Saturday, 29 June 2013

Summer Reading Challenge Update

So, when I started this challenge I knew it was completely within my capabilities to complete this challenge in the time allowed. Just over a week for each book, what could go wrong? What I forgot about was the fact that summer is actually quite busy. For example, coming up I have:

  • A holiday! In precisely four days my holiday starts! My friends and I have managed to get tickets for Festival Beauregard in France which is very exciting. I've been abroad exactly three times in my life, so I'm quite excited to be actually leaving Britain. Of course, when you think about it I'm just going to be in a field in France so it's not exactly the most foreign experience ever,but hey! It's still exciting! After I'm staying at my friends for a bit for her birthday which should be lovely. However, it does mean that I am technically a week down on reading time. (You think I'm going to take a lovely book to suffer through rain, mud and general festival wear and tear? Think again!)
  • My birthday! More specifically, my party. Every year has a different theme and this year is Disney. Probably should have gone for something a little less broad because it's been extremely hard narrowing down an idea for a costume. I desperately wanted to be the wardrobe from Beauty and the Beast (find a big box, create little doors, have doll-sized clothing hanging inside, speak in an operatic voice all night) however the issue has been finding a box big enough! So instead I am going with Jiminy Cricket! Confession time: I invest quite a bit of time into my parties. There will be themed food, I'm going to decorate the party area, need to come up with a costume etc. From the point where I get back from staying with my friend, I have a week to get all of this sorted. Aaah! (On a side note, I will create a post after my party to show you all everyone's costumes and all of that!)
  • Dissertation. Actual university commitments! I actually find my dissertation really interesting and I want to get started as soon as possible, so I've been on Amazon ordering lots of second-hand books for it. Which then leads to the fact that I need to read all of those books, along with the books for my other modules.

What this all sums up to is that I really don't think I'm going to complete the reading challenge in the time allowed! So I will do my best, I have nearly finished the one I'm on now, and I will post up reviews whenever I do. This is just a warning so you don't feel like I'm just being lazy! I will probably post up about the course books I'm reading, as well as picking up my Childhood Heroes series that was put on hold over exams. So it's not like I'm abandoning this blog at all! I am having too much fun to do such a thing. If I can get through ten of the challenge books then I will be pleased, any more will be a bonus! Well, now I'm going to go and try to finish my current one so I can review it for you all!

Thursday, 20 June 2013

Summer Reading Challenge: The Stone Gods by Jeanette Winterson

Let's all form a circle and feel ashamed about how long it has taken me to write this review. FAR. TOO. LONG. I swear, I finished this book on Sunday or Monday, and here I am days later and no review! I am a disgrace to the blog. However, I do promise that now everything is calming down again slightly I will become more regular again. Now the apologies are over, I shall commence with the review!

I'm a really big fan of Jeanette Winterson's work. She's one of those authors who I always know I'm going to enjoy reading. I try to space her books out a bit in my reading because it would be a shame to blitz though them all too quickly. I've always loved the way books like The Passion and Sexing The Cherry take historical moments and then incorporate elements of fairytales/magic/unexplainable things. With all the books on this challenge, I am trying to go in with as little foreknowledge as possible. I have read the blurb at some point, hence why I bought the book, but by this point in time I very rarely remember what it said! So it was with some joy and surprise that as soon as this started I realised it was more science fiction-ey than her other works. Immediate reaction- this is very exciting! I'm a big science fiction fan so was definitely interested to see how Winterson would engage with that genre. 

WARNING: You are about to enter spoiler territory. If you haven't read the book, turn back now!

Right, if you're still with me I shall assume spoilers are fine! 
So the book is split into four parts: Planet Blue, Easter Island, Post-3 War, and Wreck City. Planet Blue is set on what seems to be our future, but as is revealed later turns out to actually be in the past on planet Orbus. It becomes apparent as soon as you move from the first section to the second that whilst each section focuses on a different time, there is some form of connection between them all. To begin with, certain characters have repeatedly intertwined narratives, such as Billie (the human whose point of view is always focused on) and Spike (a robo sapian, a form of robot that can evolve). Also, lots of references to texts repeat throughout all the narratives. For instance, in Planet Blue snippets of a captain's diary are quoted, then in the Easter Island section Billy is a crew member on that captain's ship. I found that this technique really effective and interesting. There's a point in Wreck City where someone (I think Billie) uses the phrase "a repeating world" which sort of sums the concept up a bit. Planet Blue is discovered by the people on Orbus which is great for them because they've pretty much used most of the planet up and need a new one. Things don't entirely go to plan (I'm trying not to give too much away!) but the other three chapters are set on Planet Blue, which turns out to essentially be Earth. All of the various repeating aspects create this situation which questions whether the cycle of destruction will ever end. I'll talk about this in a bit more detail slightly later. I found this book reminded me a bit of Cloud Atlas, except I liked it more. I felt like Cloud Atlas tried to create this epic and intelligent story based around repeating souls, but it never really delivered. When it ended I found I still had loads of questions and didn't really feel like it had been executed as well as I had hoped. I think because of the slimmer focus of The Stone Gods and the bigger use of repeating aspects I liked it better. Whilst there are still aspects which I don't necessarily fully understand, I feel like I'm supposed to not get them, rather than in Cloud Atlas where I felt like the author just didn't entirely know what to do.

The society portrayed in Planet Blue is quite an interesting study of what our consumerist society could become. People are able to genetically 'fix' their ageing at a certain point, resulting in increasingly young looking women in opposition to older men. Bearing in mind we currently live in a society where there is great pressure on women, especially female celebrities, to keep looking youthful, this doesn't seem like too strange an idea. Men are chasing younger and younger women, treading disturbingly into paedophilia, and I couldn't help but be reminded of the way women were infantalised during periods such as the Victorian era. Another interesting element was the role of robo sapians. Humanity as a whole seems to have rendered itself slightly obsolete. They would be unable to survive on the new planet without the assistance of robots due to the general attitude that natural things are wrong. All food is artificially created, noone reads or writes any more  and robots do all construction/building work etc. Robo sapians are able to evolve which raises interesting ideas of what it means to be human. Spike describes how poetry caused her to be able to feel emotion and the characters debate about ideas of the difference between her and humanity. 

Winterson always plays with ideas of stories in her work and this book was no exception.In this case it tied in with earlier ideas of repeating worlds. Planets are stories and mistakes are repeating endlessly just like stories, constantly beginning again and again and again. My favourite little passage from the book was when Captain Handsome is describing planets his crew have encountered before, such as Echo and Medusa. I really feel like Winterson's writing shines in moments like this and they were such brilliant concepts. 

I found the Easter Island section enjoyable but it was probably my least favourite segment, but then it was much shorter than the others. Post-3 War was very interesting. It documents the descent of society from World War II into a very closely monitored community. The government distracts the population by building a 24-hour casino, with legal prostitution, they lower the age of consent and prioritise politicians and the powerful over ordinary people. I found this segment really reminded me of Brave New World. Rather than doing things like banning books and doing things that could cause protests and rebellions, they instead just make it so the population just isn't interested in those things. There's no need to ban books as people just aren't interested in reading them. Similarly, they distract the population with shiny new casinos so then they don't protest or rebel against the other changes they are making. They manage to create a society where people just don't question the situation. (Although this does only apply to those living within that society. As Wreck City shows, not everyone is satisfied and unquestioning) This society is one based on ideas of renting. Rather than being paid money you get paid credits that can be used to rent anything you want; cars, accommodation, clothes, travel, etc. In this society, art seems to lose its core life and soul. You can hire art works that are made in factories, so can rent the whole of Western culture for as long or little as you like, but it is inherently lacking. 

I found Wreck City really interesting, but I don't really know how much of the end I can actually talk about, so I will just cover some of my other thoughts instead! This section carries on from Post-3 War. Billie has been involved in building the first Robo sapian (Spike again) and talks to her about various things in an attempt to teach her. The idea is that Robo sapians will be able to impartially make the big decisions for the planet, unimpeded by emotion etc. Billie is supposed to be taking her on a walk in a garden, but ends up heading over to Wreck City. An element of this section that I found interesting was the reference to Robinson Crusoe. Billie befriends a barkeeper/Alternative member called Friday, and gives her last name as Crusoe. Now, I studied J.M. Coetzee's Foe last year, which is writing back against Robinson Crusoe, so I found that moment interesting. I've been thinking about it quite a bit, wondering if any of the characters in the previous section could be seen as Friday figures, or how Spike plays into that situation etc. I haven't really got anywhere with it yet though. I won't talk about the ending too much, as I'm still not entirely sure I understand everything yet! It does tie everything together, but it doesn't give any definitive closure really (not that I was actually expecting it to really). It just solidifies the idea of a repeating world; as one character (Spike?) observes, only the present is differentiated by the brain. So whilst I don't entirely understand all of the ending, I did really enjoy this book. It was science fiction-ey enough whilst still retaining all the elements I love about Winterson's work. I feel like she really grasps that element of sci-fi that I love, the part that makes you think about humanity and raises questions about our future and our society. I would heartily recommend this to anyone as I thoroughly enjoyed it all!

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Summer Reading Challenge: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

I've been slightly late getting this review up, so sorry about that! But finally it is here, even though I am over halfway through the next book already. What can I say, I have a busy, fun-filled life! Spoilers follow, but then it is 200 years old so you can't really complain! Right, Frankenstein...what can I say? This confounded my expectations. I won't lie, I had a very basic knowledge of the concept of Frankenstein going into this. All my experience comes from that one episode of Once Upon A Time and the general horror film version of the monster. You know the deal: crazy scientist is cackling madly in his lab, a shock of lightening hits some fancy equipment, cue "IT'S ALIVE!", throw in an angry mob with some pitchforks and fire chasing creator and monster, et voila you have my preconceived notions. 

Good old iconic image

Obviously, this is very far from the actual novel. To give me some credit, I was aware that it would be different which is precisely why I wanted to read this. However, I was slightly worried that it wouldn't be my cup of tea and I might have to wade through heavy Victorian prose. I was happily proved very wrong!

Firstly, I loved Shelley's writing style. I only recently learnt that she was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft which I found interesting as I have only just read Vindication on the Rights of Woman. I took a Women's Writing and Feminist Theory module this year so obviously we did Wollstonecraft, and it was really noticeable how she wrote in such an articulate and reasonable manner. I can't say I loved reading the entire thing as it does get slightly repetitive, but when you study extracts you can really appreciate the thought that has gone into it. (Side note- I am holding back from discussing this text as I could ramble on for ages, but a key aspect is the fact that Wollstonecraft demonstrates how women are capable of reason by presenting her argument in a calm and rational manner. I tend to fan-girl a little bit over this text so I will rein myself in now!) Wollstonecraft died very shortly after Shelley was born, so obviously she wasn't an active figure in her life, but I was still interested to see how Shelley's writing style would be. I found it very readable, but also so expressive. Moments that stick in my mind are where the monster is admonishing Frankenstein, the way his rage and loneliness is articulated is just beautiful.

I must admit I don't particularly like Victor Frankenstein or Robert Walton as people. They both seem that sort of wet, flowery kind of gentleman figure that feature in novels. That's not to say I don't appreciate them as characters and I do still feel empathy for Victor throughout the text. I will admit to finding the creation of Frankenstein a slightly funny scene though. This is probably just my modern perspective but you've got to ask Frankenstein, what were you expecting to happen in this moment? To simplify the situation, you've spent months preparing to bring a creature to life (presumably from dead bodies?), then as soon as you are successful, you freak out because the creature doesn't look as pretty as you hoped? I mean, you've made him out of dead people, he's not exactly going to be rosy cheeked. Maybe I'm being too harsh! After all, I am yet to be confronted by an 8ft tall guy with yellowed skin and black lips. When I am I shall update you on my reaction.

On the subject of the monster, I did find myself sympathising with him throughout the novel. (I know this is kind of the point though!) I just found it so sad when he was describing how he kept wondering where he came from and why he was alone. It's such an inherently human tragedy; all he wants is to find some form of caring contact and all he experiences is constant rejection. I think it's partly the fact that he is so human that makes it so sad. Human society constantly rejects him because he is grotesque and repulsive, and yet he keeps trying to search for some kind of human connection. I liked how eloquent the monster is. Due to the horror films there is this image of the inarticulate, groaning monster, yet he is actually so well spoken. The ability to pick up speech and writing just by overhearing demonstrates great intelligence, as does the way he questions the world around him. He constantly echoes the way Frankenstein was ravenous for knowledge earlier in the text. It does make you question what would have happened if Victor hadn't completely abandoned him, if he had learnt to get past the appearance and if they could have made further scientific discoveries together. Maybe that's just wishful thinking on my behalf! At one point, Frankenstein warns Walton about not letting the monster's eloquent speech blind him and cause him to sympathise with him. Maybe I have just been tricked by his speech and that is why I sympathise with him! Who knows! Now the above makes the monster out to be some kind of forlorn victim in the novel, and obviously this isn't the case. He commits multiple accounts of murder, and whilst the first could be accidental, the rest certainly are not. He tries to experience love and joy but when he is denied that he decides instead to completely embrace the negative. 

Additionally, I can understand why Frankenstein decides not to fulfil the monster's request to create him a companion. It is completely true that if he creates another being, they could very well just go on a murderous rampage, or refuse to hide away from society. Do I think he could have gone about refusing in a slightly less dramatic and provoking way? Yes! Let's be honest, how hard is it to rationally explain your concerns to your monster rather than just dramatically ripping your work to shreds in front of his eyes. So many of Frankenstein's problems would be solved if he just slowed down and explained his thoughts to the monster! He's always so busy going "foul fiend of hell, damned is the day of your creation, blah blah" and then after he's provoked anger he actually explains himself. Moral of this little divergence, if I was in this book things would have ended a lot happier! 

I genuinely didn't know how this would end. I found myself wondering how it could end? The 'modern' image ends with the death of the monster by the hands of his creator, but that cannot happen. After all, Frankenstein is seriously ill even when relaying his tale, how will he even have the strength to do that? Obviously, he does not. When I told my friend about how it ended, he asked if it felt a bit anti-climactic, but I don't think it did. It seems like the only way it could end. Frankenstein is in too deep to just be able to destroy his creation then go back to normal life. Add to that the fact that he really has no life to go back to, everyone he loves (bar one very rarely mentioned brother) has died and he is just the shell of a man now. The only ending that really works for him is his death. I also think it's very fitting that he does not kill his creation. I find it hard to really specify why though. Maybe because it feels like he has been so lacking from the monster's life that he doesn't have the right to get that satisfaction. Or maybe he has to atone for what his actions have led to, or rather his lack of actions. Or maybe I'm being too harsh on a man who has had all his loved ones murdered!

The death, or rather promise of the death, of the monster is just a continuation of the bleak circumstances that have always followed him. Whilst Frankenstein has been chasing him, he's had some form of contact with humanity. It isn't the love and care that he initially desired, but it is nonetheless attention and emotion directed toward him. For once, he is enough to fill the whole focus of a person. He is no longer stood on the outside looking in at scenes of humanity. He evokes enough of a response in someone that they will follow him into the harshest of conditions and never give up. For as long as is this happening, he is acknowledged as worthy of attention. Even if the intent is murderous, he is still evoking strong emotion in another. To have it all end signals the return to that life of emptiness and non-existence. The monster's decision to end his life seems his only option. What else does he have to exist for? At the start of his life, even when foraging in forests he was still driven by the urge to know. Know who created him, why he was here, why he was alone. Now those questions are answered and his last link with humanity is severed, what is there to live for?

I feel like I might have gone off on a bit of a moment there! But that's what I enjoy about this book. It causes you to question and these questions lead to journeys of thoughts and more questions. You find yourself asking which is the true monster, Frankenstein or his creation? What constitutes being 'human'? And when does knowledge become dangerous and unhealthy?

Suffice to say that I really enjoyed this book! I've been meaning to read it for around two years now and am really glad that I finally did. Definitely would recommend you give it a go if you haven't already! If you have, do you have any thoughts on what I've written? Any disagreements? Let me know in the comments below! 

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Summer Music Vol.2

In a stroke of luck, all of this lovely summer sunshine has appeared just after I have finished all my exams so I can actually enjoy it! So whilst I have been doing the Summer Reading Challenge I have also been enjoying some lovely summery music. I thought it was about time that I posted up another volume of summer listening.

1. Elvis Presley
As my house-mate will attest to, I spent most of our girly shopping trip with Blue Suede Shoes swirling round my head and I think it has something to do with the fact that it was so sunny. There's something about Elvis's upbeat rock and roll style that seems to fit with summer. I think it might have something to do with the fact that his music is used in Lilo & Stitch (one of my top ever films, but that is a post for another time!) which is such a feel good, summer film for me, so the associations are also passed onto his music. Obviously, Elvis had a very long career so there are some distinct styles in his songs, so examples of what I'm talking about classics like That's All Right, Don't Be Cruel and, of course, Jailhouse Rock. It's that perfect style of rock and roll that makes you want to dance around in the sunshine, as well as being great to listen to while you do other things.

2. Easy A Soundtrack
Easy A will probably end up with a post of its own at some point as it is one of my favourite films, but the soundtrack is perfect for summer. The thing about this soundtrack is that I probably wouldn't actually listen to a whole albums worth of each artist, but together as a compilation it just works really well. After exams finished me and my house-mate just had a girls day to relax, and as soon as we stuck this soundtrack on it just created the perfect mood. Very positive, good to sing along to, and doesn't take itself too seriously! Highlights are obviously Don't You (Forget About Me) and Pocketful of Sunshine. I defy you to listen to the last one and not pretend to sing along like Emma Stone!

3. Before the Amplifiers - Sister Hazel
Sister Hazel is part of a whole section of my iTunes that is dedicated to rocky male singers with lovely voices. Maybe one day I shall do a whole post exploring them, who knows! Sister Hazel has a slightly more country/southern rock style to the vocals which sounds really gorgeous when you strip it back acoustic. It must be said I am a sucker for a rocky male voice with an acoustic guitar. If you'd asked me last year what my favourite of their songs was, without hesitating I would have said Your Winter. However, now I find that tracks like Champagne High and Hold On are sneaking their way to overtaking it. Sunny weather makes me want to listen to quite mellow music, so this album has been played quite a lot as it has a more chilled out feel than if it was plugged in.

4. Nico Pusch remixes
This is a rather new discovery for me as I only found out about him last week! I was listening to a mix on 8tracks and his remix of Florence + The Machine's What The Water Gave Me came on. Now, I am a MASSIVE Flo fan and I really enjoyed this remix. Cue googling the name, stumbling upon the soundcloud page and doing some listening! Particular favourites now include the remixes of Alex Clare - Too Close, Parov Stelar - All Night, and Awolnation - Sail. I've been listening to him a lot while reading as they create a really positive atmosphere to chill out to.

5. Handbuilt by Robots - Newton Faulkner
Newton Faulkner isn't just one of my top summer artists but one of my favourite singers of all time. Handbuilt By Robots is my particular favourite album, just because it's the one that I know inside out and always puts a smile on my face. I listened to it non-stop when it came out and that was a time with a lot of change, but good change! In particular, Dream Catch Me was played a lot when I was first getting to know my now-boyfriend so it has a special place for us. It always has great memories of summer attached to it, meaning it tends to get put on whenever the sun pops out. I just love how even when he is singing about not entirely happy subjects, like I Need Something, the songs always manage to encompass a really lovely, almost upbeat vibe. I am a bit of a sucker for sad songs though, so my favourite is probably Uncomfortably Slow.

6. Bruce Springsteen
I can safely say that Springsteen stopped me going mad before my exams finished. The final three days between my penultimate and final exam were filled with me feeling slightly nervous and mostly impatient, so Springsteen was a great way of keeping me working. I can attribute this listening to the Nico Pusch remixes actually. He's done a remix of I'm On Fire which, whilst good, only serves to make me crave the real thing! Cue a whole Springsteen listening session and attempting to sing along to The River quiet enough for my friends not to overhear...

7. My Head Is An Animal - Of Monsters and Men
Last summer I went to Reading Festival and went to see this band without knowing anything by them, and it was a great decision. They are absolutely brilliant live. Bear in mind they were in the first slot of the day on the Sunday and yet there were soooo many people there to see them. They were just fantastic. I listen to this album a lot when I work, but now the sun has come out it is just reminding me of all the great times we had in the sun. I honestly can't list particular favourites because all the tracks are brilliant.

8. Songs of Patience - Alberta Cross
My dad recommended these guys to me and I have really enjoyed getting to know them! They have such a great bluesey, southern rocky vibe to them but with quite a modern edge. I don't entirely know how to sum them up, as might be apparent! I really like Ericson Stakee's voice, it is so interesting.

9. Shallow Bed - Dry The River
This is another Reading Festival discovery! I essentially tagged along to the bands my friend wanted to see and discovered a whole load of bands that I really like now. These guys are just so interesting and good! First off, the singer has such a gorgeous and unique voice. Add to that great harmonies, catchy choruses, and a violin! (Gotta love a good violin!) It all just boils together to create a really atmospheric and powerful, yet still quite delicate mix. Again, it is too hard to pick a particular track as they are all so great!

Well that's it for volume 2! Let me know if you've got any recommendations based off this list, or if you have any thoughts on the list!

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Summer Reading Challenge: Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

So, four days in and I have finished the first book! I decided to start with Alias Grace which was a great decision. There are a few books on the list which are just slightly more heavy-going, whereas this was one that I could just lose myself in and really relax after my last exam. 

Alias Grace is based on the murders of Thomas Kinnear and housekeeper Nancy Montgomery committed in 1843. Their servants James McDermott and Grace Marks were tried for it, with McDermott being hung and Marks sentenced to life imprisonment. The novel is focused on Grace and is told in quite an interesting way. Each chapter is preceded by a mix of excerpts, such as James and Grace's confessions, Susanna Moodie's accounts of Grace, and various snippets of poetry. I really liked this as they set up the sorts of themes that would be explored in the chapter. Also, it took me faaaar too long to notice that each chapter was named after a different quilt with a small square of pattern. Throughout the novel Grace talks about different quilts and what they represent, which I found quite interesting as I used to do a bit of textiles! 

I found the narration style really engaging as it switched between Grace and Simon's points of view. Simon is a doctor interested in amnesia researching Grace's case as there are various moments to do with the murder that Grace says she doesn't remember. This is another of the aspects of the book that I enjoyed. I actually found Grace quite likeable, so I had to keep reminding myself that she is potentially a murderess! She has quite a compelling way of speaking as she was relating her life to Simon. The fact about this murder case is that there are various details that are strange, and it isn't definitively clear to what level Grace was involved in the murders. The book explores this and I felt myself getting sucked into Grace's narrative whilst trying to remember not to trust everything she says. I won't spoil anything so I shall only say that there is an answer of a sort given, but with enough room for ambiguity that you can make your own mind up. Whilst I can't say that I actually particularly liked Simon as a person, I did appreciate what his point of view brought to the narrative. I enjoy books that present several different points of view as it is a reminder that in a first person perspective, everything is subjective. Grace makes judgements of Simon during their interviews, and then you switch to Simon's point of view and find out that not all her judgements are actually astute. The fact that you get a male and female perspective is also an interesting element as it explores the two gender's responses to similar events. One thing that stuck with me is the way that Grace's narrative highlights the way that women are always blamed for things (such as pre-marital pregnancies) whereas Simon's narrative showed male figures thinking women got off easy(such as Grace's murder trial)

I am going to avoid talking too much about the plot as I don't want to spoil it for anyone. I was definitely satisfied when I finished this, but there was just enough ambiguity remaining that I still had questions. Hence why I don't want to spoil anything for you guys!
I really did enjoy this book and found it very hard to put down. It grabbed me right from the beginning and even now I've finished it I have found my mind revisiting aspects and questioning them. This is my third Margaret Atwood book and I am really like how different the subject of each is. I am definitely looking forward to reading more of her work soon. As for the Summer Reading Challenge, I feel like it is off to a good start!

Have you guys ever read this, or any other Margaret Atwood books? If so, what did you think?