Unfiltered Coming of Age: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – by Betty Smith

Classic Literature, Fictional Memoir, Historical Fiction, Romance

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn follows Francie Rommely as she grows up, living in an immigrant community in Brooklyn at the turn of the century. Her family are poor, eating a limited diet and keeping to a frugal lifestyle. Like so many in their neighbourhood, Francie’s father takes his Sunday suit to the pawnbroker’s every week, and Francie dreams of someday buying a book for herself rather than borrowing one from the library. A Tree, however, does not urge you to pity the poor or feel guilty about your affluence, nor does it romanticise poverty. Francie’s mother, Katie, exemplifies that dignity and hard work are far more precious to many than free hand-outs or sympathy; the strong woman is driven by the desire to better herself and her family, and would never accept charity. This book is about growing up, facing challenges and hardships, and coming to your own conclusions about life and the world. Francie, in all of her flawed, human self, is intelligent, honest and thoughtful; I dream to be half the person she is and becomes.

When I started A Tree, I was distracted, and was not hooked; I forced myself to read it when I had nothing else to do. The book became more engaging once Francie began to experience difficulties – her mother’s evident favouritism for Francie’s brother, Neeley; the death of her beloved father; the teacher who told her to write about beauty rather than her complex life in poverty. (These mentions do not spoil the book, either, as it’s no thriller – A Tree moves at the natural pace of life and memories, and there are few plot surprises.) I found myself moved by Francie’s realisations about how life is passed on and enriched through inheritance of traits and looks, and was inspired by her experience with her teacher and consequent discarding of all things deemed ‘beautiful’ and quaint. These, coupled with her profound and honest insights about life, make Francie wise, insightful and rounded.

For the most part, she lives an ordinary life. But her experiences are richly depicted so they seem real yet fascinating, reminding me of Francie’s comments on story-writing and ’embellishing’ the truth (although I don’t believe that this is what the author did, especially as the story is semi-autobiographical). Some ideas are naive and idealistic, but they’re also heart-warming, hearkening to the nostalgia and familiarity of the American Dream; I don’t believe there is any real harm in believing in the unlikely, especially as Francie herself (and the author) grows up to be successful.

In the old country, a man is given to the past. Here he belongs to the future. In this land, he may be what he will, if he has the good heart and the way of working honestly at the right things.

If you’re looking for a captivating book, do not read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn; the power of this book is in its authentic characters and the universal experiences they share. This book is equally suitable for a child as for an adult – enjoy!

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAAA (8)

Pace: Medium/Slow

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Diary in a dark world: Never Let Me Go – By Kazuo Ishiguro

Dystopian, Fictional Memoir, Romance, Sci-Fi

I was around two-thirds of the way through Frankenstein when I realised I had barely read in a week. I’d enjoyed the book up until halfway, at which point I often found myself re-reading the same paragraphs, forcing myself to go on. I was in a rut. Whether this was due to the book or my state of mind I’m not sure, but I wanted to get out of it. Looking up at my stack of books for inspiration, I realised almost immediately what I should read. I’d bought Never Let Me Go a while ago after hearing about the book and the even more popular film. It’d been sitting on my shelf for a while, and for no particular reason, I had never got around to reading it.


Never Let Me Go is set in a darkly distorted version of our present – too familiar to be dystopian, but not quite true-to-life enough to be realistic fiction. The book centres on three students’ childhood in a picturesque boarding school and their lives after leaving, following their friendships and romances. Written from the near future, the narrative meanders spontaneously as Kathy H, the narrator, recalls memories from her past. It reminds me of a diary – descriptive, but not boring; somewhat digressive, with one anecdote leading on to the next, but not difficult to follow. Although it’s hard to put my finger on how, the book is definitely well written whilst also remaining highly readable – a rare feat.

Before starting the book, I read the cover’s review excerpts; one described the novel’s subject as ‘ourselves, seen through a glass, darkly.’ (Margaret Atwood, Slate.com) When I began reading, however, I was confused – I struggled to recognise any of our society reflected in the book’s skewed world. It was only as more details were revealed, near the end of the book, that the setting stopped being a distant horrific fantasy, but became conceivable, something that I could imagine happening. I was left with a scary thought, a dismal vision for the world’s future.

Overall, Never Let Me Go is a fantastic book – readable, well-written, and a familiar narrative with thought-provoking themes running beneath the surface. I would recommend the book to those who enjoy books largely about relationships; it is also great for people who like dark, somewhat dystopian stories.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAA (7)

Pace: Slow/Medium

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A Unique Perspective: Nutshell – by Ian McEwan

Crime Fiction, Fictional Memoir

“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”

Intrigued yet?

When I first heard about the plot, I was skeptical. Although I have faith in McEwan’s writing (the esteemed author has written from various perspectives), a book narrated by a foetus sounded tiresome. However, after hearing the author himself speak about and read from his book at an event, there was no question that I wanted to read it (especially my signed copy!).

A foetus is just beginning to develop his first thoughts when he becomes aware that his mother and her lover (who he later discovers is his uncle) are plotting to kill his father. The book is heavily based on Hamlet, from names (Trudy for Gertrude; Claude for Claudius) to the plot itself, and sometimes even quotes:

Hamlet: “I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a king of infinite space.”

Nutshell: “To be bound in a nutshell, see the world in two inches of ivory, in a grain of sand.”

Admittedly, if I hadn’t been told of this ‘influence’, I wouldn’t have recognised it – I haven’t read Hamlet. I also can’t say whether this is effective as a retelling, or if my lack of knowledge about Hamlet affected my experience. After doing some (limited) research, however, I could certainly see the resemblance.


Perhaps surprisingly, the least realistic aspect of this book isn’t the supreme intelligence of the narrator, but in fact the conspirators’ passionate – murderous, even – anger and resentment towards the offspring’s father. It is never explained why they, and in particular Trudy, feel so much hatred for him. Progressively through the book, I was confused about where the mother’s loyalties lay.

The deficit in character analysis (due to the narrator’s circumstances), which is such a crucial element in McEwan’s novels, lets the book down somewhat. Maybe as a result of this, the characters are largely caricatures – not credible, relatable, real. I only hope this is intended, portraying the foetus’ ignorance and inexperience with people.

Although McEwan’ distinctive rhetoric – including his dry humour – is apparent in the foetus’ voice, this is (for the most part) a welcome aspect. The narrator is not believable, but this does not take away from the book’s narrative or overall realism. Sometimes, however, long rants with seemingly tenuous links to the storyline crop up from nowhere, and it’s clear that these are merely opportunities for the opinionated author to express his strong personal views. An example is when he rants about self-sheltered university students and their destructive politically correct ways. I appreciate that an author’s book is their place to do what they want (including communicating beliefs), but this only works if it is appropriate and not dropped in at random.

Finally, the writing style is confusing at times, with action and commentary jumping around. Perhaps this was for effect, but if even if it wasn’t, it was manageable; it didn’t hurt my reading experience.

All in all, I enjoyed Nutshell – hooked from the first page, it is one of the better books I’ve read this year. Compared to McEwan’s other books (at least those that I’ve read), however, it wasn’t his best. The ambitious choice of narrator mostly paid off, although did make for an unusual (and sometimes lacking) read. Read if you love Hamlet and/or Shakespeare retellings, you’re looking for a ‘quirky’ book, or you’re as obsessed with Ian McEwan as I am!

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA (8)

Writing: AAAAAAAA (8)

Pace: Slow

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A Summer Paradise: We Were Liars – By E. Lockhart

Fictional Memoir, Romance

We Were Liars is about the Sinclairs, an ideal WASPy family: the patriarch, his three daughters, and their families. In summers, the clan retreats to its private island off Martha’s Vineyard. We’re told that ‘no one is a criminal’, ‘addict’ or ‘failure’ in the family; that they’re all athletic, tall and handsome, with their wide smiles and square chins. The narrator, Cadence Sinclair, is the eldest grandchild; she’s sick of being forced to act ‘normal’ and composed, and feels – along with her contemporaries on the island – that the family focuses too much on money and competition.

We Were Liars is a readable, intriguing YA novel; it’s fairly well-written, and is based on an interesting story, which many readers will relate to. At times, I felt the plot was unrealistic; however, I don’t feel this took away from the quality of the book. The narrator’s wry, intelligent voice, characteristic to so many YA books is entertaining, although sometimes tedious. The only aspect of the book that made me cringe slightly was the sweet but annoying voice of Gat, always pondering morality in a naive and condescending way.

Overall, I would recommend this book if you are looking for a solid, good-quality YA book – but don’t expect much of it as an adult book. It’s funny, well-executed and has a clever ending that you won’t expect.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAA

Pace: Medium

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The Hours – By Michael Cunningham

Fictional Memoir

The Hours follows a day in the lives of three women: Clarissa Vaughan, known fondly as ‘Mrs Dalloway’ by her closest friend, is planning a party one New York morning; Laura Brown, living in a Los Angeles suburb in the 1950s, struggles to maintain her conventional position as mother and wife to her perfect family; and Virginia Woolf who, recovering in a London suburb after a bout of depression, is writing Mrs Dalloway. The book’s chapters alternate between these three characters, linking them through parallel emotions, themes and details. Although written in the third person, the book seems almost wholly from the perspectives of the protagonists: each character’s consciousness is personably imparted, giving a commentary on the events happening in the book whilst offering an insight into the character’s personality.

The Hours is beautifully, eloquently written; Cunningham adopts extended metaphors that are not only pleasing, but also accurate. Perhaps his writing was influenced by Woolf’s, as it is vivid, metaphorical and slow-paced, reminiscent of her distinctive writing style. This book reveals another dimension of Virginia Woolf, who is not just a famous intellectual figure but was also a troubled woman, battling with depression. The protagonists are ambitious and clever, yet damaged, albeit to different extents. In particular, Brown and Woolf both struggle to act ‘normal’, to effortlessly keep up appearances. At times, they comment in admiration at other women’s abilities to act accordingly in every situation. They obsessively seek perfection, driven to madness by the idea that they are irreparably flawed. The theme of sexuality, as something to be rebelliously explored, is touched on when Laura, and later Virginia, spontaneously kisses a woman; it is described as a ‘forbidden pleasure’. This act of ‘rebellion’ is ironic, as it contradicts the characters’ desire to act appropriately.

This book questions the meaning of life; it ponders what is ‘enough’ for a person to have lived a happy, successful life. Although it doesn’t directly answer this question, it does suggest that the hours in one’s life spent being happy, with someone that they love are ‘enough’; this notion of ‘enough’ is synonymous with happiness and contentedness.

I would recommend The Hours to readers who enjoy Woolf’s writing style, and are interested in her life. They would also enjoy this book if they don’t mind a somewhat slow-paced book about the everyday lives of troubled women.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAAA

Pace: Slow

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A Modern Classic of Storytelling: The Alchemist – By Paulo Coelho

Fictional Memoir

The Alchemist follows a shepherd boy’s spiritual journey: his dreams, successes, and the obstacles that he must overcome. Santiago, the shepherd boy, has been having a recurring dream in which a girl leads him to the pyramids, telling him of his treasure there. He decides to seek out a gypsy for advice on the dream: she tells him to travel to the pyramids to find the treasure, asking for one tenth of it as payment. Early on in his journey, the boy meets an old king named Melchizedek who urges him to pursue his ‘Personal Legend’ (a common theme in the book), which is to find his treasure. Santiago travels to the pyramids in a caravan, and becomes acquainted with an Englishman who is in search of an old, renowned alchemist. On the way, the caravan stops at an oasis, where Santiago meets a beautiful woman called Fatima. He falls in love with her, and asks her to marry him; she agrees to, on the condition that he finds his treasure first. He later encounters an alchemist who teaches him the ways of the world, and guides him in finding his treasure.

This book is different from any other I have read before. Its childlike simplicity in portraying deep philosophical notions is disarming, and its narrator is convincing, personable and endearing. However, sometimes he is too naive and open-minded, and is often unnaturally matter of fact when describing events: this made him seem less relatable, although this was probably intended to give an understanding, innocent quality to Santiago. The book is purposely metaphorical, so doesn’t need to be taken literally, but instead as an allegory; in this way its implausibility may be pardoned. The novel’s concepts are profound and thought-provoking, albeit far-fetched, and its non-denominational spiritual lessons are uplifting and thought-provoking. Whilst reading this book, I felt compelled to consider things thoroughly, thinking in a more philosophical way; it’s great for self-motivation and guidance.

I would recommend this book if you enjoy a ‘deep’ book that has mythical, magical themes, yet is readable and accessible. At times, it’s very slow-paced, but this doesn’t hinder its magnetism: it’s a book that you’ll feel compelled to pick up at every opportunity.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAAA

Pace: Slow

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We Are Not Ourselves By Matthew Thomas 

Fictional Memoir

Growing up in a poor, Irish-American family, Eileen Tumulty dreamed of a better, more generically American life: one that would enable her to shed her family name that connotes her unstable, tumultuous circumstances. As a little girl, she was forced into the tiresome, repetitious role of carer for her parents, leading to her almost inevitable future as a nurse. She meets Ed Leary, her future husband, on a blind date set up by her roommate. Although she had low hopes for anything substantive to come of the New Year’s Eve get together, she is pleasantly surprised when she meets him, finding him ambitious, thoughtful and considerate. Her feelings intensify when he whispers in her ear, ‘I realise you didn’t have to do this, and I promise to try to make it worth your time.’ She falls in love with him, something she didn’t think she was capable of doing. Despite his similar upbringing, he seems to fit her aspirations for her future, as she sees his potential for success and wealth: ingredients with which to build a stable, comfortable life. Her attraction to him is a reaction against her father, who stands for everything she is trying to run away from: he is most interested in social status and personal relationships, on being ‘the big man’; Ed, on the other hand, is uninterested in having a popular reputation in the community, focusing only on his neuroscientific research. At least he appears to appreciate Eileen, unlike her father, who barely notices her. However, when obsessively pursuing his projects, he often neglects the people around him, ironically not unlike the way her father treated her when she was a child. In time, Eileen realises they have different aspirations, and want different things from life: when Merck offers him a job, including a lab of his own, state-of-the-art equipment and a team of assistants, he rejects it for fear of becoming their puppet, instead opting for a modest career in teaching. His most important virtue in life is integrity, whilst Eileen holds success and growth as higher priorities. A little while after their son Connel is born, the narrative is split between him and his mother. In contrast to Eileen’s worrisome, supportive attitude, Connel’s narrative consists of his somewhat self-absorbed views and experiences of life in the Leary family. When Ed starts to act strange, Eileen and Connel feel confused and isolated; their insights on Ed’s slow deterioration are personable glimpses of living with someone with early-onset Alzheimer’s.

We Are Not Ourselves is eloquently, elegantly written, with mostly short sentences strung together that have a flowing, enticing effect on the reader. I was, at least in the beginning, so absorbed in the book that I felt as though I was Eileen, living through all her hardships and aspirations. Although effective, as this forced me to experience the persistent challenges that Eileen faced, this also meant that it made for quite a depressing read, as it was long, slow-paced and tiresome. Consequently, events in the book affected me less and less, despite their seemingly increasing importance. Additionally, characters that were intended to be interesting underwhelmed me: Connel’s self-absorbed, under-achieving ways irritated me, rather than made me sympathize with him, and although Ed is enigmatic, I was not intrigued to know more about him. A development near the end does humanise Ed, but too little, too late. While I understand why it had to be so long, as its setting stretches over more than half a century, and the author does try to make the book more palatable by separating it into sections, I nonetheless feel it’s too lengthy, as I became progressively more fatigued by the book’s length and Eileen’s repetitive existence. Overall, a great, well-written book, but one that I struggled to persevere with.

I would recommend this book to people who are interested in familial relationships, and a ‘real’ love story, not a romantic fantasy. It’s good for people who don’t mind a long, slow-paced book, one that doesn’t seem rewarding of uplifting until the end.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAAAA

Pace: Slow

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Harper Lee’s New Book: Go Set A Watchman

Classic Literature, Fictional Memoir, Historical Fiction, Legal Fiction

To Kill a Mockingbird is an outstanding book. Exquisitely written, it is a book that saddens and yet heartens concurrently, leaving a warm, contented feeling, despite its less-than-happy ending for underdog Tom Robinson. However, the book’s uplifting effect on the reader comes at the expense of its realism: it touches on, yet mostly leaves unresolved, the issue of racism.

Go Set a Watchman, conversely, attempts to tackle racism; to explain it. Set 20 years after To Kill a MockingbirdGo Set a Watchman is again narrated by Jean Louise ‘Scout’ Finch, at the age of twenty-six. She’s returning home from New York to visit her ageing father, Atticus. Set amidst the civil rights movement and the political unrest transpiring in the South, Jean Louise’s routine visit becomes regrettable when she learns jarring realities about her family, the town and the people she loves. Scout continues her narrative – written before, yet set after Mockingbird – resolute in her sense of right and wrong. She discovers to her horror that her father – until then revered as her beacon of morality – holds the same bigoted views that he had seemed to castigate. As Jean Louise loses grasp of her values, and assumed truths, she looks to her past for signs of what she had been blind to all along: that her father was not the ‘perfect’ person she thought he was.

Despite its mixed reviews and reactions, I enjoyed Go Set a Watchman. It’s a well-needed ‘wake-up call’ from the dream-like, simplistic world of To Kill a Mockingbird; Scout matures, and Watchman is the grown-up, ‘real’ story. It is said that much of To Kill a Mockingbird is a product of Lee’s editor, who knew that a more fantastical book based on the same story would sell better than a more ‘realistic’ one: perhaps he realised that people like reading something that makes them feel better about themselves. Who can say if this rumour is true, but I do think that the books seem completely different: Watchman is less a sequel, and more an elaboration on Mockingbird.

As the book progresses, Jean Louise’s disturbed and confused reaction to the news that her family is, in some ways, just like every other in Maycomb (their town), is an empathetic coming-of-age disillusionment with the world; disenchantment with childhood role models that many readers – myself included – could remember themselves feeling, despite different circumstances. Go Set a Watchman tries to make sense, to portray the experience of living in a small town in the South; it explains how hard it was to speak up, and stand up for what they think is right. Without excusing their guilt or sense of wrongdoing, it explores the intent behind their actions: it is natural to oppose political change. The book offers a comprehensible perspective of the South.

Watchman failed to explain conclusively the South’s opposition to the Civil Rights Movement – but perhaps this was intended: there is no simple, ‘correct’ answer; rather, one can only presume their mind-sets. This is a great book that offers context, depth and nuance to a beloved classic.

I commend this book to all, but particularly if you have read To Kill a Mockingbird. You would enjoy both of these books if you are interested in the Civil Rights Movement in America, from the viewpoint of a liberal, white Southern young woman. It’s a little slow-paced, because of all the flashbacks, but hardly hard to read. In fact, it’s incredibly readable, especially for the sequel to a classic.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAAAAA

Pace: Medium/Slow

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