Book Review: “H Is For Hawk” (2014) by Helen Macdonald

Original photograph by MJ Springer.

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The first time I tried to write a review for this book, I was going to stick to the facts. I was going to marvel at what a coincidence it was that I’d read T.H. White’s The Once and Future King only a few weeks before this (review here) and comment on my mixed feelings towards its author. I was going to draw comparisons to Moby-Dick and the daemons in His Dark Materials. I’d planned to wax philosophically about how the hawk functions as a mirror in the narrative, reflecting Macdonald’s own emotions back at her, cutting her hands with its razor sharp edges.

The second time I was going to comment on how, even though my own father survived his heart attack earlier this year (which I touched upon in my review of Pyramids), I still felt that I could relate to her story of loss and bewilderment in a way that I would not have been able to before. I would have brought in other memoirs of loss, including personal favourite Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty, and knowing me, there probably would have been a reference to the Book of Job at some point.

But the picture still felt incomplete. It felt dishonest. The truth is that I could not have picked up this book at a better (or worse) time; as I was reading about Macdonald’s mourning process and her struggle to train a goshawk, I was sinking deeper and deeper into a hole of my own, clawing at the walls, unable to find my way out.

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Book Review: “The Casual Vacancy” (2012) by J.K. Rowling

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Michael Gambon in the BBC adaptation.

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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.

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Book Review: “Small Gods” (1992) by Terry Pratchett

 

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Cover art by Marc Simonetti.

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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.

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Book Review: “Ross Poldark” (1945) by Winston Graham

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Still from the 2015 TV adaptation.

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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.

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Book Review: “The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks” (2009) by E. Lockhart

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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).

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Book Review: “Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit” (1985) by Jeanette Winterson

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Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit is one of the quintessential queer coming-of-age novels (well, more like a barely veiled memoir, but okay). It tells the story of a young Jeanette, growing up in a strict religious household in a small English town. Because of her upbringing, she has trouble fitting in both at school and in the general community. Her mother bears this outsider status as a badge of honour, but young Jeanette sometimes feels frustrated that some people don’t understand her. And then she falls in love with another girl.

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Book Review: “Last Night I Sang To The Monster” (2009) by Benjamin Alire Sáenz AND “A Monster Calls” (2011) by Patrick Ness

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“A Monster Calls” illustration by Jim Kay.

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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
clamping two
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.

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Book Review: “The Once and Future King” (1958) by T.H. White

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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.

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Book Review: “Kiss Kiss” (1960) by Roald Dahl

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Illustration by Elise Stevens.

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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!

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