Michael Gambon in the BBC adaptation.
After the Harry Potter series left a terrible, gaping hole in my hearts (in all of our hearts, I should say), I had mixed feelings about the very thought of a new book by J.K. Rowling. What if it wasn’t as good as the Potter series, which had made such a profound impact on my life? What if I actually hated this new novel? Was I ready to be let down by a writer who had been with me from childhood all the way to my first year of university?
I bought The Casual Vacancy the week it came out – and then left it on my bookshelf for three years, untouched. Every once in a while I would glance at the shining red-and-yellow hardback, glaring at me from the other side of the room. I felt guilty, like some sort of literary coward. So what if this book wasn’t any good? Did I really think that would taint my love for Harry Potter? And what if it did? Isn’t taking off the nostalgia goggles and facing inevitable disappointment a part of growing up? With the BBC adaptation coming out this year, I decided that it was finally time to face the music of mediocrity and tackle The Casual Vacancy once and for all.
Cover art by Marc Simonetti.
After Pyramids (review here), I decided to continue on the “Ancient Civilisations” path and picked up Small Gods as my next Discworld read. In this installment, we follow the formerly great god Om as he and his prophet Brutha as they battle zealotry, discuss the nature of belief, and try to restore Om to his former glory. As a classics nerd with an interest in philosophy and mythology, watching Pratchett throw around references to Archimides, Diogenes, and the Library of Alexandria is a ton of fun as well as a great challenge; every time I could whisper “I see what you did there Pratchett” to my book, I felt a small sense of accomplishment. See that Marcus Aurelius joke there? I caught that! Go me!
However, there is a lot more to this book than Horrible Histories-worthy slapstick. Like all Discworld books, Small Gods has a fundamental question at its core, only barely covered up by a layer of jokes.
Still from the 2015 TV adaptation.
I have a confession to make: it’s been three weeks since I finished Ross Poldark (life got the way of my review, my apologies), and even though I’d jotted down some notes at the time, I can already barely remember this book. This is a problem – not just for me and my review, but also for the author, Winston Graham. The plot of his first Poldark novel has potential, but its execution is far from memorable.
This was a first for me – a book cover that informs you of the main elements of the plot (see picture above). Pranks? Infiltration? Secret society? Boys? How thrilling! On top of this premise, I had heard good things about this author’s other book, We Were Liars, so I was very excited to start reading this novel. In some respects The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks was better than I had expected it to be; Lockhart manages to tackle issues of gender and power in a thoughtful yet accessible way. How many young adult books introduce their readers to Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon? I know sixteen-year-old me would have been hooked (and would have worked the Panopticon into every single one of her school essays and presentations for the rest of the year).
“A Monster Calls” illustration by Jim Kay.
We tend to think of grief and mourning as maladies of the mind, but the loss can grow and expand until it feels like more like a presence than an absence. In the poem “Death Barged In,” Kathleen Sheeder Bonanno describes her pain as a mysterious figure in a Russian greatcoat who barges in, slams the door, and now makes all her decisions for her:
Even as I sit here,
he stands behind me
colossal hands on my shoulders
and bends down
and whispers to my neck,
From now on,
you write about me.
I read A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Last Night I Sang To The Monster by Benjamin Alire Sáenz back to back on a whim, only to find out that they have much more in common than just the word ‘monster’ in the title. Both are by incredibly talented young adult authors, both are about troubled families, and in both books, the loss these protagonists so desperately refuse to acknowledge takes on the physical form of a monster, looming over them.
I felt bad buying this book.
I felt bad reading it.
And now I feel bad writing about it.
I have avoided Go Set a Watchman as long as I possibly could; every time I saw it in a bookstore, I frowned and looked the other way. I didn’t want to be a part of it. In the end, I did give in. “You’re a literature blogger,” I told myself, “you can’t not talk about this book. You have a responsibility, this is one of things will you have to write about eventually.” So I took a deep breath and bit the bullet. I carried Go Set a Watchman around with me for a week, and every time I took it out, one of my friends or colleagues would point at the cover and say: “I’m so curious! Is it any good?” I have avoided giving a definite answer. “I don’t know yet, I’m only on page six.” “Too soon to say, I’m only halfway through.” Now that I’ve finished it, I can’t get away with this anymore; I have to have an opinion.
My opinion is that this book makes me sad – for so many reasons.
This summer, my parents and I went on holiday to Cornwall and visited Tintagel Castle, which was supposedly the place where King Arthur was conceived. It’s a popular tourist attraction, surrounded by gift shops where you can buy your kids a toy Excalibur or Merlin’s pointy hat. Since I love to buy books in the place where they are set or were written, I decided to buy a copy of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King (and a beautiful hardcover edition of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca). I knew that it told the story of King Arthur, that it was on every single list of best fantasy books, and that my sister-in-law, who is an avid fan of Robert Jordan, George R.R. Martin, and Terry Goodkind, had been begging me to read it for years. I figured that it would be an epic fantasy story with lots of drama and violence – which it is. It is also nothing like that at all.
Illustration by Elise Stevens.
If you thought that Roald Dahl’s children’s books were deliciously gruesome (and they are), wait until you see what he has in store for the adults. In Kiss Kiss, Dahl combines horror and comedy to give us eleven memorable short stories. He obviously delights in making his readers feel as uneasy as possible right before pulling the rug out from under them, grinning at the shocked look on our faces. As a teacher, I get to experience some of this joy myself. I am currently teaching this collection to a group of sixteen-year-old students, and every week, I get to watch them as they slowly realise what is going on in each story. One by one, they all suddenly turn to me and go: “Ooohhhhhhh! Oh God, that’s terrible!”
“An Education” (2009) still.
“Sylvia Plath – interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality.”
Annie Hall (1977)
That quote is the perfect illustration of why it can be difficult to say that you love Sylvia Plath, especially for young women; her name and the title of her novel have become synonymous with a whole set of implications neither Plath nor the reader ever asked for.