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 change from Harry Potter: The Casual Vacancy – By J. K. Rowling

Tragicomedy

When Barry Fairbrother – a popular and ambitious councilman – dies unexpectedly, Pagford is left in shock. The ostensibly quaint, idyllic town, with its ancient abbey and cobbled market square, becomes increasingly chaotic as the mad scramble for the empty council seat turns nasty. Deep-rooted resentment and discontentment fuels teenagers to turn against parents, and incites wives to desert their husbands. Issues that had previously been kept at bay threaten to divide the town, as anger and passion overwhelm some, and the disparity between generations and classes becomes increasingly palpable.

I was riveted by this book, despite its length and relatively mundane premise – perhaps this was because of its ‘closeness to home’: I related to many of the characters; Rowling’s satirical reflections on suburban life are accurate, if not stereotypical. Written in split-narrative, the book relates to all readers: the narrators are of different classes, ages and personalities. The interplays and contradictions that the reader is given is intriguing and often humorous; when characters describe each other, you’re reminded of the gap between the outward and inward ‘selves’ that people have. Overall, it’s a good book, and I enjoyed reading it, however at times I felt it dragged on a bit.

Readers who enjoy a slow paced book about everyday life, as opposed to an other-worldly plot, would enjoy The Casual Vacancy. They would also like it if they like books that don’t have a grand plot; The Casual Vacancy is based on everyday life in the suburbs: familial relationships and social interactions amongst townspeople.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAA

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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Only Ever Yours – by Louise O’Neill

Dystopian

Only Ever Yours is a dystopian book about a world in which women, called ‘eves’, are designed and synthetically produced (instead of being born naturally), their sole purpose being to satisfy the needs of men. Eves are brought up in schools by strict teachers, called ‘Chastities’, who train them in the arts of pleasing men. At graduation, the most highly ranked eves are made ‘companions’, living with their husbands and breeding sons until no longer useful. The narrator, freida, (the eves’ names are not capitalized, highlighting their irrelevance in the society) has been best friends with isabel since her design, but as the pressure to be perfect mounts up, isabel starts to seemingly give up, gaining weight, and the girls who were once so close rapidly drift apart. freida, determined to remain popular, betrays her only true friend.

The world in which Only Ever Yours is set is an interesting and insightful exaggeration of our culture today; it warns us of what is to come if we don’t change our ways. After reading the blurb and the first couple pages, I had high hopes and an already strong interest in the book’s plot and characters. However, by its middle, my hopes remained unfulfilled: the characters lacked dimension, and the plot was repetitive and slow-paced. Overall, the book left me underwhelmed: characters needed more depth, particularly isabel, who was not as intriguing and intelligent as she evidently was intended to be. The icing on the cake for me was the irritatingly inconclusive ending: after suffering through 380 depressing pages, I was offered no mercy or closure. Perhaps it was for ‘effect’; I think, however, it was simply a cop-out. The book had great potential to be heart-wrenching and thought-provoking, but was unfortunately badly executed.

Despite this somewhat negative review, I think you might enjoy this if you like YA books, particularly those about women’s position in society. It’s quite slow-placed at times, so I definitely would not recommend this book for people who prefer fast-paced books.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAA

Pace: Slow/Medium 

The Elegance of the Hedgehog – By Muriel Barbery

Romance

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is about the inhabitants of an affluent Parisian apartment building. Its split narrative is from the perspectives of a secretly intelligent and well-read concierge, and a twelve-year-old girl who plans to commit suicide on her thirteenth birthday. They seem to lack passion and happiness, until a new arrival to the building breathes new hope into their lives.

Up to the middle of the book, I had come close to putting it down a few times. It’s pretentious and aloof, and despite proclaiming that its narrators are highly intelligent, it lacks proof of this. It’s unnecessarily wordy and full of itself; every other page seems to have a block of text describing a pretentious thought or feeling on life, which at least to me seemed either obvious, or nonsensical.

Overall, I struggled to find The Elegance of the Hedgehog’s underlying message. Perhaps I was missing something, but it seemed to me that I was meant to have been inspired by its so-called ‘Profound Thoughts’ and ‘Journal of the Movements of the World’. I didn’t find them profound, just tedious to read. However, it is heart-warming, especially as it progresses, and I couldn’t help but enjoy it. I think its sweet, romantic love story is quite irresistible.

You might enjoy this book if you like books that take a shot at being philosophical, although I think it has an absence of substance. It’s a slow, tedious read, but surprisingly rewarding near the end.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAA

Writing: AAAAAA

Pace: Slow

The Children Act – By Ian McEwan

Legal Fiction

Leading High Court judge Fiona Maye, the protagonist in The Children Act, is faced with difficult moral decisions from every direction, the first being from her husband, who wants her permission to have an affair. This unexpected proposal throws her off, making her unstable and unsure of what to do. After arguing with him ineffectually, she eventually kicks him out, changing the locks the next day. Soon after, a case at work comes up that becomes entangled in her marriage crisis: a seventeen-year-old boy, soon to be eighteen, is refusing life-saving treatment on religious grounds, and Fiona Maye must decide whether to enforce the treatment, or to follow his and his family’s wishes. A relationship forms between her and Adam, the boy, after she visits him in hospital, causing powerful emotions to form in both of them.

I was struck, as I was from Saturday, by McEwan’s ability to gracefully describe an otherwise boring and esoteric situation at work: this time, court scenes and legal documents. His fascination with this world is evident, and the reader is compelled to feel the same. McEwan’s writing is, as usual, beautifully succinct yet descriptive, making for a highly enjoyable and addictive read; I loved its compactness, as I felt much less intimidated by it then I might have been if it had been longer.

I would highly recommend this book for people interested in learning a little about Family law, and what being a judge is like. I would also recommend it to people who are familiar with and enjoy McEwan’s distinct style and approach to writing. As with Saturday, although set in a relatively short time frame, this book’s pace is not slow. This book is suitable for 13-year-olds and older.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAAA

Pace: Medium

The Museum of Innocence – By Orhan Pamuk

Historical Fiction, Romance

Set in 1970s and 80s Istanbul, The Museum of Innocence recounts the life of Kemal, a wealthy heir who is infatuated with Fusun, an 18-year-old shopgirl and distant relative. He is about to become engaged to the aristocratic Sibel when he stumbles across his long-lost cousin. He soon falls in love with her, embarking on a passionate affair – involving an obsession with hoarding objects that remind him of her – that threatens to ruin his established life in Istanbul’s high society.

The beautiful intertwining of historical and social details in this book kept me fascinated until the very last page: before reading The Museum of Innocence, I knew nothing about Turkey’s contemporary history; now, I feel as if I lived through it. The intriguing, yet a little disturbing romance that blossoms between Kemal and Fusun somehow manages to last the entire 83 chapters without seeming drawn-out or tiresome to read. My visit to the actual Museum of Innocence in Istanbul – crammed with an exhaustive array of curated objects from the story  –  reinforced the realism conveyed by the novel.

I would recommend this book for people who are interested in Turkey’s contemporary history, but would also like to enjoy a beautiful yet devastating love story. Some might find the pace slow, but there’s no doubt that it’s engaging.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAAAA

Pace: Medium/Slow

Catalyst – By Helena Coggan

Dystopian, Sci-Fi

Catalyst is about a world that is divided between the magically Gifted and the non-magical Ashkind. The protagonist, Rose Elmsworth, is a Gifted, with a dangerous secret about her identity. When an old enemy of her father threatens to reveal her secret, she must betray her loved ones in order to protect them.

Every detail in Catalyst has been intricately thought out; the sheer credulity alone struck me as quite spectacular, rivalling hugely popular trilogies like Divergent and The Hunger Games. However, at times, I felt the characters fell flat, and I lost interest in them. Nonetheless, I always managed to be drawn into the story in some way, and by the end I was desperate for a sequel.

I would recommend this book for people who like sci-fi, fantasy or dystopian books, as it occupies all of these genres. It’s a fairly light read on terms of readability,which is expected from a YA book. This book is suitable for 11-year-olds and older.

My Ratings (out of 10 As):

Plot/Story: AAAAAAA

Writing: AAAAAAA

Pace: Medium/Fast