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Regeneration by Pat Barker is a moving and insightful novel about the First World War. Loosely based on real life events, it is set in Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh, a hospital that looked after soldiers that were suffering mental health problems due to the things they had seen and experienced on the front line.
The main character in the novel is Siegfried Sassoon, a war poet who spent some time in this hospital. After serving on the front line, Sassoon felt that the war was being deliberately stretched out by people that had the power to stop it, but chose not to. As the casualty figures soared, Sassoon saw this as a wilful act of mass murder. Sassoon was not a pacifist and was willing to fight and die for his country when there was just cause, however he objected to fighting when the war could be over. The character of Sassoon is a wonderful portrayal and you imagine that Pat Barker must have known him in order to depict him in such a realistic way. He shows the frustration that Officers must have felt sending young men out and seeing very few coming back, this must have been difficult at any time, but when the war could be over this must have become excruciatingly so.
The other main character is the psychiatrist that is treating the various patients at Craiglockhart. He is Rivers, another real-life based character. He is interesting because he at first feels that working here, with these men is taking him away from his real work; however as time goes on he realises that what he had once regarded as real work is, in fact, insignificant and the work he is doing here is of paramount importance. Rivers becomes burdened with the horrors the men have witnessed and begins to agree with Sassoon that if the war can be stopped it should be.
The other characters in the novel are the various patients in the hospital, all with horrific memories of the war. There is a man who cannot eat because he keeps vomiting, due to having a friend blown up very close to him and he ingested parts of his exploded body. Another man cannot speak when he arrives. They all have terrible nightmares and the wards are kept awake all night with the sound of screams.
I found these memories of what happened during WW1 very distressing, (and even thinking about these parts of the novel now distresses me) but feel it is necessary to read and try to gain an inkling of an understanding of what happened during this time. Many of the soldiers were only boys, signing up at 15 to protect their country and gain the honour of being a war hero, too often they did not return and those that did were dramatically changed forever. There must have been very, very few who returned and did not have some sort of mental health problem. There is surely only so much the mind can cope with.
The final thing I found interesting about this novel was the examination of gender roles at his time. One of the men from the hospital meets a girl called Sarah while out for a drink one night. Sarah is a funny shade of yellow because she works in the munitions factory. This novel shows the beginning of the changes in traditional gender roles. Men found it difficult to be the macho brave men they were expected to be (not crying, not suffering mental illness) in the face of all they had seen. And women were beginning to have more independence and a life outwith the home. This shift must have been difficult for both males and females as they adjusted to these new expectations.
I found this novel very insightful into this period in our history, and I feel I have gained a greater understanding of what it must have been like at this time, though obviously no-one can ever fully understand what it was like to be there. Although this novel is harrowing at times it is never gratuitous and only seeks to tell it like it is.
Even if you do not think you would like to read about war, you should read this book as it will move you in ways no other book can.
The Blue Diary by Alice Hoffman is a novel set in middle America. It tells the story of Jorie and Ethan Ford. They have had an idyllic marriage for thirteen years, their garden overflows with fruit and vegetables and they are loved by all their neighbours. Mostly because Ethan is a volunteer firefighter and has saved many of his neighbours lives, and he is also a respected and trusted carpenter who has remodelled many of his neighbours houses. However, their world is shattered when Ethan is accused of a brutal murder that occurred over ten years ago. The novel follows the fall out from this accusation and its effect on Ethans family and friends.
I found the style of this novel a bit too descriptive. Hoffman loves to describe the surroundings and in particular the natural world encompassing the character. This is ok to some extent, and I can see the comparison she is often making about the natural world and humanity, but I sometimes found it took away from the story. For example The damp scent of evening falling, the heavy August air, the song of red-winged blackbirds, alighting in the fields around town by the thousands, to feed on wild rice and fight for their territory I just think this is a bit too much description, however I know some people have referred to her work as lyrical so maybe if you like that sort of thing this book would be for you.
I found the characters difficult to like to begin with, but as the novel progressed I found I cared more for Jorie that I thought I would. She is basically living everyones worst nightmare; what if everything you trusted turned out to be false? At the start of the novel she seems a little too perfect, which is probably why she is difficult to like, but as you see her world fall apart you realise she is human after all and begin to sympathise with her. The character I found easiest to relate to was Kat Williams. She is friends with Jorie and Ethans son Collie (where these names come from I have no idea LOL!) and is struggling to come to terms with the death of her father. I would have liked there to have been more of her story in the novel as she was a likeable character and her struggle with her fathers suicide, and trying to help her friend Collie was very touching. By the end of the novel she has matured into a compassionate and wise young woman and the transformation was fascinating to read.
Overall, I have given this novel 3 stars because I found it difficult to engage with the characters and thought the descriptive language was off-putting at times. However, by the end of the novel I was glad I had read it as it does make you question how much you can really know people and how would you react if everything you believed in turned out to be false.
The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani tells the story of a young Iranian girl as she makes her way in the world. As she reaches marrying age a comet crosses the sky foretelling doom and bad luck. Shortly after, our narrators life is turned upside down; her father dies leaving her and her mother with no way to earn a living. Having barely managed to survive a desolate winter in their village, they contact a distant relative in the city and move to Isafhan. In the city, their luck seems to be changing; their family welcome them, and the narrator is learning to nurture her talent as a carpet knotter under her uncles vigilant eye. However, the bad luck of the comet is not finished with her yet. After a series of hasty decisions she and her mother find themselves homeless.
Both women have to learn to become independent and find happiness by themselves and on their own terms. I enjoyed this novel because of the empathy the author causes the reader to feel with the main character, even though we never find out her name, which is traditional in Iranian story telling. She is a truly three-dimensional character, with flaws and strengths that has the reader cheering for her and raging at her in equal measure. She makes rash decisions, but has to live with the consequences. Also, she is unable to live out her dream, and work on her ability as a skilled carpet maker, because she is a woman. This made me feel very frustrated for her, and caused me to sympathise with her troubles.
The structure of the novel is also engaging for the reader as it is punctuated with traditional Iranian folk stories, telling tales of magical birds, princesses and naughty angels.17th century Iran is spectacularly brought to life by Amirrezvani, the squares, the mosques and the bazaars are all described in such a way that you can almost smell the fragrant spices. In this respect the novel is like the carpets at the heart of the story; small knots made of stunning setting, realistic characterisation and unique structure all combine to create an intricate work of art. If you enjoyed The Kite Runner and Memoirs of a Geisha then this novel is for you.
Also published on Waterstones.com and Amazon.com
Noughts and Crosses is an excellent novel by Malorie Blackman. It tells the story of Sephy and Callum. Sephy is a cross and is therefore one of the priviledge members of society. Callum is a nought or a blanker, and is therefore a member of the oppressed class. This novel is a modern-day Romeo and Juliet with Sephy and Callum falling in love, although mixed-race couples are unheard of and against the wishes of their parents and friends. Add to this the fact that Sephys Dad is a leading member of parliament and Callums brother is an active member of a terrorist group the Liberation Militia, and you can imagine the problems they face.
Blackmans real ingenuity is in subverting our expectations of race by making the ruling classes Black and the oppressed group White. This might seem like an easy trick to pull, and over-simplistic, but it is in fact very effective. For example, when Callum cuts himself at one point he has to use an elastoplast which is the colour of Black skin and looks ridiculous on his pale skin. I know this is only a small thing, but have you ever thought about the colour of plasters? And how absurd it must be to put a peachy coloured plaster on Black skin? She also shows how history is told by, and belongs to, the ruling classes and is not always (ever?) accurate, but reflects the people in powers opinion of themselves and their past.
The characterisation is also very effect Callum and Sephy are characters all teenage boys and girls will be able to relate to. They are affected by peer pressure, struggle to keep everyone happy and come to terms with their feeling for each other at the same time. They have to make decisions about their future, and they dont always make the right choices. That is another thing which I think is excellent about this book, it does not always have the expected mushy outcome. In this novel, as in life, things dont always work out for the best.
Overall, I think this is a great novel for older children, probably ages 11+ (and adults!) as it has some violent and sexual scenes, and will be enjoyed by both boys and girls. It really makes the reader think about very current issues such as racism, terrorism and of course love.
I hope this review makes you want to read this novel and the others in the trilogy, I didnt want to give away too much of the plot, because that would ruin the book for you!
Looking for JJ is an excellent novel for young adults. It tell Alice Tully's story as she settles into life after being released from prison. She has been given a new identity and hopes to start a new life. At the start of the book this seems possible; she has a place at university and a loving, if slightly possessive, boyfriend, but things will never be easy for Alice Tully. In a series of flashbacks her crime is revealed - when she was only ten she murdered her best friend.
In this novel Anne Cassidy examines several themes. The friendship between the young girls is shown to be a battleground, with a power struggle at the centre. The different sets of parents show how selfish some parents can be, and what effect this can have. The media treatment of Alice show us just how vindictive they are, how they stop at nothing to get their story. The characterisation of the girls when they are young is excellent as is Alice's Mum; however her social work seems like a bit of a stereotype.
However, I feel the main theme 'children killing children' is skimmed over, probably because there is so little evidence to go on or maybe because it is too horrific to think about, never mind write about. Having read this novel I did some research into child killers on the internet and it is a very disturbing topic, it is too easy to write these people of as freaks of nature, but they were all ordinary kids at one point and they have to live with the crimes they have commited.
Overall, a good, thought-provoking novel.
Little Miss Sunshine is the funniest film I have seen this year! It tells the story of an American family trying to get their daughter to a beauty pageant in California. It is your typical road trip movie with lots of disasters en-route, but the families tenacity is what wins the viewers hearts. The acting is excellent: the little girl Olive played by Abagail Breslin truly deserved her Oscar nomination and Toni Collette is one of my favourite actresses, she looks sooo different in every film! Some parts of this movie reminded me of the early National Lampoon films - which I also found hilarious at the time. If you are wanting a film that will make you crumple up with laughter and warm your heart - this movie is for you.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath tells the story of Esther, a young girl who performs well at school, aspires to be a writer and has landed a stint working for a magazine in New York. During this time she starts to suffer mental health problems and has suicidal tendencies. She attempts suicide on a few occasions and is consequently admitted to an asylum where she receives EST (Electric shock therapy), first unsuccessfully and then apparently with more success. The book ends with Esther being interviewed by doctors as to her suitability to leave the asylum, but the reader never finds out the outcome of this interview.
I found this book rather flat, almost boring. The character of Esther does not have sufficient depth to be interesting or aspiring and the reader is left feeling rather indifferent towards her. I think the book would have benefited from a more substantial second character that Esther could have interacted with in order that the reader could understand her more. To me, the book seemed to be skimming the surface of a year in the life of Esther and although it was dealing with her inner thoughts and feelings I still feel that she lacked depth of character.
One interesting point of the book is the image of the bell jar and the description of mental illness as something no-one can see, but is nevertheless suffocating and all-consuming is very enlightening. I think if Plath had tried to express these feelings, and the frustration these feelings must cause, the book would have been more rewarding.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian is a cracking read: funny, touching and very realistic. It tells the story of Nadias, father, an 84 year old Ukranian immigrant who is getting married to a 36 year old busty blonde diva so that she can stay in the UK, and live the good western life. You can imagine the comedic episodes that transpire from that pairing! The one good thing to come out of this fiasco is the Nadia and her sister begins to reform their lost friendship, and Nadia learns about her parents and sister life before she was born. Ultimately the novel tells the story of Nadias parents past and their struggle to survive before reaching the UK, it makes the reader think about where they came from and the struggles their parents and grandparents faced just to survive. This novel is a quick and memorable read.
'The Woman in White' by Wilkie Collins is an excellent example of the Victorian thriller. Its twists and turns keep you hooked and guessing until the very end. The best thing about this book is the character Count Fosco he is a hilarious villian who is very creepy and unsettling. I took this book on holiday and loved reading it by the sea, the only downside is that it is a tad long and can be quite heavy to carry about. Interesting fact - This book was first printed in Dickens' periodical 'All the Year Round' and was published in monthly installments. If you enjoy Victorian literature that transports you away - this novel is for you!