Monday, 20 July 2015

The Inevitable 'Go Set A Watchman' Post

Go Set a WatchmanUnless you've been living down a well for the last few months, you should be aware that Harper Lee's second novel, 'Go Set at Watchman' was published last week. I'm aware that this post will be a mere drop in the ocean of words written about Lee's latest but, as an avid reader who has just re-read 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and has eagerly anticipated 'Go Set A Watchman' since it's announcement, I wanted to share some thoughts on both books with other book-lovers and get your thoughts in return. I shall, as always, try to avoid spoiling any major plot points within the novels but, due to the nature of the discussion, there may be some minor spoilers for overarching themes in both books.

I didn't read 'To Kill A Mockingbird' until I was in my late teens so, for me at least, it's never been the life-defining novel that it is for a lot of readers who encounter it at school. I remember thinking that the book was very good and I enjoyed reading it but, as an examination of race relations I think I got more from Andrea Levy's 'Small Island' and Maya Angelou's 'I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings'. In 'Mockingbird', the trail of Tom Robinson is almost incidental to start with - background scenery to the life of the young Scout Finch and to the everyday battles of school and home life that she has to contend with - and I remember being somewhat bemused as to why I was reading about a young girl's summertime adventures in a book so well-known for it's powerful anti-segregation message. 

To Kill a MockingbirdRe-reading 'Mockingbird' a few weeks ago, I realised that my teenage self had missed many of the subtleties within the book - the small asides and gently taught life-lessons that build up to give the novel it's powerful message. By narrowing the field of vision to that of a young girl, Lee is able to portray the complex undercurrents and unspoken truths of small town Southern life in a seemingly simple and innocent way. In 'Mockingbird', Lee shows the reader her message rather than telling it - it's not a matter of the reader being told 'racism is bad' but instead one of readers being invited to compare the actions of Atticus, Scout and Jem against those of Bob Ewell and to make their own decisions about the merits of each viewpoint. 

Having finally come to appreciate the full power of 'To Kill A Mockingbird', I was somewhat apprehensive about 'Go Set A Watchman'. Whilst it's publication wasn't about to destroy my childhood, I'd hate to see a novel so powerfully respected as 'Mockingbird' be diminished in any way by its association to a new work. I need not have worried however - I read 'Watchman' in four days flat and enjoyed it thoroughly. That said, whilst it may be set in the same town, with some of the same characters and is told by the adult Scout (now 'Jean Louise') Finch, I do not personally consider 'Watchman' to be a sequel to 'Mockingbird', despite a number of reviews calling it such. Instead, I prefer to think of it as a companion novel - 'Mockingbird' as it might have been if things had turned out a little different.

The themes of 'Watchman' are less subtle and refined - certainly the issue of race and identity is much more prominent from the off, with Jean Louise returning home to Maycomb in the mid-1950s to find that the town and it's citizens are being torn apart by the undercurrents of racial tension that have bubbled to the surface following recent race riots in other parts of the state. The sense of dislocation that Jean Louise feels upon discovering that her family, friends and neighbours are apparently so changed is key part of the novel and her coming to terms with the banishment of childhood ideals is a major part of her development as a character throughout. I really identified with this aspect of 'Watchman' and I think Lee does an excellent job of capturing the conflict that young people undergo when they return to an idealised home only to find it not as perfect as they remembered. 

To me, 'Go Set A Watchman' is a novel more obviously concerned with race but less sure how to settle the issues it raises. The ending, which I will not spoil, feels somewhat unsatisfactory as Jean Louise is encouraged to settle for a compromise which ignores many of the issues at hand. 'To Kill A Mockingbird' leaves readers with a sense of satisfaction - Tom Robinson may not get justice but Scout and Jem - and, by proxy, the reader - have been left with a powerful sense of it, whereas 'Go Set A Watchman' leaves as many questions as it answers and with no real sense of conclusion. I'm not saying that this makes it a bad novel but it does make it a more difficult one - some of the questions that Lee raises are deeply unsettling and her ending doesn't give readers an easy way to answer them. 

Personally, I think that both novels have their merits. There is no doubt that 'To Kill A Mockingbird' is the better novel - it is better written, more lyrical and has more of a sense of purpose in its aims and plotting and, as such, it rightly deserves to be a classic of literature - but that doesn't mean that 'Go Set A Watchman' isn't worth reading. To me 'Go Set A Watchman' is the more complicated book - the one that raises more questions and refuses to provide neat, satisfying answers. 'Go Set A Watchman' is about the end of childhood and the banishment of nostalgia and it pushes the reader out of their comfort zone and forces them to confront uncomfortable truths. Naming no names, I like that a character who is admirable in so many ways can hold abhorrent political views - it makes them infinitely more tricky to deal with than someone who is a shining beacon of goodness and encourages the reader to examine themselves in a new light. 'Go Set A Watchman' is a very timely book - in a world where racial tensions are again becoming an increasingly relevant topic, it asks questions that still don't have satisfactory answers and encourages us to become unsettled in order to be pushed into action. 

As always, I'd love to know your thoughts on 'To Kill A Mockingbird' and 'Go Set A Watchman' so leave me a comment below or tweet me @amyinstaffs. And, until next time, Happy Reading!


Wednesday, 8 July 2015

REVIEW: The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

The Book of SpeculationSimon Watson, a young librarian, lives in the crumbling remains of his family home on the edge of Long Island Sound. When he receives a mysterious book from an antiquarian bookseller, Simon is perplexed. Why does the book contain the name of his maternal grandmother? Why have all the women in his family died by drowning? And what does any of this have to do with the doomed romance between a mute fortune teller and a mermaid, two members of an 18th century travelling circus troupe? As his life unravels around him, Simon must unlock the secrets of the book before fate deals his family another deadly hand.

I was intrigued to read this debut novel, which has been likened to Erica Morgenstern’s ‘The Night Circus’, as it seemed to offer an intriguing blend of literary mystery and magical suspense. So I was a bit surprised that I found it quite hard going initially. Simon was a hard character to like being by turns reclusive and then, when forced into interactions with other characters, belligerent. His sister Enola, the other major character, provides a sparky alternative to Simon but again alternates her personality wildly from headstrong free spirit to petulant child. I completely get that both characters have been screwed up by their shared past and the various tragedies that haunt their family history but they were, for me, kind of hard to empathise with as a result.

I greatly preferred Amos, the main character of the secondary narrative, which takes place in a travelling circus during the 18th century. Quiet, reflective Amos, who learns to ‘speak’ via the medium of the tarot cards he deals, struggles to balance his wish for friendship with his passion for the ethereal Evangeline. Amos is mute but Swyler does an excellent job of building his relationships with his mentor, friends and lover and developing the subtle aspects of his personality in a narrative viewpoint that is largely confined to Amos’ headspace. The side-characters are also really well drawn in this books, with each of the circus folk having a definite personality. My favourites were Enola’s boyfriend, the tattooed ‘electric man’ Doyle, and Madame Ryzkhova, Amos’ fortune telling mentor, both of whom really came alive on the page.

In fact, the circus aspects were what kept me going with this novel. I quickly lost interest in some of the many subplots in this book, which vary from Simon’s on-off relationship with his neighbour’s daughter to his efforts to find a job and to preserve his crumbling family home. At times, there definitely felt like there was too much going on – as if Swyler wanted to delay the solving of the central mystery by throwing yet another obstacle into her characters’ lives. However, the central narrative about Simon and Enola’s family history, and its connections to the circus, is absolutely fascinating and did pull me through the slower sections of the book. Swyler has clearly done her research into circus life and, especially, into the specialisations of breath-holders and tarot readers and the allure of both these arts is deftly conveyed.

All in all, I did find that this was a book worth sticking with – I greatly preferred the second half to the first, with the story improving as it gathers pace and the central characters becoming more sympathetic as they develop and their secrets are revealed. I can definitely see the comparisons with ‘The Night Circus’, although I feel that ‘The Book of Speculation’ errs more on the realist side of magical-realism. That said, fans of Morgenstern’s novel will find plenty to like if they take a gamble on Swyler’s debut, as will readers who want a deep historical mystery with a touch of romance and are prepared to stick with the narrative through the slightly boggier sections. 

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler is available in hardback now from all good bookstores. Thanks go to the publishers, St Martin's Press, provided me with a free galley copy of this novel via Netgalley in return for an unbiased and honest review. 

Sunday, 5 July 2015

June Wrap Up Part 2

As promised, here are the rest of the books I read in June to complete my wrap up for the month. Having had my weeks holiday, my reading naturally slowed down a little when I went back to work however I still managed another three books to round the month off.

Murder Most Unladylike (Wells and Wong, #1)Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens

Having toiled through ‘The Turn of the Screw’, I was desperate for a little light relief. Fortunately, my real life book club choice for June provided this in spades. ‘Murder Most Unladylike’ is the first in a series of YA mysteries set in and around an English girls’ boarding school in the 1930s. Think Malory Towers meets Nancy Drew but with extra bun breaks and squashed fly biscuits.

Sparky schoolgirls Daisy Wells and Hazel Wong have established their own detective agency at Deepdean School. Having successfully solved the case of Lavina’s missing tie, they are ready for a new challenge. So when Hazel stumbles across the body of the Science Mistress, Miss Bell, in the gymnasium, the girls are determined to get to the bottom of the crime before the killer strikes again.

This was a really fun, enjoyable read suitable for young adults from aged 9 upwards. Although set in the 1930s, the series is a modern publication so the writing style is more contemporary than the classic Malory Towers adventures. The period detail is a real delight and there were elements that were pure Agatha Christie. Add in the likeable schoolgirl heroines, the well-plotted mystery and a dash of modern day wit and you’ve got an excellent package! I’ve already got the next in the series, ‘Arsenic for Tea’, on my TBR!
The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-So-Great Ones) Saved My Life 

Books about books are one of my favourite things. At some point, I must do a top 5 because there’s so many of them. This would probably be included, a witty account of writer and editor Andy Miller’s conquering of ‘The List of Betterment’, a list of 50 books that he has claimed to have read but never actually has.

We all have our own ‘Lists of Betterment’ I feel. Books we’ve said we have read. Books we feel we should read. The ‘classics’ of English Literature. My own includes Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair and most of the novels of Charles Dickens (to date, I have only managed to finish ‘A Christmas Carol’ and then only because my mum bought me an absolutely gorgeous illustrated edition from Candlewick Press – apparently I can read Dickens only with the aid of pictures). 

Andy Miller’s is a varied list, ranging from ‘The Master and Margherita’ to ‘Middlemarch’ via ‘The Ragged Trouser Philanthropists’ and ‘Beloved’. In finally reading them, he conquers the excuses we all make for not reading – not enough time, too many commitments, too tired following a long week at work – and re-evaluates the importance of books and reading in his own life, coming to some startling conclusions and decisions. Part memoir, part celebration of literature, this is a warm, humorous examination of one man’s odyssey through books. An excellent read for book lovers of all varieties.

The BeesThe Bees by Laline Paull

One of my summer reading goals for 2015 is to read the six books that comprise the Baileys Prize shortlist. For those of you that don’t know, the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction is a British book award which celebrates the best fiction written by female authors. It’s probably my favourite of the literary prizes – partly because I completely agree with its aims and sentiment and partly because it has a knack for picking bloody good books. The 2015 shortlist is a case in point, featuring 6 excellent titles that I am really looking forward to reading.

I chose to start with ‘The Bees’ because I’d heard so much about it. Simon Savidge of Savidge Reads had raved about it. A bookseller in Waterstones Sheffield was in raptures over it when I mentioned it at the till. Everyone I met who had read it, loved it. So, despite it not sounding like my usual cup of tea, I started this one first.

The novel follows Flora 717, a lowly sanitation bee, as she rises through the hierarchical society of her hive. It takes a bit of getting used to reading from the perspective of a bee – the description is much more focused on the senses of touch and smell that on sight for example – but the Paull’s vision of hive society is fascinating with touches of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ interwoven throughout. Paull never preaches but I learned so much about bees and the way in which they live as her knowledge is woven throughout Flora’s tale of drama, tension and religious fervour. Although it took a bit of getting into, I really enjoyed this book and would urge others to try it – even if science fiction isn’t usually your cup of tea, ‘The Bees’ offers a unique perspective on a threatened world. 

Phew! That, finally, was June's reading - what a busy month! One I thoroughly enjoyed though as I really committed to some quality reading time and read some really good books as a result. July is shaping up to be similarly bookish. I've just finished the second on my Baileys Prize book list - Sarah Waters' 'The Paying Guests' - which I raced through, despite it being nearly 600 pages long. I'm currently finishing up 'The Book of Speculation', which I plan to review on here and am also putting together a list for a book tag challenge. So hopefully there will be plenty of bookish content going live on the blog over the coming weeks!

So, until next time folks, Happy Reading!