Sunday, 23 October 2016

Deweys 24 Hour Readathon

It's a wrap! My first proper attempt at a readathon is done and I have to say it's been a blast. Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon is, as the name suggests, a readathon that takes place over 24 hours. It has a set start time world-wide meaning that everyone participating is, in theory, reading together and can cheer each other along when the going gets tough. Some participants do try and read for the whole 24 hours but I become a very bad person with lack of sleep so I opted for a slightly less hardcore approach and chose instead to dedicate my waking hours to reading during the 24 hour period. So, how did I get on?

Well, I am proud of how much I managed to read. During the readathon period, I read a total of three books and started on a fourth, a total of 704 pages. I also listened to 60 minutes of my current audiobook during a short gym break. The books I read and finished during the readathon were:

  • 'Hag-Seed' by Margaret Atwood
  • 'Bodies of Water' by V.H. Leslie
  • 'Today Will Be Different' by Maria Semple

I also started Wilkie Collins' 'The Haunted Hotel' and progressed the audio of my current book club pick 'The White Tiger' by Aravind Adiga (read by Bindya Solanki).

Hag-Seed (Hogarth Shakespeare)My favourite read of the readathon was definitely Margaret Atwood's 'Hag-Seed'. This is the latest in the Hogarth Shakespeare re-tellings of Shakespeare's plays in novel form (although the only one to date that I have read) and I have to say that I think Atwood has pulled it off brilliantly.

Atwood's Prospero is Felix, a prominent theatre director who has been unceremoniously ousted by his right-hand man, Tony. Twelve years later, Felix has landed a job as the director of a prison theatre program when fate intervenes to place Tony directly in his path. As the possibility of revenge presents itself, Felix dreams us a theatrical, illusion-ridden version of 'The Tempest' that will change his life, and that of his cast, forever.

Capturing the revelry and mystery of Shakespeare's original (along with a great deal of Shakespeare's swearing!), Atwood adds plenty of her own magic to this re-telling, ending up with a novel that has warmth, humour and darkness in equal measure. I love Atwood's writing and her sly observances of human nature and there's plenty of wit and spark in this - it really was a joy to read and a great choice to kick the readathon off.

Bodies of Water'Bodies of Water' was my next choice, begun as daylight was fading and the evening drawing in. A slim volume, coming in at 130 pages, it's a ghost story with a neat psychological twist that slips between the modern day and 1871.

After ministering to fallen women in Victorian London, Evelyn has suffered a nervous breakdown and has been sent to the imposing Wakewater House, a hydrotherapy establishment on the banks of the Thames, to undergo the fashionable Water Cure. Years later, Kirsten moves into Wakewater - now transformed into modern apartments - fresh from a break-up and eager for the restorative calm of the river. But who is the solitary woman with the long black hair that Kristen keeps seeing by the riverbank? What is her connection to Wakewater? And what does she want from Kirsten?

At its heart a ghost story in the classic mould, filled with a creeping sense of unease and trepidation, this slim volume also examines issues surrounding women's rights, including female sexuality and mental illness. Whilst to slender a volume to fully examine the fascinating topic of the Victorian treatment of women's illness, it's surprising how much 'Bodies of Water' manages to touch upon. It's almost a shame that Leslie didn't make this longer and turn it into a full novel as my only criticism would be that some of the characters felt a little slight and the ending, whilst sufficiently sinister, did feel rather rushed. That said, this is a novella chock full of atmosphere and made a great mid-readathon book to finish off before heading to bed.

Today Will Be DifferentFinally, I read Maria Semple's latest novel 'Today Will Be Different', a contemporary novel with comic elements about a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown who, over the course of one day, revaluates her life and her place within it.

Eleanor Flood is a talented, middle-aged illustrator who has lost her mojo following a move from New York to suburban Seattle. Nobody remembers her cult TV animation, her graphic memoir is 8 years overdue, her precocious son Timby is faking illnesses at school and, to top it all off, her marriage to husband Joe has hit the rocks. Taking place over the course of one day, Eleanor resolves that today will be different - she will get up, get dressed and get her life back on track. But, as is the way with life, that doesn't exactly go to plan.

I really enjoyed Semple's 'Where'd You Go Bernadette' with which this novel shares many similarities. But what made quirky heroine Bernadette - another woman on the brink of a mid-life crisis with more baggage than an airport and enough neuroses to keep an entire hospital full of shrinks busy - so engaging was that, underneath all that, she was a likeable person. Crazy, neurotic and a little bit selfish but still with a great deal of warmth, humour and heart. Sadly, Eleanor Flood has none of that. She's crazy but not in a kooky way, self-absorbed as opposed to neurotic and sarcastic to the point of acidic, instead of waspishly witty. All in all, she's not that nice a person to spend an entire book with.

In addition, I failed to see the point of the plot. Throughout the course of Eleanor's day, a series of anarchic incidents and mad-cap escapades sets her off course, including a lunch-date with a bitter former colleague, an unexpected run-in with a frustrated poet and a head-injury caused by a contemporary art installation. All of which are kind of funny in themselves but, collectively, just felt a little insane. And none of which really added anything to Eleanor's character or to her sense of herself, which is bought out more in remembrances and flashbacks to her childhood with her drunken father, the death of her actress mother and the causes behind her strained relationship with her sister Ivy.

I really wanted to like this book because Semple has such a gift for turning a phrase and a really excellent sense of the absurd. She's brilliant at black humour and capable of writing real wit and warmth into her characters. Sadly though, I just didn't get that feeling with 'Today Will Be Different', which lacked the warm and gentle humour of 'Where'd You Go Bernadette' and, sadly, felt like a bit of a mess. I finished it more out of sheer stubbornness that anything else.

The Haunted HotelOh well, onwards and upwards as they say. With an hour of two left of the readathon, I started on Wilkie Collins' 'The Haunted Hotel', another ghost story in the classic mould. I only managed 50 pages by the time the readathon came to a close but I'm really enjoying it so far as it's nicely combining good-old fashioned Victorian gothic with a pleasant mystery and an easy writing style.

I also mentioned my current audiobook, Aravind Adiga's 'The White Tiger', which is my book group pick for November. Set in Bangladesh, the book seems to be the life story of Balram Halwai - also known as 'The White Tiger' - told via emails that the adult Balram is sending to the Chinese Prime Minister. It's engaging so far, although I'm still in the early parts of the book, and the audio narration by Bindya Solanki is wonderful. I think audiobooks are a great choice for book group picks as they allow me to free up physical reading time for books on my personal TBR but still read my book club pick in time for group when I'm driving to/from work or doing chores.

All in all, a really excellent weekend of reading! I really enjoyed being part of an international community of readers, all cheering each other on. I also picked up some great book recommendations over the course of the weekend, took part in a couple of the mini-challenges being hosted and had some Twitter and Litsy chats with fellow readathoners. Plus it really revitalised my reading and put a nice dent into my TBR pile, as well as adding to my Goodreads Reading Challenge target (where I've been flagging behind a little).

I'd definitely readathon again in future and would like to thank all the hosts, cheerleaders and readers for making this such a fun event to be a part of. I'd love to know if any of you have ever taken part in a readathon and what you thought of it, or if you'd like to take part having read about my experience over the weekend. As always, drop me a comment down below, tweet me @amyinstaffs, or find me over on Litsy @ShelfofUnreadBooks, on Instagram @amyinstaffs and over on Goodreads.

Happy Reading! x

Sunday, 16 October 2016

REVIEW: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad
Opening a book that has arrived with serious fanfare is always, for me at least, a combination of excitement and trepidation. Excitement, because I do love reading exciting new fiction. And trepidation as I worry that the book itself may not live up to the hype, especially when that hype train has been set in motion by the mother of all book promos, The Oprah Book Club. Fortunately, I need not have worried because 'The Underground Railroad' is an amazing novel. Difficult, brutal, complex and meditative but amazing through and through.

The novel follows Cora, a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation who is an outcast even amongst her fellow slaves. Reduced to sharing space in Hob with fellow outcast women, Cora is struggling with her emerging womanhood and the implications of her own mother's abandonment when she is approached by Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, who tells her about the Underground Railroad and his daring plan for escape. As she follows Caesar into the unknown, Cora knows she is escaping from a life of punishing labour but she cannot prepare for the hardships that await her as she makes her towards her new life.

It's very hard to summarise this book in a few paragraphs because Cora's journey encompasses so much. From the brutal hardships of plantation life to the temporary respite of a southern farmstead, her journey encompasses many versions of the American south and provides a real picture of the complexity of opinion regarding people of colour in the pre-civil war era. When civil rights are taught at school (especially in British schools), the American Civil War is  often made out to be a cut off point - the moment at which civil rights and the struggle for freedom took flight. 'The Underground Railroad' presents a much more varied portrait of the nation, moving through the terrifying brutality of the slave-owning states to the insidious schemes hiding behind some so-called 'progressive' movements and the genuine wish for change within other corners of society. It's quite an eye-opener and, at times, very difficult to read but also extremely rewarding.

Another strength of the novel is the characters. Cora is tough - she's had to be all her life - so she's not an instantly likeable lead. Instead she is a rounded human being, who struggles with her heart and her head and who you really become attached to as the novel progresses. Likewise, Ridgeway - the slave catcher who doggedly pursues Cora and Caesar - is a reprehensible human being in many aspects but he is, throughout, a human being. The passages of conversation between Ridgeway and Cora were, for me, some of the most accomplished in the novel as they really drew on richness of both characters and made the entwining of their fates even more compelling.

One of the defining features of the hype surrounding this novel has been the fact that Whitehead has envisaged the underground railroad as an actual railroad - with stations and conducters, tracks and carriages. This is, indeed, ingenious but, for me, it was almost incidental. Cora's story seems so true that the fact that the railroad is semi-fantastical almost doesn't register - it feels as real and as truthful to reality as the rest of the narrative. And that, for me, was the defining sense of this novel - a reality that has been encapsulated for the reader wholly. Whilst you're reading this book, you are living Cora's story and following each step on her journey for better or for worse. It is a real accomplishment and an excellent novel that I would highly recommend.

'The Underground Railroad' by Colson Whitehead is published by Fleet (Little Brown) and is available in hardback and ebook formats now from all good bookstores and online retailers. My thanks go to the publisher and to NetGalley for the opportunity to read an advance copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

REVIEW: Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge

Another Day in the Death of AmericaWhat do you say about a book that leaves you in pieces within a few pages of starting it? Given the subject matter, is very difficult to enjoy  Gary Younge's 'Another Day in the Death of America' even though I raced through it in a matter of days. And to say that it was a valuable reading experience sounds a bit worthy even though it taught me more about American gun culture than any number of newspaper reports ever has. But I'm getting ahead of myself - firstly I should tell you exactly what 'Another Day in the Death of America' is about.

Saturday, November 23rd, 2013. Another day like any other. And a 24 hour period in which ten American children and teens were killed by gunfire. The youngest was nine, the oldest nineteen. White, Black and Latino, they lived and died in suburbs, hamlets and ghettos. None made the national news and there was no public outcry as a result of their deaths. It was, quite simply, just another day in America where - on average - seven children and teens are killed by guns every single day. Gary Younge has picked this day at random and searched for the families and friends of the dead, examining their lives and their circumstances as well as the curious and often inexplicable mix of personal choice and social situation that resulted in their deaths. Through ten chapters - one for each child - he explores their young lives and, in doing so, explores America's relationship with guns and paints a portrait of life for young people in contemporary America.

As you can probably imagine, this is not an easy book to read. It opens with the life of Jaiden Dixon, who opened the door to his mother's ex-boyfriend and was shot in the head on the spot. Jaiden was nine years old. It ends with Gustin Hinnant, eighteen years old and hanging out with the wrong kind of friends, who gets caught in the crossfire of a gang war that he was barely aware he was part of. Not all of the young people profiled by Younge are entirely innocent but none of them deserved to be gunned down, their lives extinguished before they'd even really begun. I spent most of this book hovering somewhere between sadness for the promise of young lives lost and anger that a specific set of societal conditions and expectations often contributed to these deaths. Because there is one thing that Younge makes very clear in this book and that is that simply removing guns from American society would not necessarily result in these kids being alive today.

It would be very easy to write a book about gun violence and point the figure at the gun itself as being 100% the cause of the problem - especially given that Younge is a Brit in America and therefore didn't grow up amidst US gun culture. To Younge's credit however, he doesn't jump to simple conclusions. The problem, he says, is far more nuanced. Yes, the easy availability of guns and the fact that young people can often access them readily (there's a twelve year old with a hunting permit in this book, something that I would imagine sounds insane to most UK readers) certainly plays it's part but, as Younge says, none of the relatives or friends of the children profiled consider gun culture a reason for their loved one's death. Instead they point to a combination of poverty, social stigma, lack of jobs and opportunities and peer group pressures and to the day to day struggle of being from poor, often marginalised communities who have been left by the wayside of the American Dream.

And that's where the other emotion that this book generates comes in. As well as deep sadness, there is anger. Anger that there is an expectation that a young black man growing up in South Chicago will become a gang member because that's the only 'employment' open to them. Anger that there is a resignation that being young, black and male will mean you'll probably be dead before you reach thirty. Anger that a twelve year old child can be left in a house full of unlocked, loaded weaponry and, when he shoots a playmate, that child's father is charged on the level of a misdemeanour. Yes, there is a great deal to be angry about in this book.

I think, overall, that's what Younge is driving at. It's easy to read about a mass shooting and sat "That's terrible" before moving on with your life. What Younge does so successfully in this book is to show that it's not just about the mass shootings - gun violence is a societal issue that is driven by other societal issues and it affects millions of Americans every single day. And he wants us to be distressed about that. He wants us to be angry. Most of all, he wants us to be engaged. Books like 'Another Day in the Death of America' are important because they spark debate, they engage us on a personal level and they don't offer simplistic solutions. There is no quick fix to the situations that led to the deaths of these ten young people. However, if more people - especially young people - read Gary Younge's book, there might just be a jumping off point for debate and engagement that could spark a revolution in thinking and action and change the course of society for the better.

'Another Day in the Death of America' by Gary Younge is available in hardcover and ebook now and is published by Guardian Faber. My thanks go to the publisher for providing an advanced copy in return for an honest and unbiased review.