularly well anywhere, really – there’s a lot of very heavy-handed hints that he has undiagnosed Asperger Syndrome. That in and of itself would be fine, but there’s something about his character that makes me feel… well, icky. Simsion pushes the socially-awkward-adult-male-nerd angle very hard, to the point where it started to evoke for me a salivating, entitled, MRA/incel keyboard-hero fucknuckle. Tillman seems to believe that he is an “ideal mate” for any woman, given his intelligence, physical health, financial success, and social status. I mean, doesn’t that sound just a little bit entitled and misogynistic? Plus, he says stuff like this:

“… but I immediately recognised Julie, the convenor, from Gene’s description: ‘blonde with big tits’. In fact, her breasts were probably no more than one and a half standard deviations from the mean size for her body weight, and hardly a remarkable identifying feature…” – page 7

I got used to it after a while. In fact, I even came to appreciate (a little) how Simsion managed to communicate to the reader a more objective perspective on Tillman’s beahviour without the character being consciously aware of it, which is quite tricky to do when the book is narrated in the first-person. But I still couldn’t help but wish his portrayal of Tillman’s symptoms had been written more carefully. Based on that alone, I knew that The Rosie Project could never be one of my favourites, or a Recommended read here on Keeping Up With The Penguins.

Anyway, this socially-awkward guy meets a fun-loving girl with Daddy issues (Rosie, natch), and she spectacularly fails his questionnaire. Yet (steel yourselves!) he finds himself drawn to her. He winds up helping this “unsuitable” bartender hunt down her biological father. Is Rosie a Manic Pixie Dream Girl? Well, kinda. I think she gets afforded more depth than MPDGs normally do, with the Daddy issues and all, but her character doesn’t actually “develop” all that much. Her entire presence in The Rosie Project is pretty much predicated on (1) finding her father, and (2) letting Don love her.

The real upside of the story is that it ends up inverting the much-maligned Grease storyline: the man is the one who ends up changing to win the girl, instead of the other way around. That’s something, at least!

I hope I haven’t put you off The Rosie Project completely, because plenty of other people love it and highly recommend it, so maybe you should take my garbage opinion with a grain of salt. Bill Gates included The Rosie Project on his list of “Six Books I’d Recommend”, and it’s hard to argue with one of the world’s most brilliant minds, eh? (And you can check out more surprising book recommendations from brilliant minds here, if you’re curious.)

Simsion pumped out a sequel pretty quickly, with The Rosie Effect being published in 2014. A sequel to the sequel, The Rosie Result, will be released any minute now. And a film adaptation of The Rosie Project is also in the works, but it’s hit a few roadblocks. The script is written, apparently, but Jennifer Lawrence (who was slated to play Rosie) pulled out, and directors have been playing pass-the-parcel with it ever since. I think it would translate particularly well to the big screen, so fingers crossed it finds a home eventually.

The Rosie Project is another book that you can burn through pretty quickly (a la Still Alice or The Book Thief), but I didn’t love it. I seem to be pretty alone in that opinion, though, so the only way to work out whether I’m right or wrong is to give it a go yourself… 😉

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Rosie Project:

  • “Good argument, perfect development!
    This is a good book and I Was Entertainmented by the first person describing his life perceptions.” – elianasantos
  • “Absolutely love these socks. They fit beautifully and stay odor free for a long time.” – Magster
  • “I had the good fortune to discuss this book with someone who actually has Asberger’s. They said it was quite accurate except for where it needed to serve the plot.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Big Bang Theory wannabe” – Amazon Customer
  • “If your interested in a pregnancy b ook, then this is your book. No interest to me, sadly it went on a bit.” – Melissa
  • “Not again.” – Mark walker
  • “Story interesting and writing poor.” – Seattle Native

All The Light We Cannot See – Anthony Doerr

How’s this: I’m reviewing a #1 book on the #1 day of the year! Cute, eh? I’ve been meaning to read All The Light We Cannot See ever since it topped the Dymocks 101 back in 2017 (and it was only just pipped at the post by Harry Potter on the 2018 list, too). So, this seems as good a time as any!

All The Light We Cannot See was written by American author Anthony Doerr, and published by Scribner in 2014. It went on to win the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and the 2015 Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Plus, it spent nearly 120 weeks on the New York Times Best Seller List for Hardcover Fiction. Long story short, a lot of really smart people really liked it… but that was all I knew about it going in.

Now, I’ve struggled to find a way to say this sensitively (diplomacy is not my talent), so I’m just going to go for it: I was kind of disappointed to find that it was a(nother) fictionalised account of WWII. Will we never tire of them? I mean, these stories are getting so much air time of late, and for me they’re starting to wear a bit thin. The real-life WWII narratives we have are so compelling (see: Diary of a Young Girl, or The White Mouse), and there are so many other conflicts that we could examine, from all across the world, some still ongoing… I’m not saying WWII should be forgotten about altogether (I’m not a monster!), but I’m ready for something else to get a look-in.

Anyway, to the review (and consider this my timely reminder that I do not give a shit about spoilers, so read this review – and all others on Keeping Up With The Penguins – at your own peril): All The Light We Cannot See is set in occupied France. It centers on two primary characters, a blind French girl and an orphaned German boy, whose paths eventually cross. It’s basically The Book Thief for grown-ups.

It took a few chapters for me to fall into Doerr’s rhythm. Every chapter follows a different character than the previous one, and the time-line jumps all around. It’s all done very carefully and deliberately, though, to reveal the story at exactly the right pace. I did settle into it after a while, and it’s totally possible for readers to stay with it as long as they keep their wits about them, so don’t let that put you off.


Straightened out, the chronology goes something like this: we begin in 1934, where the blind six-year-old Marie-Laure lives in Paris with her father, while the eight-year-old Werner lives in a German orphanage with his sister. No one’s having fun. Marie-Laure’s father is a locksmith for the Museum of Natural History, and there’s a rumour of a priceless – but cursed (oooh!) – diamond, buried somewhere in the bowels of the collection. The story goes that whoever holds the “Sea of Flames” jewel cannot die, but their loved ones would be stricken with unending misfortune as long as they have it. Sounds like a rip-off of the Harry Potter resurrection stone to me, but I’ll go with it 😉

In 1940, Germany sets about invading France, and Marie-Laure flees Paris with her father. Unbeknownst to her, his boss charged him with transporting and protecting the cursed diamond, and they are being pursued by a Nazi gemologist who will stop at nothing to get his greedy hands on it. They hide out in the home of Marie-Laure’s great-uncle (who’s bonkers, by the way), but the father is (inevitably) arrested by the Germans. He conceals the magic diamond in the model of the town that he built for his daughter, keeping it out of sight. Marie-Laure, her great-uncle, and their maid find ways to help the Resistance, at great personal risk. I noted down, reading all of this, that Doerr did a great job of capturing the additional layer of terror experienced in this kind of situation by a person with a vision impairment, but he did so in a way that didn’t read as exploitative or “inspiration porn”-y. So, that’s one in his column!


Meanwhile, Werner (back in the German orphanage) has shown a real gift for radio mechanics, and it draws the attention of the Nazi recruiters. They take him to a “school” (and I’m sure you can guess what it was like for him), and when his skills are sufficiently honed, their HR department adjusts the record of his age to make him 18, which means they can send him out into the field. He and his fellow soldiers trace radio transmissions, and do/witness some sickening shit (well, they’re Nazis, so it’s a given).

Then, in 1944, Werner and Marie-Laure’s paths converge. The Nazis have traced a resistance radio transmission to the city of Saint-Marlo, where it is, indeed, broadcasting from Marie-Laure’s attic. What links the two of them and brings them together is that Werner used to listen to those same transmissions in the orphanage with his sister. The Nazis bomb the city within an inch of its life, but Werner decides not to reveal the location of the broadcast to his comrades (he’s a Nazi with a heart, I guess). He ends up seeking out Marie-Laure’s house for himself, and he kills the Nazi gemologist who has been ransacking the place (looking for that ol’ cursed diamond), effectively saving Marie-Laure’s life. When the bombing stops, Marie-Laure takes Werner to a hidden grotto, where she throws the diamond into the ocean (gasp!).

Britney Spears Oops I Did It Again Gif - Keeping Up With The Penguins

Werner then drops Marie-Laure off at a refugee camp, and stumbles off to a field hospital. He meets a pretty sticky end, actually – in his delirium, he steps on a land mine. Kaboom!

Then the story skips ahead to 1974, and speeds up considerably (this is the “big conclusion” that’s supposed to tie up all the loose ends). Werner’s former army boss tracks down his sister from the orphanage, and returns all of his personal effects to her – including the model of Marie-Laure’s house that once contained the cursed diamond. She, in turn, tracks down Marie-Laure, and returns the model to her. Marie-Laure’s father was never found, even after all the POWs were freed, and her great-uncle is dead. Everyone’s super-traumatised by this series of events, but they all try to pretend that they aren’t – it’s super-healthy.

The story ends in 2014. Marie-Laure is walking the streets of Paris with her grandson, still blind, and marvelling at how the internet works.


All The Light We Cannot See is readable enough, but I had to Google Translate a few bits and pieces (from French and from German). It’s billed as a “touching story”, but I don’t think it really told me anything new about WWII. Plus, I’m really not sure how I feel about the depiction of a Nazi soldier “saving” a person with a disability. I think I understand what Doerr was trying to get at, but it’s a very sympathetic depiction of Nazis on the whole, and that extra layer of Marie-Laure having a vision impairment was just a bit on the nose…

Tl;dr? Well, as I said, All The Light We Cannot See is basically The Book Thief for grown-ups. It’s worth reading as an academic exercise, to keep current with the landscape of literary fiction and all that. But if you’re looking for a revelatory WWII novel that completely changes your perspective, you can move right along, there’s nothing for you here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of All The Light We Cannot See:

  • “This story pulls the reader into the life of a special girl. I am a man, so this is not at all a girl’s book. It is transcendant. You will not be disappointed.” – Kindle Customer
  • “Eloquent writing, lame plot, shallow ending” – Yiannis F.
  • “Why was she blind” – Dev Mac the conqueror
  • “The linguistic and grammatical clumsiness, even in the sample, is unbearable. Talk about turgid prose. It was like walking on an inviting beach that turns out to be covered in sharp pebbles.” – Serious Reader
  • “Was never able to read this book. Ordered it, but received Fifty Shades of Grey instead.” – MDWFORD

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

Confession: I’ve been a bit apprehensive about posting this review, simply because I’m not sure that I could possibly do Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend justice. It is, quite frankly, one of the best books that I have ever read. It starts right inside the front cover: three straight pages of adoring reviews, from the stock-standard “one of the greatest novelists of our time” from the New York Times, to the highly apt “Imagine if Jane Austen got angry and you’ll have some idea of how explosive these works are” from The Australian, to the best (and most creative) “Ferrante writes with the kind of power saved for weather systems with female names, sparing no one” from the LA Times. Of course, I couldn’t help but wonder if they were over-stating things just a smidge… but they weren’t. Ferrante’s writing is just that damn good.

My Brilliant Friend is the first book in the Neapolitan series of novels (published 2012-2015). It follows the lives of Elena Greco (the narrator) and Rafaella “Lila” Cerullo, as they pull themselves up from their humble origins in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples. This version is translated from the original Italian by translator Ann Goldstein – and damn, she did one hell of a job! She somehow retained the rolling lyricism of the original Italian, with no awkward or stilted language – not a single hint to the reader that the work was not originally written in English. The translation is truly a work of art, in and of itself.

I had very determinedly not read anything about My Brilliant Friend or Elena Ferrante prior to opening the book (as is my custom: I like coming to new books with a clean slate)… but it was hard! Elena Ferrante is the darling of the literary world, and I have an unhealthy level of curiosity about her. Her name is a pseudonym, and the true identity of the author has been withheld to this day – which is incredible given that we live in the digital age, and Time named her one of the most influential people of 2016! We know that she was born in Naples in 1943, she has a classics degree, she is a mother, and (we infer) she is no longer married. Speculation as to her true identity is, of course, absolutely rife, but Ferrante herself has repeatedly argued that anonymity is a precondition for her work. She says: “books, once they are written, have no need of their authors”. Academics and literary critics have reached various conclusions as to who the “real” Elena Ferrante is, but I’ll leave it up to them – doesn’t all the guesswork spoil the fun?

Anyway, to the book: once you make it through pages and pages of praise and acclaim, My Brilliant Friend kicks off with an Index of Characters, which I thought was really interesting. It evoked the Genealogical Table in the front of my copy of Wuthering Heights, and – much like Brontë’s classic – the guide really came in handy, because the Italian names all look remarkably similar at times, and almost every character has multiple nicknames. Yikes! The prologue sets up the series’ premise: a woman (Elena) receives a phone call from the son of a friend (Lila), saying that his mother has gone missing. Elena suspects that the “disappearance” is deliberate, and she takes it upon herself to record the details of Lila’s life, a passive-aggressive attempt to stop her vanishing into thin air. Basically, it’s a fictionalised biography, written out of sheer stubbornness. From that moment, Ferrante had me hooked!

(Boilerplate spoiler warning, as much as I hate them: I figure My Brilliant Friend is good enough, and recent enough, to warrant at least a perfunctory heads-up.)


Elena begins the story with their shared childhood, in 1950s Naples. She and Lila grew up in poverty, surrounded by domestic violence, class struggles, community politics, and very little in the way of parental supervision. Neither set of parents expects the girls to receive much of an education, despite the fact that they both show remarkable academic talent. Their lives diverge when Lila’s parents refuse to allow her to continue with school, while their teacher convinces Elena’s parents to cover the costs of further education.

Ferrante’s writing is so beautiful, and chock-full of insight! She gives one of the most beautiful and articulate descriptions of a panic attack that I have ever read, describing it as “dissolving margins”. There have been rumours (of course!) that Ferrante may, in fact, be a male writer, but from reading My Brilliant Friend I find that hard to believe. Ferrante writes about developing breasts (and the male curiosity about them) in a way that could have been lifted from my very own pubescent head. The only male writer I’ve come across that has ever come close to reaching that level of insight into the female mind was William Faulkner, in a single chapter of As I Lay Dying. So, no, I don’t believe Ferrante is a man. And I could natter on about her literary mastery forever, but I’ll try to restrain myself…

Back to the story: while Elena continues with school, Lila works in her father’s cobbler business, and develops new dreams and schemes of designing her own line of shoes, with a view to making enough money to lift the family out of poverty. Lila grows disarmingly beautiful (of course), attracting the attention of every boy in the neighbourhood. A young man from a powerful local family takes it into his head that he wants to marry her, and her family puts the pressure on (after all, he’s rich enough to own a car, and he bribes them by buying them a television of their very own)… but Lilia – headstrong, determined, contrary Lila – digs in her heels. She convinces the local grocer, Stefano, to propose instead, and he gets the family onside by offering to finance Lila’s shoe project.

Now, you might think from this (very brief, I’ll admit) description that Lila is the “brilliant friend”. She is, indeed, incredibly smart – as well as beautiful, cruel, opportunistic, and ambitious, with just a hint of a soft underbelly. Ferrante flips this notion on its head, though, when Lila reveals in the moments before her wedding that she considers Elena to be her “brilliant friend”. It’s a really touching scene between them, and I was gripping the book hard and blinking a lot as I read…

Lila’s marriage doesn’t get off to a flying start, exactly. Her new husband, Stefano, betrays her trust completely, by inviting her former suitor (the young, rich, powerful guy with the car and the television and the bad attitude) to the wedding, and Lila discovers that her new hubby actually sold him the prototype of her shoe line – the shoes that Stefano told her he would treasure forever and never let go. As far as she’s concerned, he can get in the bin…

and that’s where it ends!




It is, honestly, the cruelest ending I have ever read. I mean, it’s fantastic (!), and this is exactly how a series should be done, but Jesus wept… it’s not a cliche cliffhanger, nor is everything wrapped up neatly in a bow. The story just stops! Ferrante has said that she considers the Neapolitan series to be a single book, split into four volumes primarily for reasons of length, which makes sense of the ending somewhat. But still! I wasn’t prepared! I didn’t have a copy of the next book (The Story Of A New Name) ready to pick up, and I’ve got dozens of books to go on The List before I can add any new ones! Gah!

I want to emphasise that this Keeping Up With The Penguins summary skips over a lot, because My Brilliant Friend is incredibly complex and detailed. It covers everything – burgeoning womanhood, the politics of small communities, the ramifications of war, poverty, domestic violence, sexual violence, literacy, friendship, betrayal, revenge, how women’s lives are shaped by class and status, maternity, familial obligation, social responsibility, intelligence… heck, just listing all of the themes, with a brief description of how Ferrante handles them, would make for a prohibitively long review.

Needless to say, My Brilliant Friend is a Recommended read here at Keeping Up With The Penguins. In fact, I’ve recommended it to every single person I’ve encountered since I turned the final page. That goes double – triple! – if you enjoyed Looking For Alibrandi as a teenager. I am very sure that in fifty (or seventy, or a hundred) years, we will consider My Brilliant Friend a classic of our time, the same way we consider Austen and the Brontës. Get in early, and read it now!


My favourite Amazon reviews of My Brilliant Friend:

  • “Spoiler Alert: Nothing of interest ever happens.” – Laurien in Oregon
  • “Nice. But more relevant for women…” – Amazon Customer
  • “And this is book1 out of 4! I frankly don’t think the characters are so interesting that they need to be captured in eighty squillion words. Having had said this, the author is brilliant at capturing voices and the vibe.” – D O WilshynskyDresler
  • “I don’t think I”ll finish. Boring me to death. I’m about 30% through and it’s like listening to a grandma ramble about her hardscrabble childhood. Very repetitive and not my grandma, so I don’t care.” – calamityj
  • “I got to the end of My Brilliant Friend and felt like I was missing something. Perhaps it was the plot. It went like this: two girls are friends/enemies, they get their periods and grow up, one gets married and he turns out to be a jerk. And this plot starts out in the most bizarre way. These two girls start walking up these stairs which reminds her of another story and that story reminds her of a different story until you have this Inception-like mess of stories within stories. They don’t reach the top of the stairs until 10 chapters later and by this point I’m not even sure what’s going on anymore. Is this real or not real? Can someone get Leonardo DiCaprio to spin a top for me and tell me when we get back to reality??….” – Jessica B.

 

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Harper Lee is pretty much my hero. Her author bio in the front of To Kill A Mockingbird lists “being alone” as a hobby. She refused most requests for public appearances and interviews from 1964 until her death in 2016. As if that weren’t enough, she refused to write an introduction to her world-changing novel, saying: “introductions inhibit pleasure, they kill the joy of anticipation, they frustrate curiosity…. Mockingbird still says what it has to say; it has managed to survive the years without a preamble.” Basically, she didn’t have time for anyone’s shit, and I respect the hell out of that.

To Kill A Mockingbird was first published in 1960, and found immediate success – far beyond Lee’s expectations! She thought it would be a short, quiet novel, and hoped only that it would be treated kindly by the handful of reviewers she thought might look it over. Since then, it has never been out of print. The cover of my edition (published by Arrow Books in 1997) says it has sold over 33 million copies. Best of all, it won Lee a Pulitzer Prize – and, despite his best efforts, her buddy Truman Capote could never top that. It is also widely considered to be a contender for that ever-elusive accolade of The Great American Novel.

The story is set in the fictional town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the height of the Great Depression. The narrator, Scout, is an adult recounting a story from her childhood – events that, funnily enough, bear many similarities to events that actually occurred in Lee’s own hometown (Monroeville, Alabama) during her childhood. Scout lives with her older brother (Jem), and their widowed lawyer father (Atticus), and they are visited each summer by a young chap called Dill (who, Lee confirmed, was based on her friend Capote). The three children basically run amok around the town, as you could in those days, and they become a bit obsessed with their recluse neighbour, Arthur “Boo” Radley. Meanwhile, a local judge assigns papa Atticus a very important case, defending local black man Tom Robinson, who stands accused of raping a white woman.

Now, here’s what you’ve got to understand about me: normally, characters like Atticus – the Upstanding Moral CitizenTM types – piss me right off. I have very little time for martyrs in real life, let alone in fiction. And, yet, I fell immediately head-over-heels in love with this incredible, principled man. His steadiness, his sense of justice, his determination, his honesty… I can see how he has become a kind of real-life folk hero for lawyers in the South (seriously, they’ve got an Atticus Finch Society). I haven’t felt this much adoration for a wise old owl character since Dumbledore. I do, of course, take issues with the white saviour trope, and Lee has been rightly (and roundly) criticised for that, but I couldn’t help but admire her regardless. Crafting a character with such moral fortitude, without having them come off as preachy or holier-than-thou, takes a certain kind of mastery – you got to give it to Harper Lee, she fucking nailed it!


Anyway, back to the story: the whole town turns on the Finches, believing them to be “n***er-lovers” (their words, obviously) because Atticus plans to give Tom Robinson a rigorous defence. The community’s feelings intensify when Atticus is able to definitively establish at trial that the accusers are lying – in fact, the white woman (Mayella Ewell, the eldest daughter of the town drunk) was attempting to seduce Tom Robinson, and she was beaten by her father when he caught her. Despite the overwhelming evidence presented for the defence (Tom has a disability that would prevent him from inflicting the injuries of which he stands accused), the jury still votes to convict.

As if that weren’t heartbreaking enough (literally, I was gripping the book so hard my knuckles turned white), Tom is subsequently killed by prison guards when he attempts to escape. Atticus is really shaken by this turn of events, as he truly believed that he could have had Tom acquitted on appeal. The Finches don’t have much time to grieve, however, because Mayella’s father – Bob Ewell – has it in for Atticus, who he believes made a fool of him at trial.

The climax of the story comes with Bob attacking the children, Scout and Jem… and none other than Boo Radley (that reclusive neighbour they were obsessed with a couple years back) comes to their rescue. Bob cops a knife to the chest, and this is where my personal reading of the story seems to differ from everyone else’s. I was of the impression that the identity of Bob’s true killer was deliberately left a mystery – as I was reading it, I got a real sense of ambiguity about the attribution of blame. Atticus believed that his son, Jem, had stabbed Bob, while the sheriff believed it was Boo Radley, and ultimately they “split the difference” and decided that Bob fell on his own knife. However, it would seem (as best I can tell from reading other reviews online, and watching the film) that everyone else agrees Boo Radley definitely wielded the weapon. Personally, I like my ending better, but horses for courses and all of that.



So, obviously, To Kill A Mockingbird is a pretty searing commentary of racial injustice in the Deep South. It also has a lot to say about the loss of innocence. The title itself is a reference to Atticus’s philosophy that it is a “great sin” to kill a mockingbird, because they never harm other creatures and create nothing but beautiful music for all to enjoy. Lee draws on this mockingbird motif a lot, especially when she’s making a point about moral courage and compassion (Tom Robinson, and later Boo Radley, being the metaphorical mockingbirds). Given its themes and message, the novel has (unsurprisingly) often been compared to other modern American classics, such as The Catcher in the Rye, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. I must say, though, in my (not-very-humble) opinion, it leaves all of them in the dust – it is just so damn good!

I know that everyone comes for the message about racial injustice, but I’m equally here for Lee’s treatment of gender roles. She was years ahead of the world in terms of intersectional feminism, crafting characters (like Scout’s aunt, and her teacher) that demonstrated how class and gender intensify racial prejudice; those characters that most vocally adhere to gender roles of the time also have deeply vested racist and classist attitudes. Scout, on the other hand, flagrantly violates the expectations of “young ladies”, wearing overalls and fighting boys, in the same way that she violates the script for white children by developing a close relationship with her black nanny, attending a black church, and sitting in the black section of the local courthouse during trial.

I mentioned the film a minute ago: I watched it, not long after finishing the book, and it is also bloody fantastic. Gregory Peck stars as Atticus Finch, and he won an Oscar for his performance (he probably deserved five of them, but I’m not in charge of these things). Lee was so pleased with the film and his performance that they became lifelong friends. It is definitely one of the best film adaptations I’ve seen of any book. There’s another adaptation that sounds really interesting, too: a play performed in Harper Lee’s hometown every year. White male audience members are “selected” for the jury in Tom Robinson’s trial, which is held in the actual town courthouse, and the audience is segregated for the scene. I’m putting that on my bucket list!


Unsurprisingly, given its continuing relevance, To Kill A Mockingbird is still taught in pretty much every American high school. Indeed, I remember some classes in my own Australian high school reading it as well. You’d think that its message of tolerance, compassion, fairness, and courage is one that we’d universally agree should be imparted to students… but, incredibly, this has been challenged and removed from classrooms so often that it earned a spot on the American Library Association’s list of the 100 most banned books. These challenges are usually based on the use of racial epithets (despite the fact their contextual relevance) and other “profanity”, but sometimes they swing the other way – some parents have actually complained that the racism of the time was not condemned strongly enough by the protagonist and her family. She really couldn’t win, but I get the impression that the haters really didn’t get her down. She was living her best life, out of the spotlight, never reading her own press. Ultimately, To Kill A Mockingbird isn’t perfect – as I mentioned, Atticus Finch is a white saviour in sheep’s clothing, and there’s a certain overreliance on stereotypes and caricatures of black Americans in characterisation – but it achieved massive cut-through, so perhaps we should consider it a great start for people interested in learning about racial injustice through fiction.

I always swore that I’d never read Go Set A Watchman. It was billed as “the only other novel that Lee ever published”, a sequel of sorts, but it was little more than a first draft of what became To Kill A Mockingbird. I have a number of ethical concerns about how it came to see the light of day. Many friends and others close to Lee have publicly confirmed that she was in no fit physical or mental state to satisfactorily consent to its publication; she was experiencing blindness, deafness, and cognitive impairments towards the end of her life, “coincidentally” around the same time that her new lawyer miraculously “discovered” the manuscript in a safe deposit box. The whole thing stinks to high heaven. And, yet, I loved Lee’s writing so much that I was desperate to read more of it, and I almost wavered… but I can’t quite shake the voice in my head that says it is wrong to read a book that is only accessible due to the exploitation of an elderly woman. So, I’ll satisfy myself with re-reading To Kill A Mockingbird, over and over again.

I don’t think it will come as any surprise, but I’m going to say it for the record, anyway: I wholeheartedly recommend To Kill A Mockingbird. Read it out of curiosity, read it for the cultural capital, read it for nostalgia, read it for the questions it raises – just read it! It is accessible and engaging for all readers, of any age, anywhere in the world.

My favourite Amazon reviews of To Kill A Mockingbird:

  • “It’s the book alright. Looks like a book. Feels like a book. It’s all there. Good product.” – judybubble
  • “Tequila mocking bird was awful. Complete miss representation, there was not one mocking bird drinking tequila. The book wasn’t even set in Mexico. And who the heck was Boo Radley. So confused and disappointed. If you are going for a good read try green eggs and ham. It has a fitting title and contains both green eggs and ham throughout the thrilling novel.” – Annonymis
  • “DO NOT READ, I WAS EXPECTING A GOOD BOOK, YET IT IS FULL OF TYPOS, YES TYPOS, I CANNOT READ THIS GARBAGE. I HAVE BEEN TOLD BY MANY THIS IS A CLASSIC, YET IT IS MORE CLASSLESS THAN ANYTHING. PAGE 243, HARPER MISSPELLS MAYELLA, SHE SAYS MAYEILA, A BSOLUTELY DISGUSTING.” – S. Super
  • “Sickeningly boring, the 4.5 star ave. ignites skeptical feelings of doubt in my fellow man’s ability of sound judgment. I almost dropped out of school because of the torcherous dribble of saliva it seemed to precipitate with each read.” – jesse
  • “Author does a completely inadequate job of explaining how to kill one.” – Lauren’s Dad
  • “…. Overall, don’t bother with “To Kill A Mockingbird.” A better title would if been “To Disappoint A Reader.” Simply terrible.” – Amazon Customer
  • “I bought this for my wife. She loves Gregory Peck. Watchedthe movie again the other week ago, and we lasted about 15 minutes, and then switched to Antiques Roadshow or something.FEU” – Freud

 

A Passage To India – E.M. Forster

Look at this gorgeous pristine hardcover edition of A Passage To India. I picked it up from my local secondhand bookstore for just (get this) $8! I’m not usually a hardcover reader, but for a bargain like this… I can be convinced.

A Passage To India is a 1924 novel by English author E.M. Forster. He based it on his own experiences in the subcontinent, and nicked the title from Walt Whitman’s 1870 poem “Passage to India” (published in his Leaves of Grass collection). The novel won the 1924 James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction, and has since been named in multiple “top 100 books written in English” lists. That’s how it ended up on The List, as a matter of fact!

Going in, I knew shamefully little about the British Raj. If you’re in the same boat, don’t worry, I’m here to break it down for you: the British Raj is the name given to the rule by the British Crown in India, which lasted from 1858 through to 1947. A Passage To India required quite a bit of Googling, because I was completely unfamiliar with the language and customs of that period. If you’re considering reading this one, brushing up on some background knowledge beforehand will greatly enhance your understanding, so fire up Wikipedia and get down to business!




The story begins with Adela Quested, a young British school teacher. She arrives in Chandrapore (a fictional Indian city where the majority of the action happens), accompanied by her friend Mrs Moore. Adela has come to India to decide whether she wants to marry Mrs Moore’s son, Ronny Heaslop (yes, you had to travel half-way around the world to find a husband in the days before Tinder).

An English bloke, Cyril Fielding, hosts a party shortly after her arrival, and there she and Mrs Moore meet Dr Aziz – and he’s pretty much the main man of the story from then on. He makes a (totally empty) offer to host them on an outing to the Marabar Caves, but the silly ladies actually take him up on it, so he’s totally screwed.

Now, a lot of the story seems to be implied, written into the subtext, so I may have missed quite a bit. On the one hand, A Passage To India taught me a lot (especially with all that Googling), but on the other I really wanted to tell Forster that assuming the reader’s prior knowledge of the social mores of the British Raj really isn’t the best way to get your point across. I did notice, though, that he had a really interesting way of privileging the Indian perspective. Maybe I’ve been buried in the Victorian classics for too long, but it felt really refreshing to see those colonial pricks get called out for what they were.

“No, that is where Mrs Turtan is so skillful. When we poor blacks take bribes, we perform what we are bribed to perform, and the law discovers us in consequence. The English take and do nothing. I admire them.”

It’s not all race- and class-commentary – there are some absolutely hilarious moments! I couldn’t always work out whether Forster was being ironic or whether the comedy was incidental, but I always got a chuckle either way.

“Miss Derek said ‘Golly!’

Undeterred by the expletive, the old man swept on.”

Things started to get a little clearer about half-way through, when the false rape allegation happens. Oooh, yeah – that’s a thing! See, during the trip to the Marabar Caves, Adela thinks she finds herself alone with Dr Aziz in one of the caves, and she panics and flees. She tells everyone that Aziz followed her into the cave and tried to grab her, and she fended him off. In reality, he was in another cave altogether – and Forster makes it pretty damn clear that the word of a white woman is worth far more than the defense of a brown man. The colonisers have very little evidence, but they still arrest Aziz and put him through a trial. Cyril Fielding (the guy who threw that party back at the beginning) is ostracised and condemned as a blood-traitor when he publicly declares his support for Aziz. Mrs Moore also believes in Aziz’s innocence, but she ships back to England (and dies on the way) before she can testify for him. So, pretty much everyone who supports Aziz in his defence is blacklisted or dead.

The trial goes all to hell when Adela recants (she confesses that she “misinterpreted the cave’s echo as an assault by Aziz”, which is the weakest fucking excuse I have ever heard in my life and I literally rolled my eyes). All the racial tensions boil over, and a full-on riot breaks out. This is where A Passage To India really retains its relevance to today’s social dynamics, and it’s hella interesting. Aziz has refused to be a “good Indian” in response to Adela’s accusation, and then again when she withdraws, and he is absolutely pilloried by the British for it – much like Western countries still carry unfair expectations for “grateful migrants” (if you’re not sure what I mean by that, check out this fantastic piece).

“You think that by letting Miss Quested off easily I shall make a better reputation for myself and Indians generally. No, no. It will be put down to weakness and the attempt to gain promotion officially. I have decided to have nothing more to do with British India, as a matter of fact. I shall seek service in some Moslem state, such as Hyderabad, Bhopal, where Englishmen cannot insult me any more. Don’t counsel me otherwise.”

Interestingly, Forster’s earlier drafts of the novel actually had Aziz guilty of the assault, and convicted at trial. Forster changed this for the eventual publication, and wrote a more ambiguous ending. I’m glad he did, to be honest; I think a lot of the value of A Passage To India (as far as I’m concerned) would have been lost with the original version.

And what happens in the end? Well, Adela flees back to England, never to return to India. Aziz severs all ties with Fielding, assuming that his friend actually had the hots for Adela (which, of course, he didn’t, but them’s the breaks). Two years later, Aziz and Fielding reunite, having moved on to living their best lives – Aziz is a physician to a Raj, and Fielding has married Mrs Moore’s daughter. The final pages of the books are dedicated to Aziz, as he explains to Fielding (and the reader) that he still believes India can be reunited and free from the British Raj. He explains that he and Fielding cannot be friends until the British go back to where they came from. It’s not a happy ending, per se, but it’s sure as shit pretty poignant in a post-Brexit world.


If you’re going to read A Passage To India, you need to bear in mind not only the social mores of the British Raj but also the context in which the book was published. Most books about India at the time described it as a wasteland full of savages (think the white guys in Disney’s Pocahontas), and romanticised the colonisation. Forster completely turned all that on its head, writing a story where the Indians were the good guys, and the British were the ones cocking it all up. A Passage To India isn’t perfect, by any means (for starters, it didn’t even really condemn British imperialism, more just pointed out that it wasn’t entirely perfect), and there are some very valid criticisms of how Forster handled his portrayal of race relations in India. Still, I give Forster a lot of credit.

I wouldn’t call A Passage To India a fun read, mostly because it’s bloody hard work. It’s certainly not for everyone, to say the least. But if you’re interested in expanding your horizons and you want to start looking into post-colonial literature, you probably want to give A Passage To India a once-over first.

My favourite Amazon reviews of A Passage To India:

  • “This is not a good copy. The first chapter is not there.” – Ed Wristen
  • “I didn’t enjoy this book, but im not sure it’s the authors fault, its just not a great story.” – Nikki
  • “beyond words. pun intended.” – Amazon Customer
  • “It’s going on my tombstone” – Miles Lovell
  • “This book threatens meaning badly.
    DON’T BUY THIS BOOK. NOW !!!!
    (too bad it isnt possible to give less than one star)” – forster hater

 

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