Letters Home – by Sylvia Plath

Non-Fiction

TW: Depression, suicide.

Everyone knows the story of Sylvia Plath: the successful poet who tragically committed suicide at the age of thirty, her children in the next room. You’ve probably read her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, too. Letters Home, however, offers an entirely different perspective on her life. The collection of her letters spans her time at Smith College until just a week before her death. Since most of the letters are to her mother, and the collection is highly edited by her, the tone is generally more optimistic and the content more everyday than the author’s creative work. (My edition is from 1975 and was highly edited by Plath’s mother. Later collections of her letters, including the most recent volume, published in 2018, include a wider array of letters and cover a longer time period.)

The book cover proclaims that the collection “builds with the intensity of a novel.” This is true in some sense — it’s gripping and entertaining throughout. But that’s not what makes it special. Unlike with most novels, you already know how Letters Home will end. Yet far from spoiling the shock, it supplements the reading experience with a darker under-layer: however happy she may seem, you can’t help remembering that it won’t last. As Dan Chiasson writes in The New Yorker, “The experience of reading these letters, even at their most joyous, cannot be separated from what we know is coming.” In many of her letters, she describes contentment that few enjoy. So how did things get so bad? Or were they never perfect to start with? This kind of nuanced, skeptical reading of biographical texts is rare, and makes for a more interesting and insightful experience.

The letters also strike a great balance in their content, neither excessively navel-gazing nor focusing too much on the day-to-day. Perhaps that is the advantage of being written in the present rather than in retrospect (which Plath never had the privilege to do). Regardless, the book is satisfyingly readable — I’ve near read a non-fiction book with such ease.

In a sense, the book recreates Plath’s suicide in the abrupt end to the letters. There is no final, satisfying ‘goodbye’ letter at the end of the collection; there is only a brief note by her mother. As a result, you experience the effects of her death almost in real time, and mourn the loss of Sylvia from your own life: since you receive her constant commentary in the form of letters for the entirety of the book, it feels as though she has stopped writing to you. This creates the visceral sense of a life cut short. This is amplified by all of her plans which never came to fruition, making you mourn, too, all that could have been but never was.

Letters Home prompts you to realize that mental health issues affect many different people, and often remain hidden, expressing themselves in varied ways. In the midst of marital troubles, she slips back into a depression rivaled only by the period surrounding her suicide attempt while in college. But this wasn’t necessarily inevitable, or if it was, it didn’t have to end the way it did. As a reader, you wonder whether she might have avoided her premature end if she’d had greater access to mental health support, if she hadn’t had to worry so much about money, or if Ted hadn’t been so dismissive in their last phone call. You ruminate, as her mother likely did, whether she would have survived if she’d moved back home to Massachusetts. Of course, everyone is responsible for their own mental wellness, but external factors can make that impossible. Plath’s tragic end can be a reminder to check in on the people you care about.

I would highly recommend Letters Home to anyone even remotely interested in Sylvia Plath’s life, or in the life of a writer in general. The book is certainly dated in some of its language, particularly about people of colour, Jews, and women. With that in mind, and considering its sensitive themes, it is probably not appropriate for early teens or younger. Nonetheless, this book offers a fascinating insight into the life of an author so often overshadowed by her death.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Writing: AAAAAAAAAA (10)

Pace: Medium

Buy at AbeBooks (UK)

Buy at AbeBooks (US)

Depressing Yet Compelling: A Little Life – By Hanya Yanagihara

Fictional Memoir, Romance

I had heard good things about A Little Life, so when its cover – a classic New York tenement building – caught my eye in the bookstore, I bought it. Little did I know that the book was far from a light-hearted narrative of life in the city. Although mostly set in New York, the book is laser-focused on the lives of four (and later just two) friends who met in college; the city is merely the background, the real-world grounding, to the narrative. Yanagihara establishes the group’s dynamic at the outset: Jude is reserved, Willem is charismatic and caring, JB is funny and self-absorbed, and Malcolm is nervous and self-conscious. In the beginning, all four of them narrate various chapters, offering the reader an insight into their thoughts on each other, but as the book progresses, it focuses increasingly on Jude and Willem. As a result, JB and Malcolm’s characters are less developed or interesting. This is even more true for the many side characters referenced throughout the book. Since it is a particularly long novel (over 700 pages), I found it difficult to remember characters who were introduced at various points and then mentioned again much later. Luckily, however, this doesn’t adversely affect the reading experience. In fact, since it is often difficult to figure out the narrator at the start of the chapters, with few clues at your disposal, I have to believe that this state of disorientation and fogginess is intentional, especially as so much of the book is about memory.

“Why, then, does he insist on revisiting and replaying events that happened so long ago? Why can he not simply take pleasure in the present?”

p. 461

By the time I was halfway through the book, I was already tired from crying so much. One step forward in Jude’s life was always followed by two steps back; this was true throughout the book. While making for an infuriating and depressing read, Yanagihara calls into question assumptions about the recovery process from trauma, arguing not only that recovery is non-linear, but that it can’t always work if the person doesn’t want it. The author refuses to give the reader a natural narrative arc or a happy ending. At times, it felt like she was daring me to give up, to read something more light-hearted, just as Jude tests everyone in his life. I’m glad I stuck it out – the characters are irresistible, even if sometimes unrealistic, and I had to know how it all would end – but I was also relieved when it was over. Parts of the book are physically painful to read. It would most likely be triggering for people who have been affected by sexual abuse (including child abuse), domestic violence, self-harm, and suicide. I wouldn’t blame anyone for putting it down because they found it too upsetting. Certainly, if you’re looking for joy in your reading material, look elsewhere. But it can be strangely cathartic to cry about someone else’s (fictional) suffering – it may help you to reflect on your own life.

A Little Life is undoubtedly brilliant, yet I hesitate to recommend it. It’s not for everyone. I can’t even say that my reading experience was enjoyable, really. It’s a long, painful, depressing read. The bright points – the few times when Jude realizes that he is loved – feel that much brighter, but they also make the lows even more gut-wrenching. If you persevere, though, the book will show you the best and worst of humanity. Few books will make you feel as much as A Little Life will.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAA (8)

Pace: Medium

Buy at Waterstones (UK)

Buy at Barnes & Noble (US)

Family Dysfunction: The Corrections – by Jonathan Franzen

Tragicomedy

This book stood on my shelf unread for years. The blurb made me want to have read it, but not to read it. It seemed both shallow (about a family christmas?!) and pretentious: “The Corrections brings an old-fashioned world of civic virtue and sexual inhibitions into violent collision with the era of home surveillance, hands-off parenting, do-it-yourself mental health care, and globalized greed”. Surprisingly, it was neither.

In retrospect, the blurb was technically accurate, but it’s misleading. The Corrections centers on a midwestern family: elderly parents and their three adult children who left home long ago for the East Coast. At the book’s heart is their dysfunction, both in their own lives and with each other. Each of the children had sought to escape their parents, to build better lives for themselves, but they all ended up unhappy, and their parents continue to cause them trouble. They are also deeply critical of each other and their lives – Gary sold out; Chip is a failure; Denise thrives on chaos. Each member of the family is an island; they don’t help each other or even try to understand one another. They feel trapped in their lives with no chance to change. By the end of the book, some of them finally gain redemption and clarity. Others never do. That’s part of what makes this book so good – its imperfect happy ending. Few books that I have read felt so real.

The first few pages drew me in with their lyricism – sheerly gorgeous words, like poetry or a spoken story. It was a little dense – stick with it! – not to mention confusing, but soon I had the pleasure of meeting the real attractions of the book: three screwed up siblings. At first, they’re comically unlikeable; you keep reading for entertainment. But progressively through the book, as the perspective switches amongst the five family members, you can’t help but root for all of them, no matter how selfish or gratuitous their actions. They’re not evil people, after all, although it takes a while for some of them to show it.

I can’t recommend this book enough. If you’re looking for a story about a family, about people’s lives, that feels real, then this is definitely the book for you. It is pretty long and sometimes goes on a bit; it also might feel a little too close to home for some, hitting a nerve. But you’ll be glad you persevered with it. By the end, you’ll be left with an odd sense of peace and faint optimism.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAAAA (10)

Writing: AAAAAAAAA (9)

Pace: Medium

Buy at Waterstones (UK)

Buy at Barnes & Noble (US)

A Tortuous Trip: The Voyage Out – by Virginia Woolf

Classic Literature, Romance

I picked this book up because of its cover: a soothing view of the sea from a boat. I bought it for the author – it was about time I’d read some Woolf. I was encouraged by the opening, which had characters that were realistic yet distinct enough to be interesting. It also had irresistible descriptions of London at the turn of the century, arguably the height of its charm.

The honeymoon phase was soon over, though. The part of the book that was set on the sea seemed to drag on and on, much like the journey itself would have. Perhaps that made it more realistic, but for a reader, the static scenery permeated to the narrative itself. It’s true, the characters were compelling enough – moody, pensive and naive Rachel; her somewhat neurotic aunt, Rachel; and of course, the Dalloways and the storm that follows them. The passengers’ interactions, with all their various tensions and desires, prompted absorption for a while, but not long enough.

It was therefore a relief when they finally reached land, despite the Dalloways’ frustrating and anticlimactic departure from the narrative. The strange country they found themselves in was intriguing and beautiful, even if the landscape, especially the mountains, were often vague. The new social context was refreshing, with more people to learn about and observe as they interacted with Rachel and the Ambroses. Still, that too grew tiresome eventually, at least in part because some of the characters were too similar to easily distinguish or understand. The expedition to the wilderness was monotonous and unexciting, save for the blossoming romance between Rachel and Terence. When the group returned, the book increasingly focused on the young couple’s relationship, which was more engrossing than most of the book. At times, Rachel’s indecisiveness and dramatic tendencies were tiresome, but at least they added dimension to a character and a situation that could otherwise have been trite – the young couple in love considering their future together has certainly been written before.

For various reasons, I put the book down at the start of the summer and left it in the UK. When I finally returned home six months later, I was determined to finish it – I’d been reading it on an off for over a year. When I picked it up again, though, I really enjoyed it. Perhaps because I hadn’t had the chance to read in a while, or because I was eager to finish it; no doubt also because much of the book’s most dramatic events happen in the last fifty pages or so. I savored those last few chapters – the couple’s intimacy and tension, the shocking illness and its aftermath. I truly felt that I’d lived with them in South America for months; it was satisfying to see something come out of it, even if it was devastating.

I found Woolf’s writing surprisingly readable – it wasn’t as dense or cryptic as I’d expected it, especially from what I’d heard about To the Lighthouse. But it was definitely slow, sometimes painfully so. She spent pages describing a scene of people or a landscape when she could have used a few lines. I did appreciate the insight into English life at the turn of the century; it felt far closer to Austen’s times than even mid-nineteenth century, let alone the present day. I just wish more of the book had been set in London, for the beautiful setting as well as a more fleshed out social and political context which the book only hinted at.

Overall, I am glad I read it, but also relieved to have finished it. It was a slog, and didn’t always provide the easy escape I was looking for. Still, I would recommend it; although I can’t compare it to her other books, from what I understand, it is perhaps a good place to start with her writing.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAA (5)

Writing: AAAAAAAAA (9)

Pace: Slow

Buy at Waterstones (UK)

Buy at Barnes & Noble (US)

Top Five Quick Reads

Non-Fiction, Short Fiction, Top Five books

Despite identifying as a bookworm, I often find myself intimidated by big books. Everyone knows how terrible it feels to start a book and fail to finish it (I’ve been doing that a lot lately). The next thing you know, you’ve stopped reading altogether. If you recognise any of this, know that you’re not alone, even in the book community. More importantly, I’ve got you covered. Here are my top five utterly unintimidating quick reads that will wrench you out of your reading rut in no time.

Reunion Fred Uhlman cover

Reunion – By Fred Uhlman

A friend recommended this novella to me and I didn’t know what to expect. It turned out to be one of the best works I’d read in a long time. The book is written from the future, as Hans Schwarz looks back on his childhood in Stuttgart, Germany in the early 1930s. At the centre of the narrative is his friendship with young aristocrat Konradin von Hohenfels. At first, it’s a great coming of age tale. As the story progresses, though, and the Nazis rise to power, the protagonist’s Jewish heritage – previously insignificant to his life and identity – edges closer to the forefront when it becomes an issue not only at school but in the boys’ friendship. Unlike in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, the complexities of a friendship between a Jewish boy and the son of an antisemite are not neatly tied up with a bow. There are no grand, heroic gestures that defy their differences. This is for the better, and what makes this story so special. Make sure to stick it out until the end – I promise you won’t regret it.

Notes on Nationalism – By George OrwellNotes on Nationalism George Orwell cover

This mini essay collection’s hyper-relevant subject matter, acclaimed author, and irresistibly low price (£1!) caught my eye in a bookstore and I had to buy it. Unlike my neglect of the numerous non-fiction books on my bookshelf, I not only picked this one up but finished it too. It contains three essays: Notes on Nationalism, Antisemitism in Britain, and The Sporting Spirit, all centering on nationalism as Orwell broadly defines the word. For him, nationalism isn’t just hostile patriotism; it’s a bigoted frame of mind, and includes ideologies as wide-ranging as communism, pacifism, and political catholicism. The essays not only contain Orwell’s eye-opening theories, but also offer a window into the time they were written: 1945 Britain, when stalinism, trotskyism and especially antisemitism were epidemic. Benefit from the famous writer’s ever-relevant wisdom without having to commit to a hefty book.

The Catbird Seat James Thurber coverThe Catbird Seat – By James Thurber

I had never heard of this short story or author until a week ago, when I attended a local group reading of the story. I loved it. Long before his time, Thurber managed to create a story that is at once comedic, dark and thought-provoking. The story is a social commentary, a window into life – particularly gender relations – in 1940s New York whilst remaining pertinent and surprising. The Catbird Seat follows Erwin Martin – neurotic, weak, resentful – as he seeks revenge against the domineering Ulgine Barrows. I don’t want to give anything else away; every paragraph is new treasure. At just a few pages long, you have nothing to lose by reading this short story, so give it a try! It might just get you back into reading or even introduce you to your new favourite author.

Dark Days – By James BaldwinDark Days James Baldwin cover

Another mini essay collection from the same series as Notes on Nationalism, Dark Days includes three essays by renowned novelist, essayist and activist James Baldwin: The White Man’s Guilt (1965), Dark Days (1980) and The Price of the Ticket (1985). I bought this book for its famed author – I’d been meaning to try his work – but didn’t foresee the impact it would have on me. The essays were moving, magnetic. I read the collection in one sitting, hungrily absorbing his words. His raw anger is woven throughout his memories and reflections on race relations in America:

To be black was to confront, and to be forced to alter, a condition forged in history. To be white was to be forced to digest a delusion called white supremacy.

Dark Days taught me about black history, and inspired me to seek more. Read the collection if, like me, you want to try Baldwin’s writing and learn about the black experience in America.

The House on Mango Street Sandra Cisneros coverThe House on Mango Street – By Sandra Cisneros

Unlike the other works in this list, The House on Mango Street is neither an essay collection nor a novella, but a short bildungsroman. Structured in a series of vignettes from protagonist Esperanza Cordera’s early adolescence, this book illustrates life in a Chicano and Puerto Rican neighbourhood of Chicago. Each vignette has a theme: the first is about the houses Esperanza’s family have lived in, and the house she dreams of living in. Others centre on the family members’ different hair, friendships with neighbours,    and even the privilege of bringing a packed lunch to school. They all contribute to a greater picture of Esperanza’s life growing up and navigating the world. 

A friend gifted this book to me (the same friend who recommended Reunion) and wrote a note on the first page. Her words say it all, so I wanted to share an excerpt:

I wanted to give you this book for two reasons: 1) It’s small enough that you can take it to college without exceeding the baggage weight limit and  2) It’s the first book I really read

 

When was the last time you really read a book? Don’t waste any more time; rediscover the magic of reading with these quick reads.

Part Two

My Blogging Journey

One day, I was checking my emails when the wrong account came up. It was full of emails – around sixty – and I thought I’d somehow opened the wrong email account. I checked at the top for the name of the email: aliasalist@gmail.com – my blog’s  email account. I hadn’t checked it since I first made it, when I started my blog. I couldn’t believe I had been so stupid to have completely forgotten about it. As I scrolled down the emails, I read their subjects: mostly related to book review requests, with a few from book marketing companies. I was in wonder at the idea that people wanted me to read their book to review it – that they’d actually let me read it for free just so that I reviewed it. I didn’t understand how all of those people found my tiny blog.

I went through all the emails one by one, replying to the requests that seemed to fit with my reading interests – I was still in shock that I was CHOOSING which books I wanted to read (for free) and review. I tried to make it clear to the people that I did reply to that I couldn’t guarantee I would even write a review, although I did promise to read it. They sent me PDFs of their books, and that was that.

The first review-copy book that I read, and later went on to review, was Crossroads, a collection of essays by Ugandan women about their lives and their experiences of the conflict between western and traditional values in their society. I didn’t know what to expect, as I had never read anything like it. But something about it drew me in – so I read it (on my phone), and loved it from the very first page. I enjoyed some of the essays more than others, but I certainly learned something valuable from each.

After I reviewed the book, I sent the link to Christopher Conte, the book’s author, who had requested my review; I got such a thrill from having fulfilled his hopes. I later saw that he featured my review on his website. I felt special, and appreciated.

I now get review requests fairly often, from authors, marketing teams and from a publicity agency with whom I work with to read books and write reviews for their clients, authors. I enjoy receiving books that I’m interested, however find it hard sometimes to express that I might not be able to write a substantive review of their book, or simply read it and write the review within the deadline – because after all, I’m becoming increasingly busy with school. Plus, I still want to carry on reading books that I find myself (bought from bookstores), upon recommendations and inspiration from Goodreads. I know how important it is to remain inspired by books.

Part One

My Blogging Journey

This is my blogging journey: the many ups and many, many more downs. At first I though I’d just write about difficulties with posting enough and balancing reading and blogging with school, but I soon realised that my ‘journey’ – which I’ve been chronicling ever since I started blogging – deserved to be shared. The jury’s still out on whether it’ll be worth it in the end, but even if my blog never becomes super-successful, I hope it’ll be a testament to my effort and my grit.


One summer, I didn’t have much to do, after desperately yet unsuccessfully hunting for a job in one of the three supermarkets near where we live. I had read a record number of books that summer, partly because of my boredom, but also because I’d joined the local library. I decided to start my own book blog – I’d read a few online and really enjoyed them, and I thought it would be something fun to do to fill my time. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved books, but until I started Alia’s A-List, I was always a ‘passive’ reader – I never did anything with my passion for books. This felt like an opportunity to give back to books.

I wrote a few reviews in quick succession – of books that I had read recently as well as books I’d read a while ago. Writing about books seemed like the easiest, most natural thing in the world. I was simply writing down my thoughts on books, which I often discussed anyway, so it wasn’t so different. I created my ‘structure’, which I’ve used ever since – including the rating by ‘As’ system.

I was so excited about starting this new project. That feeling when you know you’re at the start of something special and important, something that could become really successful, must be the best feeling in the world. I looked towards my future and all I could see were opportunities. I didn’t get bogged down with the details – like how I would be able to read enough to keep the reviews coming at such a rate, or how I would find the time to blog during school-time. It all seemed so exciting, so fresh, so full of possibility, that I couldn’t imagine how it could possibly not work out. I didn’t know what it would be like trying to review during term time, but I vowed I would find a way to blog as much as possible when I got back.

Soon, the novelty wore off and the summer vacation came to an end. I was faced with reality: how was I going to fit reading and blogging around my busy school schedule? I underestimated how busy I would be: that fall, I moved up to the senior part of my school (like high school) – getting more homework plus joining various clubs – and started a Saturday job. I struggled to post even one review a month – not just because I was busy, so I had less time, but also because I found it hard to find the time to read enough.

Slowly but surely, my involvement with my blog, and even my reading, dwindled. When the new year came, though, I made it my mission to blog and read more. I got back into reading, making it my priority even over hanging out with my friends sometimes. But despite reading more, I still struggled to blog much more than I had been before. I was often unable to review the book that I had read straight after finishing it because I was at school, and so had homework that night. This meant that I had to wait for the weekend, by which time I had forgotten some of my thoughts about the book, especially as I had probably started a new book in the meantime. So when I wrote reviews, my opinions were often vague and inaccurate to how I had really felt.

Throughout the year, time-consuming things always seemed to pop up, like tests and schoolwork. I couldn’t prioritise my blog, and this reflected on the quality and frequency of my posts.

When summer came, it wasn’t much better – it certainly wasn’t as easy as I’d thought it would be. I started my job at the local supermarket (this time round I called in the winter/spring to secure my place). Aside from being pressed for time and tired from my job, I wasn’t feeling inspired or motivated to read. I read a pretty hefty book for quite a while, repeatedly coming close to putting it down but never quite able to bring myself to abandon it. After I finally finished it, the last thing I wanted to do was explore my thoughts in depth on it. But I forced myself to review it. I constantly procrastinated – the prospect of being on the beach relaxing, especially after a hard day’s work at the market, seemed far more appealing than staying cooped up inside, desperately trying to ‘explore’ and develop my limited opinions on the book. I eventually managed to write a review which I had to force out, reading other reviews online for inspiration. I was left disinterested and uninspired with reading and reviewing.

One of my parent’s friends was talking to me about my blog, and I described how I was feeling towards reading and blogging. She told me to blog or at least write notes as often as possible, so that I keep track of my views and feelings whilst reading the book. This was great advice, and I try to follow as much as I can will myself to. But the most important thing she told me was to make sure I enjoy reading and blogging; that when I write a review, I should be doing it for MY enjoyment, rather than to gain followers or likes. Every time I feel the pressure to read and write, I try to remember what she said: to enjoy it. Sometimes it’s a lot of hard work with no payback, but I’d like to believe that no matter how many views I get, my blog will remain special, relevant and valid.

After I started following her advice, writing notes and keywords whilst reading books, I found writing reviews much easier and more natural. They seemed to flow out of me, like they used to when I first started my blog. I began to enjoy reading and writing again – although this might have had a lot to do with the books themselves.

When I went back to school, blogging was harder, but I remained mostly on track, posting on average two reviews a month. I was pretty happy with how it was going. But that didn’t last long…

Not just a book about marriage: Pride and Prejudice – By Jane Austen

Classic Literature, Romance

Pride and Prejudice is one of those books I always felt I should have read. I didn’t even know what it was about, just that is was written by Jane Austen and considered a classic. But although I felt guilty for not reading it, I would never have gotten around to it if it hadn’t been for the film.

I came across the film on Amazon Prime, spotting Keira Knightley and some attractive man (Matthew MacFadyen) on the cover. Although apprehensive, I was intrigued, so decided to watch it.

I loved it; everything about it: the voices, the clothes and, most of all, the entertaining yet authentic characters. After watching the film, I knew that I had to read the book, and that I might even enjoy it (and what’s more, understand what’s going on, which is more than I can say about every Dickens I’ve attempted).

That night, I picked it up. It was slow-going at first, but the zingy one-liners kept me going. Even that too oft-quoted first sentence possesses a magical quality:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.

This book does have a plot, too, of course, but I must stress: its beauty isn’t borne from any complicated plot intricacies or exotic location descriptions. It’s in the characters and their small yet significant interactions. Strictly speaking, Pride and Prejudice is about a group of sisters looking for men to marry. Most if not all of them make a fool of themselves in the process. There are rich, attractive men, and less rich, certainly less attractive men. There are old ladies in fancy gowns, horse-drawn carriages, piano fortes, card games. If these details aren’t handsome enough to tempt you, then fear not: the book is more than its constituent parts. Yes, it’s an enduring, addictive love story – and you won’t help but root for our leading couple – but it’s also about class differences (even within the same class), character virtues and how overrated first impressions are.

If you’re still not convinced, read it for Elizabeth. The only Bennet sister who isn’t silly and ignorant, she’s headstrong, funny, opinionated. To everyone around her, and especially to Mr Darcy, she’s enchanting, bewitching. She’s a role model, not because of her looks or her charm on men, but for her character. For her kindness, wit, smart, and also for her faults. Perhaps she wasn’t a feminist (if they had existed at the time), but she was one of the first female characters for readers to look up to; that’s pretty special.

Finally, Pride and Prejudice is a period piece, offering an insight into Georgian life. If, like me, you’re fascinated by this era and its idiosyncrasies, read this book for a front-row seat onto the everyday ups and downs of an (upper) middle-class lifestyle. It’s an understanding that you simply can’t gain from a history textbook.

This book draws you in with its irresistible love story, but keeps you wanting more with its vivid characters, amusing interactions and fascinating details of regency life. I can’t say how glad I am for having clicked that Watch Now button – thanks to that movie, I have gained another favourite book to forever return to.

I strongly recommend that you give it a try, too. I would even go so far as to (I admit, blasphemously) suggest watching the movie first like me – it’s captivating, and less of an investment. You won’t regret it.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA (7)

Writing: AAAAAAAAAA (10)

Pace: Medium/Slow

Buy at Waterstones (UK)

Buy on Amazon (UK)

Buy at Barnes & Noble (US)

Buy on Amazon (US)

For the love of books: Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury

Classic Literature, Dystopian, Sci-Fi

Fahrenheit 451 foresees a world in which books are outlawed and TV rules over all. In the midst of all this emerges an unlikely hero: Guy Montag. A ‘fireman’, whose job is in fact to start fires rather than put them out, Montag meets a young girl who plants a seed in his mind that changes his life; a seed of questioning. Inspired by her curiosity about everything around her, the fireman begins to question his life, too, until he slowly – and then quite suddenly – realises that the society he lives in is deluded and utterly ignorant. From this epiphany, he resolves to change things, with drastic results.

I’m not a huge fan of science fiction novels, and I’m always somewhat apprehensive about reading a book that’s considered a classic. But I found 451‘s storyline intriguing, and although I sometimes struggled to visualise aspects of the world that Bradbury creates, the future he portrays is convincing. The book is perfectly readable and compelling, and its short length – only 211 pages – prevent it from being at all intimidating. The characters are vivid and credible, if not always likeable, and the narrative moves quickly. Above all, this book is thought-provoking, posing questions about authoritarianism and submission, the importance of culture, and the reliability and value of books. 451 reflects the future for our society if we continue as we do. The story is eery because, after 50 years, it’s still relevant – we still have the same questions, the same concerns about our lifestyles and our future.

What makes this novel so special is that it reminds you why books are so great; why books are important, vital even, to society. Despite making a strong case for how books can destroy, deceive, disorient, this only makes the overall effect stronger. I love this book for providing me with an escape, without pushing it on me, and for gently reminding me why I love books. After finishing 451, I couldn’t wait to devour another novel.

However, I was left a little unsatisfied by the end. Although the book ends powerfully, there was no mention of the girl Montag meets at the beginning, and I felt that a mention of her was important the bring the book full circle – especially as she doesn’t feature much in book, despite having huge impact on Montag.

Overall, 451 is enjoyable, though-provoking, and well-written; I would definitely recommend it.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAAA (9)

Writing: AAAAAAAAA (9)

Pace: Quick

Buy at Waterstones (UK)

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Buy on Amazon (US)

Memoirs of a Geisha – By Arthur Golden

Fictional Memoir, Historical Fiction, Romance

You may have watched the film, as I had, but forget your judgements – the book is so much more powerful: sad, beautiful, persisting. As I sometimes feel after I’ve finished a treasured book, my life seems altered in a small way forever. This is the story of a young girl’s struggle through life, the goals that she strives for, and her unfaltering – yet unglorified – kindness to the people around her.

Memoirs of a Geisha holds the life-story of Chiyo (who later becomes Sayuri), from her birthplace in the fishing village of Yoroido to her new existence in the Geisha district of Gion. The girl, with her pale blue-grey eyes, is said to have a water-based personality, impotent as she flows towards her destiny. It is true that she holds a strong, unwavering destiny, but she is nonetheless stubborn and utterly determined, staying true to her vows and desires until she eventually achieves them. The protagonist is likeable, thoughtful, kindhearted, but some feel jealousy and resentment towards her, and impede her. When a man, the Chairman, shows her unexpected and unprescribed kindness, she vows to give her life to him in the hopes of one day winning his favour as a renowned geisha. Despite eventually becoming a distinguished geisha, however, her mission proves far more difficult than she imagined. For women, and especially geisha, do not chase after their own destinies or desires; they are expected to accept and appreciate the favour of whomever. It would be forbidden, unheard of, for Chiyo, now Sayuri, to seek out the Chairman’s favour. She continues with her life as a geisha, experiencing great hardships many turns of fate, but never forgetting her love for the Chairman.

I couldn’t stop talking about this book while I was reading it, enthralled as I was by the fascinating Japanese culture, vibrant characters and, most of all, the heart-wrenching love story. Golden writes beautifully and yet not overly elaborately. I can’t recommend this book enough, especially to people who are interested in learning about Japanese culture and modern history, or simply enjoy life-stories of interesting people.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAA (8)

Pace: Slow

Buy at Waterstones (UK)

Buy on Amazon (UK)

Buy at Barnes & Noble (US)

Buy on Amazon (US)