I have been out of touch for rather a long time, mostly because I’ve been working on my craft blog www.stickerkitten.co.uk. But welcome to BookFluff, my new literature blog! I’ve migrated over old posts from literaturekitty.co.uk (now gone) and will try to do a better job of keeping this blog up to date!
I have still been reading – perhaps not as much as I used to –but our book club at work ensures I get through at least one book a month. One particular novel I’ve enjoyed is The Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North. It’s about a man who is reborn every time he dies. He is reborn in the same time and place and his memories of his previous lives return at around age four. It’s a fascinating book full of interesting ideas, adventures and drama. I also liked the cover. Though we’re told not to judge a book by its cover I think it sets the tone for the novel and invites the reader in with certain expectations. This one seemed to have it quite right – a little quirky and strange, but fascinating the deeper you look.
As I’ve mentioned before, one of the things that makes a good novel for me is one I feel I can come back to and get more from. With The Fifteen Lives of Harry August I think I could read it another couple of times and find new connections, ideas and things to think about each time (including the question of what I myself would do if I got to live my life over and over again). Plus it makes you think about the nature of time and cause and effect – the influence that one person or action or discovery can have on the entire world and technological progress of the human race. Having said that it’s not too intellectual a read though and you can enjoy the story and characters without thinking too much about their mind-boggling effects on the space–time continuum.
By the end of the book I really wanted more! I wanted to know more about the content of each of Harry’s lives – even the mundane aspects – and more about his relationships. The book seems more of a ‘highlights of’ and it is well paced, but I would also have been happy to read a tome of a book with just more. I never quite felt that I got to know Harry himself. We see a lot of his actions, decisions and thought processes but perhaps not a great deal of his feelings behind everything.
I’ve also liked reading the Wool trilogy by Hugh Howey, which is a post-apocalyptic series about a group of people living in a massive underground silo to stay safe from the now toxic earth and air outside. Each novel in the trilogy has quite a different feel to it as we move to viewpoints of different characters at different points in time, but by the end of Dust, the last in the trilogy, I felt there were still things that had been left unanswered or not quite clearly explained. I was waiting for a big reveal – the answer to the question ‘why?’ but it never came. For anyone that’s finished the books and thought the same there’s an article on Howey’s site here where he answers some of the questions I’d been asking myself. He has also done a few AMAs on Reddit which I’ve yet to read. The lack of answers though does in part make me want to go back and read all the books again now that I know how everything turns out so I suppose that’s a good thing.
I’ve been reading sci fi/dystopian/post-apocalyptic type novels as I really enjoy the genre, and a lot of young adult novels fall into that category at the moment – The Hunger Games, the Divergent trilogy, The Maze Runner series, and so on, most of which have been made into a series of movies too. I’ve yet to read The Maze Runner but I have seen both the movies that are out, and there’s still a lot that doesn’t make sense to me, so I’m hoping that’ll clear up when I get round to reading them… Of those I have read I’ve really enjoyed The Hunger Games, the Divergent books and the Delirium series by Lauren Oliver. Delirium is set in a world where people have found a ‘cure’ for love – to rid the world of pain, heartbreak, anger and jealousy – but there are of course those who rebel against the system. I think I enjoy YA novels so much because the authors are forced to focus on plot and character and the strength of their ideas. Their audience is not (generally) reading for the beauty of the language. I think some of the most successful novels are those where you can really get to know and love the characters and the world they live in – Harry Potter is the best example! I’ve read the Harry Potter books more times than any others.
Non-fictionwise I have been working on a few really fascinating books at work. The first of these is the second edition of Work by Lars Svendsen – a philosophy book about why we work and the meaning of work. It’s short, accessible, easy to read and fascinating in terms of subject matter. Svendsen hits the nail with a lot of his observations, especially when discussing the fact that nowadays our leisure time can often be harder work than our jobs! It can certainly take a lot of organisation to fit everything in. Svendsen’s other books include A Philosophy of Boredom, Fashion: A Philosophy and A Philosophy of Fear, all of which sound fascinating and I really want to read them!
The second book I’ve found really interesting is The Anthropology of Obesity in the United States by Anna Bellisari. Bellisari talks about obesity from the perspectives of history and evolution as well as society and culture, showing that it is caused by many complex factors and not necessarily just down to an individual.
Just a quick post today about a book I read a few months back for our book group at work and still think about every now and again! I think that’s a sign of a good book – when you think about the plot and the characters and the themes every so often, like it has enriched your life just a little bit. The book I’m talking about is Tiny Sunbirds Far Away by Christie Watson.
The novel is set in Nigeria and narrated by 12-year-old Blessing. After the breakup of her parents’ marriage, and her mother subsequently losing her job, Blessing, her brother Ezikiel and their mother must leave their air-conditioned apartment in Lagos and move in with their grandparents in a poor village in Warri. We are introduced to a host of fascinating characters, each with their faults, but all very vivid and at times amusing. Blessing describes her new friends, her secretive trips helping her grandmother to deliver babies as the community birth attendant (her mother disapproves but Blessing wants to learn the trade), her brother Ezikiel’s trials at school and eventual involvement with a local gang, and her mother meeting a new man – a white boyfriend – and the family’s initial disapproval but gradual acceptance. The subject matter sounds heavy but it doesn’t come across that way, even though important political matters are touched upon. Though the family is poor and struggle to eat some days, the narrative is full of amusing and uplifting anecdotes and insights. I found the text straightforward, easy and enjoyable to read and, yes, difficult to put down!
I felt that there was a lot of depth and complexity to the novel and that reading it again would uncover further layers. The characters were all well constructed and their emotions and behaviour and stories drew you into the narrative. I normally find a few aspects of modern novels that I’m not keen on, but I didn’t find much to dislike in Watson’s novel. My only comment would be that certain events towards the end seemed a little surreal and jarred a little with the tone of the rest of the novel, but it didn’t stop me enjoying and appreciating such a wonderful depiction of a different culture.
I always enjoy reading about different countries and cultures, and felt so immersed in this Nigerian world that I was surprised to learn the author herself is not Nigerian. Watson is a white British novelist but this in no way makes the descriptions seem any less authentic. For more background information have a read of this enjoyable interview on the The Independent site here. There’s also a good review with a more thorough description of the issues raised in the novel here.
At the moment I am reading Cloud Atlas. Partly because I added it to my top 5 the other week without having read it (I just liked the sound of it) and partly because I’ve seen the movie trailer and wanted to read the book before seeing it (I don’t think I’ll finish it in time though!).
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell tells the tales of six different characters in six different stories that are interwoven and nested like little Russian dolls. It begins with the 1850 diary of Adam Ewing, who is exploring the Chatham Islands as he waits for his ship to be repaired, then moves on to a series of letters from Robert Frobisher, a musician in Belgium in the 1930s (who incidentally happens to be reading Ewing’s diary).
The next story focuses on the recipient of these letters, Rufus Sixsmith, now an old man, and a young reporter called Luisa Rey who is investigating a cover-up at a nuclear power plant. Then we have ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’, the tale of a publisher (who happens to have the manuscript of the ‘Luisa Rey Mystery’ in his bag) who ends up stuck in an old people’s’ home when escaping from the three angry brothers of one of his authors.
Next we jump forward in time to a future where the world is populated with clones as well as ‘pureblood’ humans. The tale focuses on Sonmi-451, a clone who works in a burger bar. She is is shown glimpses of the outside world by her friend and ‘ascends’ becoming self-aware and hungry for knowledge. She is rescued and allowed an education, and at one point watches a movie called ‘The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish’.
After that is a post-apocalyptic tale set after ‘the fall’. It follows a young man called Zachry who lives a basic life herding goats. There is no electricity and no more technology, other that what the ‘prescients’ have retained. One day a prescient called Meronym comes to stay with Zachry and his family to find out about their way of life. Zachry discovers that Meronym has an ‘orison’ – a communication device which holds a recording of Sonmi telling her story.
So, this is where I am, about half way through, and the rest of the book continues with the stories in reverse order. So I will finish Zachry’s story, then Sonmi’s, then Timothy’s, Luisa’s, Robert’s and finally Adam’s. The structure is exciting because you feel like there’s a build up and a meshing and interconnecting of characters across space and time. There’s just a small hint towards each story in the other, but that’s what makes it interesting.
The other thing I like about the structure of the novel is the fact that not every chapter is a straightforward narrative. The first chapter is styled as a diary, the second as a series of letters and the fifth as an interview transcript. The first two chapters are written in first person, the next two in third, and the final two in first again.
Mitchell also uses very different narrative voices for each story and the settings are all very different. This means that the stories are not easily confused and it’s fairly easy to keep track of what’s going on. The only problem is that some chapters are therefore more challenging to read than others. Mitchell uses dialects and vocabulary choices to reflect the time period the chapter is set in, so the nineteenth century diary has the tone of a classic novel; the letters from Robert Frobisher sound quite clipped and formal; and in the final story, Zachry has a very strong colloquial accent (I can’t quite imagine how it sounds), with the result that I found it impossible to decipher some of his sentences. The chapters I found most enjoyable were Luisa’s (the language was most straightforward here) and Sonmi’s, which had the sense that everything was so fast, powerful, commercialised and inhuman that it was on its way to its own undoing. I also liked the use of current and invented brand names – it reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Somehow a world seems so much more tangible when it is filled with brand names!
Part of the reason I like Sonmi’s story the best is because it fits well into a science fiction or dystopian genre of writing. In fact, each of the stories seems to fall into a different genre. The diary reads like a classic novel (perhaps a Dickens); the letters equally read like a novel from the 1920s or 30s (like something by F. Scott Fitzgerald or Evelyn Waugh); the Luisa Rey mystery reads like a 1970s crime thriller; Cavendish’s story is oddly postmodern; Sonmi’s tale is dystopian; and the final chapter story is an odd mix of post-apocalyptic (something like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road where there’s an emphasis on family, relationships, survival in the wild, tribes, war and religion) and an almost biblical tale about a boy who goes up a mountain with a messianic woman, faces the devil, and comes back a man.
Finally, one little thing stood out to me that I particularly enjoyed. In Timothy Cavendish’s chapter he insults Mrs Noakes and she says ‘Because you are new I will not have you eat soap powder’; then at the start of Sonmi’s chapter we learn that clones eat a product called Soap.