The Stranger in my Home, Adele Parks

Standard

In all honesty, I’m really disappointed by this novel and wish I had picked up something better. It was just so… average. I thought it would be a lot more practical. It didn’t need the dark turn of an insane father; just exploring the journey that had led us to the shocking revelation that two children were swapped at birth, and the impact of this discovery, would have been enough.

I get that Parks wanted to keep her ‘twist’ secret for as long as possible, and there were some really subtle hints, but they were almost too subtle for too long. I was incredibly bored just under a quarter of the way through the novel and skipped to the end to see what was going to happen. Soon after, I started noticing the hints a little more, but without knowing what was coming, it’s doubtful that I would have picked up on them. It’s almost like Parks has tried to write a book that you need to read twice, but the book itself is so boring that I wouldn’t put myself through that just to see where things started to go wrong.

The premise sounded fascinating – what do you do when you discover your teenage daughter was swapped as a baby and you’ve been raising someone else’s child? The tagline of the novel, however,: ‘I thought she was my daughter. I was wrong’ is incredibly misleading. It sounds more like something from a horror film than the introduction to an average family, an average novel with average characters which basically achieve nothing and make no personal gains throughout the period the novel covers.

Parks tries to create an interesting history for Alison, but half way through, it’s like she’s forgotten that she intended to do that. We lose the chapters in italics and gather together information so piecemeal that none of it seems relevant. I didn’t care that Alison didn’t pass her GCSEs or O Levels, because it was just so boring to read about and at no point was relevant to the more important story that we were following.

The first person narration was incredibly dull, and whilst I believe Parks must think that she’s written a believable, realistic character, she just hasn’t. I understand the love of a mother for her child is indescribable and that a mother would do anything for her child. But Alison was just so boring. She had no appeal other than through Katherine, and having her narrate the book undermined that love, because it was confused and obsessive. I’m actually more concerned about Alison’s mental health than I ever was about Tom’s.

The book addresses issues such as adoption, cancer and parenthood in far too callous a manner. Tom uses cancer and the death of his wife for sympathy WHEN ANNABEL DIDN’T EVEN DIE. This is brushed over in a horrific manner, and Jeff and Alison are far too accepting of it all.

Whilst Parks attempts to create sympathy for Alison through the tale of her teenage self giving birth and putting up for adoption a son, the journey that she has doesn’t have ANY RELEVANCE TO THE DAMN STORY!! It just doesn’t matter. It was so frustrating because none of it mattered. There was no coherent plot structure, linking threads or purposeful narration.

Books like this are why I spent a long time avoiding popular literature because they just make me so mad. The writing was average, the book was about 400 pages longer than it needed to be, the characters were unbelievable, undynamic (is that a word?) and annoying, and mostly the content was padding rather than necessity. Perhaps Parks should just stick to writing short stories, that grip and let go, without worrying about making it a novel. I shall not be reading anything by this author any time soon, because I really have better things to be reading.

Stone Cold, Robert Swindells

Standard

There is nothing I like better than going into a book with absolutely no preconceptions or idea what I’m getting myself into and this was one such example. Whereas with the previous curriculum texts I’ve been reading (Lord of the Flies, Skellig) I have read them with the singular purpose of learning to teach them, I had no idea what this book was about and so decided to keep it that way, as with reading for fun. I’m really glad I did, and actually I think I’ve finally found a book that I would be genuinely excited to teach for its content as much as for its literary value and societal implications. It’s hard trying to prepare to teach when I don’t even know what local authority I’ll be in, let alone what school I’ll be in, and as a result no matter how much reading I do I still might miss the text that my school will teach. So it’s hard to control the excitement regarding the novel when there is a distinct possibility that I might not even end up teaching it! That said, I am excited to blog about this as a book I have enjoyed, and not just one I have had to make myself read.

The Premise and the Golden Circle

Throughout the training days with Teach First that I’ve had so far, and the wider reading and research I’ve done, I have come across ‘the golden circle’ several times, the concept that people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Robert Swindells is very clear in his final appeal that this book was written as the result of many personal interactions with homeless young people in London, and a desire to help them. The support the novel has received from the charity Crisis supports this, and gives the novel a much deeper meaning and purpose than simply telling a crime story, expanding its reach to tryiing to make a change for the few young people that it can. As a result, the story telling feels more poignant and I can absolutely see how the fact that this could be a real person the age or only slightly older than the pupils I would be teaching, would make a personal response to this novel much more viable.

Link, our protagonist, leaves home after his abusive stepfather and oblivious mother become too much for him to handle. At first he stays in Bradford, but shame and necessity cause him to relocate to London where he thinks that pickings will be a little bit easier to gain. After his first two weeks staying in a dirty, expensive bedsit, Link ends up on the street.

Running parallel to this sad tale of a teenager with no support or love to see him through, is the story of an older man who has also been kicked out of his home. Shelter served in the army for many years, and, having been discharged on medical grounds, he has lost his purpose of taking the young trainees sent to him and turning them into effective and disciplined soldiers. He has taken it upon himself, therefore, to rid the streets of London of those young people he considers in need of training, killing them and creating his own army corpses.

Some Analysis

Gloomy, I know! But actually, very effective. It’s obvious from the start where the stories are going to collide, and as an adult reading the novel, it was predictable and basic. However, the heart of the story is Link, and I was genuinely very distressed reading about his treatment by other humans. The novel certainly achieved Swindell’s purpose of warming the heart towards those nameless figures we so often hurry past and ignore on our way to so much more important things.

Paralleling Links’s rejection with Shelter’s rejection from the army ensured that there was a modicum of sympathy for the antagonist, whose back story of service and war created a figure who was to be pitied rather than hated, a fact often missing from ‘villains’ in literature for young people.

Aside from the standard literary techniques that you would study with a class, this novel is especially effective because it gives a character that everyone can relate to. As an adult reading, you feel sympathy and sadness for the young person thrust into this situation. As a young person, whether it’s Y7 or Y11, Link is close to their age, and the situations that he experiences at home, or out on the street, are stark and realistic and totally accessible for the target audience. Perhaps if every class read this novel, there will in a decade or so be an adult generation in a position to help and with the motivation and desire to do so.

Conclusion

As I say, this is more a review than an analysis as I enjoyed the book sufficiently that it didn’t feel like work reading it! I would definitely recommend anyone with teenagers give them this novel to read in order to appreciate the struggles that come with homelessness and poverty. That said, I would also recommend it for reading as an adult, as I can guarantee I will think twice before walking past a homeless child again.

The Trap, Melanie Raabe

Standard

This is, once again, a book I picked up from the airport (I’m flying home again next week, maybe I should leave my purse behind!). The premise seemed fascinating, however the execution was rather… dull. I started the book and at first was very put off by the almost child-like writing style. A few chapters in, I realised this novel is a translation from German, and that Raabe is a German author. Perhaps this goes someway to excuse the simplistic writing style, however, having read translations of classics, a translation doesn’t have to feel like it is a translation – if it is translated well enough then it can transfer superbly to its new language. Look at Les Mis (the musical). Originally written in French, surely we all now know the English words through their flawless transformation. So being immediately put off by the writing style, I suppose I wasn’t expecting great things from the novel, but the premise was still really promising and had a lot of potential scope. Unfortuantely, I don’t feel like Raabe explored this to its full potential, which is a shame, because all the elements are there.

Linda

Linda’s sister, Anna, was murdered, and after over a decade of living as a recluse, she sees the murderer’s face on TV and develops an elaborate plot to get him to confess. Linda is a famous author who never gives interviews; she decides to write a novel containing her sister’s murder, and offer an interview to the man she knows killed Anna – the journalist Lenzen.

Linda is most definitely the most well developed and human character. At first, her idolisation of Anna seems off putting, but Raabe goes to great effort to establish that it is simply a symptom of the shock that Linda never really recovered from. From the sounds of it, Anna and Linda had a very normal sisterly relationship, which became enshrined in Linda’s memory when she discovered her sister’s body. Linda’s slips into depression, insanity and other mentally unwell states are well described, however I am not certain the author has experienced them herself, as they often seemed stilted and uncertain. Raabe uses brilliant analogies, such as ‘the earthquake’ (the discovery of Lenzen’s face on TV) and drowning (whenever Linda becomes out of control).

I did have an issue with the exploration of Linda’s illness towards the end of the novel. Raabe rather underplays agoraphobia almost as if it doesn’t really exist. She describes Linda as ‘playing along’ with the journalists and spectators who label her with a ‘mystery illness’, when really, she is genuinely unwell with a condition that does exist, and I just feel like Raabe doesn’t understand that as she undermines it frequently throughout the novel.

Fact or fiction?

In the course of The Trap, Linda experiences several very vivid dreams of potential situations and outcomes, which seem to be happening but are then explained with simple phrases such as ‘that is how it could have happened’. THIS WAS REALLY FRUSTRATING! I felt like Raabe was treating us like a young audience, unable to see the descent into madness that Linda was experiencing and needing constant hand holding and guidance to the ‘correct’ response.

Raabe works extremely hard to create an atmosphere of uncertainty, but provides a very definite ending. This was extremely disappointing. Having journeyed with Linda through her uncertainty, it would have been much more effective to have an ambiguous ending, where Lenzen is assigned blame for the crime, but the reader is not 100% certain due to anomalies within the ending. It is frustrating to see Raabe throw away her build up and very skilfully developed plot twisting, to provide a romantic, satisfactory and ‘vanilla’ ending.

A lot of the aspects of Linda’s madness seemed to be rushed. I feel like there is a certain requirement in modern literature to try to keep original novels short, so they will be read by the educated mass. However, in something as intricate as this, detailing a mental illness, a 12 year old crime and a conflicted protagonist, there would have been no harm in drawing it out, spending more time with the characters so that we become more attached to them. This is why I am having to force myself to read so much modern literature at the moment – I’m not drawn to it in the same way that I am more classical or traditional fantasy literature because it lacks the detail and the relationship that you develop.

Conclusion

It was an average novel, with some interesting twists, told in a below-average narrative. I wouldn’t say it was massively worth the trouble reading, which is a shame because the premise was so promising. Good luck in the future, though, Melanie Raabe!

A Crown of Swords – Wheel of Time Book 7

Standard

I am halfway through this incredible series, and as stressed and exciting whilst reading it as I have been from book 1! The character development throughout this half way book has been fantastic, offering a wide variety of perspectives and drama. As always, the book is so long and thorough that it’s hard to even know where to begin, so I shall just pick out a few of what I consider to be the most interesting parts and discuss them in a small amount of detail!

Resurrected Forsaken

My boyfriend may have slightly spoiled the mystery of this for me by telling me that two forsaken were resurrected (which I had worked out) into different genders (which, at that point, I had not concluded). As a result, the surprising revelation at the conclusion of the last novel that a female ‘servant’ in Salidair (Halima) could channel using Saidin was less of a surprise for me. When it came to the mystery man rescuing Rand at the conclusion of this novel by creating Balefire but Rand was unable to sense the male source, it is a logical conclusion that this man is the resurrected Lanfear, who dreads to see Lews Therin dead.

I have found the gender transition fascinating. I had assumed, when my boyfriend mentioned the resurrections to me, that everything would change gender-wise, that the new female would use Salidar and the new male would use saidin, By maintaining their original source of the power, Jordan emphasises the humanity of the forsaken, something that is easy to forget considering their penchant towards evil and their seemingly endless blood lust. They are not simply robotic minions, like the Myrddraal, but humans who fall in love (Lanfear), like special ‘toys’ (Grandael) or become very possessive over what they consider to me theirs (Sammael). It makes you wonder, since they are so insistent on hanging onto their humanity, whether the lesser of them might still be redeemed to the light.

Philosophical discussion aside, it seriously stresses me out that Lanfear and another forsaken are back, because I’ve been enjoying the count down through every book as Rand and others defeat Forsaken after Forsaken, but now they’re down two and they don’t even know it. Also, Halima has a worrying hold over Egwene – could she be causing the headaches that she is so aptly able to massage away? With Aes Sedai having no way to tell when a man is channeling, she is in the most danger of them all at this current time! Hopefully all will be revealed in the next novel.

Nynaeve’s Block – AND LAN

I stand by my dislike of Nynaeve and her attitude, temper and self-obsession, but it was really nice to see her and Lan reunited. Egwene taking control as Amyrilin and making important decisions that led to this reunion was the icing on the cake. Seeing Nynaeve surrender completely was moderately satisfying, and knowing that she can channel without having a hissy fit will hopefully make her an easier character to read for the remaining seven novels.

BUT JORDAN RUINED IT BY REUNITING HER WITH LAN THE DAY IT HAPPENED AND I’M SERIOUSLY ANNOYED ABOUT IT.

Honestly, a woman finally overcomes a huge obstacle by herself, a strong willed and independent woman, and what should happen but she is rescued, when she was perfectly able now to rescue herself, by the man she loves. And married that same night. Just as Nynaeve develops independence from the need to be angry, she is taken in by a man who makes her forget any anger. It’s all too convenient and frustrating. They were both really fantastic things to have happened, but they should not have taken place together – dare I say, they shouldn’t have taken place in the same novel. It’s extremely frustrating.

That said, it was a little bit fun to see Tylin pursuing and capturing Mat, despite the borderline rape that was taking place. Yes, it was nice to see a woman taking control and pursuing her own interests, but the entire set up was rather suspect. Visiting a land where women are clearly the stronger sex, where they are innocent until proven guilty on murdering a man, and their excuses for doing so can be quite flimsy, and we finally meet a woman not waiting on a man… It’s just all a little uncomfortable, like women can’t be the dominant sex unless they are in a land entirely devoted to that fact. It’s just rather uncomfortable to read, and as I mentioned earlier, Mat is essentially raped by Tylin, thus undermining the entire joy of seeing women think for themselves. I’m not happy with the events there, and found them quite uncomfortable to read.

Intrigue in the Tower

Elaida is not black ajah, Alviarin is, as was Galina, and now Elaida has started a hunt for black ajah that I’m pretty sure she wants to rig to lead to Alviarin… The tower isn’t broken because of the rebels, it is broken from within. The moment there was confirmation of Black Ajah, the tower lost their position as a thoroughly united power, and the tower under Elaida’s control appears very disheveled compared to the rebels, who are uniting together. I feel sorry for Egwene, as she is going to have quite the mess to pick up.

The Weather Bowl

The entire book has been based around finding the weather bowl, and they still haven’t actually fixed the weather. More than anything, it’s frustrating that it’s being dragged out so long, that there was so much manipulation needed to get everyone in position, and that just as I thought we were getting there the Seanchen invaded, Mat’s in trouble and we just left him there! Cliff hangers and suspense are Jordan’s strongest writing techniques, I have to say, and I am biting at the bit to read the next book to see what happens.

What…? I have… positive feelings towards… Mat?

Which leads me nicely onto… Mat. For whom I am developing positive feelings. It was actually really nice in this novel to see Jordan really working to dig beneath the ‘clown-ish’ womaniser that he has so far portrayed Mat to be. Mat’s pursuance by Tylin reveals a rather understated, delicate and romantic side of Mat, where his pride will not allow him to be pursued without him instigating the chase, and his desire to truly be able to provide for a woman he has a relationship with. This vulnerability, coupled with his fierce loyalty to keeping his word and his bravery in the face of a danger even Aes Sedai could not face, have given him a much more rounded character that I don’t hate… strange to say, but he really stood out in this book. That said, a lot of A Crown of Swords did follow Mat closely and was told from his perspective, and when you’re reading almost a first person account of his journeys, you can’t help but feel positive towards him. I’m sure if the novel had leaned towards Nynaeve’s perspective, I would have very different feelings now! That said, Elayne is finally appearing to come to terms with the fact that her hatred of Mat is very much founded on Nynaeve’s attitude towards him, and it was nice to see Elayne step up and start to form her own opinions.

Those bits and bobs

A few other things to mention.

I like Min, but she has been very crafty and manipulative. She knows Elayne’s feelings and spent a significant amount of time with Elayne, so you’d think her loyalty to her friend would be a little more secure than basically rubbing herself up against Rand at every opportunity as an attempt to make him see her as a woman. I can’t help but feel that their reunion will be quite difficult. That said, I am starting to see now why Min is so important to Rand – she is a calming influence, a touch of light relief, and of course her visions at least help him to be able to plan for the future and know who to trust.

Sammael is dead, but actually, although Rand’s plans were scattered throughout the story, this is almost secondary to everything else that has taken place. Also, is he really dead; I mean, I know that Rand thinks he is, and I would assume that he is because nothing survives Shadar Logoth, but we didn’t actually see him die and the Forsaken appear to be more hardy that we give them credit for.

Rand killed a woman. Out of pity, out of desperation, to save her from the darkness that would consume her, but how will he recover from this? From his perspective he basically killed her twice – once by abandoning her when darkness came, and now by erasing her from existence to stop her suffering.

Okay, actually, there is one more massive bug bear here… Balefire. Moghedien used it on Nynaeve’s boat and killed two of Mat’s men in the process – but if she did that then why does Mat remember them? It’s a bot of a logical loophole and I’m not overly happy with the concept being so easily overwritten. For example, if the middle of the boat never existed, then Nynaeve would not have been out on the water at that time because the sailors never had a whole boat to use, which eliminates the entire drowning scene and her breaking through her block… I know it’s picky, but it is a massive plot flaw which is never really explained.

Overall

It seems to me that there was a lot less of the social commentary that I have seen in other novels previously, and that Jordan really focusses in on the progression of the plot and characterisation. In a way it was nice to move forwards with such speed and alacrity, and I look forwards to seeing where book 8 takes me!

A Boy made of Blocks, Keith Stuart

Standard

Autism seems to be an increasingly popular condition to explore in modern literature. From Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, and even the 9/11 story of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Autism is a recognised and familiar trait that authors are able to use to explore what it is that makes up humans, and why we are as we are.

When I first started reading A Boy made of Blocks, I was quite skeptical – I had picked this up as a Buy One Get One Half Priced offer at the airport back in January, and wasn’t sure where it would go. I grew increasingly frustrated with Alex, the protagonist who has left his home, wife and son due to the difficulties that having an autistic child has put on their relationship. Alex initially comes across as a highly ignorant and self centred individual, unable to take on the responsibilities that come with having a child like Sam. He is stuck in a job he hates, in a marriage that focusses around one thing, and the memory of a childhood trauma which he blames himself for. He casts a semi-sympathetic figure, but mostly seemed unlikable. His grasp on autism seemed very thin for a man who has an 8 year old son with that diagnosis, and I was left wondering whether the author was simply tagging onto a new trend in which people are determined to come to understand autism better, and so are happy to read about it in literature.

Then I read the author synopsis and things came much more clearly into shape. When Stuart’s son was 7 he was diagnosed with autism, after several years of chasing a diagnosis. It seemed like a huge barrier for them to overcome, but through the use of Minecraft, Stuart claims ‘Minecraft helped us to see and appreciate him as a funny, imaginative and perceptive child – it helped us to meet our boy’. So rather than a fictional story using autism to draw in readers, this became a semi-autobiographical story of the struggle between a real father and his son. Stuart reminds us that ‘Sam is not Zac’, but this allowed me to read the novel with a lot more sympathy and understanding. Rather than growing frustrated with an author who seemed to only do lazy research, I could read this more as a father’s honest confession of coming to terms with a life long condition which means, for some, that your own child cannot look you in the eye. Once I had that understanding of the motivation for the novel, I was able to enjoy it much more, which was lucky because as it progressed, it did become a moving and inspiring story.

Alex

I’m still not sure that I really like Alex as a character, but alongside Sam he is the only one who really comes across as actually being three dimensional. The loss of his brother, George, at the school gates when they were just children, still haunts Alex who has yet to deal with it. As a result, he has never picked his own child up from school, being too afraid to face the school gates, even though it’s not the same place. The novel starts with Alex leaving home to move in with his friend Dan. The first person narration meant that I was able to follow Alex’s changes closely, from being afraid of autism and his son, to realising that it wasn’t a barrier to love, and it fact made Sam more precious and special in Alex’s eyes. It was nice to see Alex experience redundancy and turn that into a positive experience, though I think we all wish our friends could be as generous as Dan financially. Overall, Alex’s journey was very satisfying and very human – his anger over Jody’s potential infidelity, his denial and eventual search for help and his career changes, all made him  a realistic and approachable protagonist.

The others

The other characters, however, certainly seemed much more two dimensional and flat. Jody – the self sacrificing mum and tired wife who needs space. Clare and Matt – the perfect family with a dark secret. Dan – the popular, good looking best friend with an easy life. Emma – the absent sister who reunites with the family. The teachers and the side characters had little to no life of their own, and were simply objects to move the story forwards rather than well crafted creatures. The development of Emma and Dan’s relationship was obvious from the star and despite the romantic gesture, you didn’t really feel like they had come far. It was all too simple and easy. Overall, whilst the personal story of Alex was moving and inspiring, it was undermined by a totally average portrayal of other characters and their lives. I suppose this is the punishment I get for reading something as detailed as The Wheel of Time, where the author has 14 books to make sure we know every characters middle name, hair colour and favourite sandwich! But in order to engage me again, Stuart would have to work on his minor characters to prevent them from feeling like plot techniques and help them feel more like people.

Sam

Stuart’s portrayal of Sam is the redeeming and best feature of this novel. He really uses Minecraft to show how scary the world can be for an autistic child, allowing the reader to see that a sense of order is entirely necessary for a child with autism to make it through the day. Not only does the game help Alex to understand Sam better, but I genuinely feel like I’ve had a valid insight into the mind of a child with autism, which as I’ll soon be going into teaching is an invaluable thing.

Sam is a boy who finds life overwhelming. His social interactions are awkward and often stunted, but what Stuart does capture to a degree is the ability of children to ignore that and get on anyway – from Olivia and friends rebuilding the castle to Tabitha just talking at Sam and paying him attention, the children in the novel are accepting and kind towards Sam. This is paralleled with the bullying he receives in school; however, this was not really explored to any extent and again, seemed more like a plot technique than a real issue. As an aside, I have worked for and volunteered in several schools and I found Stuart’s portrayal of teachers and schools extremely scathing. Stuart must have had some bad experiences with his own son, but I hope that no teacher is as cold and ignorant as those he wrote in this novel. Bullying is dealt with in schools, as part of a legal expectation, and vulnerable children are often more watched out for than parents realise.

Sam’s progression throughout the novel, from a shy, quiet boy with no friends and no connection with his father, to a confident, brave child with a close relationship with his dad, is heart warming to watch. When he does finally enter the Minecraft competition, his final design is beautiful and shows a deep emotional connection to Alex – for once, I’m not going to write what it is here because that really would be a spoiler!

The Verdict

Overall, this was an alright novel. The writing was clear and concise – as a journalist by trade, this is what you would expect from Stuart. The story has power and meaning and the all important personal touch, despite the two dimensional nature of the novel as a whole. Most of all, though, I do believe this is a powerful novel in helping the wider population to gain an understanding of autism and an appreciation of the strain it can put on a family. That said, I think that Alex is an extreme case of disinterest, and it would have been nice to have a family in the novel where they aren’t broken down due to the condition – the only other autistic child is raised single-handedly by his mother.

I can’t say I would seek Stuart out specifically as a new author to follow, but should I have the chance I would be interested to read a book of his based on less personal experiences, as I don’t think it would have the same depth and positivity that this novel does, ultimately, show.

Lord of Chaos – Wheel of Time Book 6

Standard

It has been a while since I wrote about anything I’ve been reading just for fun! I have to read this in small bites, as it’s been being read alongside curriculum texts and teaching theory books, and so it has been quite low on the priority list! But once I got my teeth back into it, I’ve barely been able to stop reading and am bowled over by the end! While reading this series, I try to read one Wheel of Time book, then another unrelated novel, to keep variety in my reading. This is the first time I’ve desperately wanted to go straight on and just keep reading the next book in the series, and it’s all to do with the last lines before the epilogue:

‘On a day of fire and blood and the One Power, as prophecy had suggested, the unstained tower, broken, bent knee to the forgotten sign. The first nine Aes Sedai swore fealty to the Dragon Reborn, and the world was changed forever.’

How did we get here?

It’s been so long since I read ‘The Fires of Heaven’ that I’ve had to go back and skim read my last blog post, and even then I’m not sure I can remember exactly what happened in the start of this book to get us so far! As always, there’s not enough space to talk about everything that’s happened, so I’ll pick up on a few key plot points and go from there.

The Amyrlin Seat

What I suppose was designed to be a shocking twist was actually really clear to me from the beginning of this novel. The sisters in Salidar were far too interested in Egwene to simply want to discipline her, and since no other sisters in Salidar were being specifically focussed on, it stood to reason that either Nynaeve, Elayne or Egwene would be asked to step us, especially as they are the strongest talent seen in many years. Nynaeve is easy to rule out – a wilder still cut off from the source when angry, she would not be a reliable or stable leader of a rebellious faction of the tower. Elayne has duties elsewhere – as the future queen of Andor, she would never be able to balance both responsibilities. That simply left Egwene.

I believe that the sisters in Salidar have made a wiser decision than they know. Egwene is strong minded and willful, but not so much so that she will dig her heels in and refused to be moved when faced with reason and logic. She is extremely powerful and in rediscovering the lost talent of dream walking, and receiving such caring teaching from the Aiel, she is clearly well versed in the power and her special skills. But most importantly, from our perspective, she has a clear head and a scheming mind. Already cleverly using Mat’s army to intimidate lords and ladies to join her rebellion, she has the ability to manipulate the key players in this story because she knows so much about them. Her developing relationship with Gawyn was a bit of a side step. To be honest, I would really, really, really, really, really, really, really, really love a female character in this series who is strong, independent, plays a key role in events, isn’t Aes Sedai and doesn’t fall in love (but I’ll come onto that rant in a moment!). But, I can understand how it’s happened, and it is a positive thing as ultimately Gawyn’s promise to Egwene saved Rand’s life, and we all know Rand can’t die till the final book!

Overall, I was really pleased with Egwene’s progression in this novel, and feel that her character has continued to grow in independence and strength.

That said, I still have my gripes – her speedy succession seems unrealistic and she is still very reliant on the older Aes Sedai to continue to receive support as a leader. It will be interesting to see when, and if, she has a united tower to follow her how she copes with the more mundane side of the job!

My biggest fuss over the Aes Sedai at this point, though, is the swearing of oaths on the rod being the step to Aes Sedai. I understand that this is a tradition, and that it is the Aes Sedai equivilant of a bat mitzvah, where the accepted finally becomes an Aes Sedai. But it doesn’t really effect their ability, their power or anything of importance. It holds them to a high standard of no violence except in emergencies, and truth telling, but in all honesty I cannot see the necessity in it. When Egwene, Elayne, Nynaeve and the others do arrive at the White Tower, I would like to see them stand up for themselves and refuse to take the oaths. They are limiting in dangerous times, and a little bit demeaning, even if the truth can be manipulated. I won’t dwell much more on this, but I don’t see why they should have to go through with swearing the oaths when they already go above and beyond, both talent and work-wise, what is expected of an Aes Sedai.

Girls, Girls, Girls!!!!

Faile, Egwene, Elayne, Nynaeve, Aviendha, Min, Amys, Berelain, Birgitte, Siuan…

Perrin, Gawyn/Galad, Rand, Lan, Rand, Rand, Rhuarc, Perrin, Gaidal Cain, Gareth Byrne…

This is a novel filled with strong and powerful women. In a world where it is only safe for women to channel and reach the source, you would think that there would be more women whose key focus is not men. I am excluding Aes Sedai from this discussion deliberately, because their decision whether to marry or not is mitigated by the warder situation, and I ranted enough about that last time. I will say that their lack of romantic relationships alienates them from ‘normal’ society, and is a part of what has them considered pariahs in many areas.

I’m just really sick of how much this reads like a romantic novel. I swear, if Mat, Rand or Perrin mention that they think the other ones have more knowledge about women I will throw the book across the room! There’s just so much going on in the novels already. I could have coped with two or three relationships – I like Perrin and Faile, and I like her because she is strong and stands up to her husband, but then she acts like a child and ignores him because another woman is showing interest. Perrin married her and she should not be punishing him for the actions of another. Similarly, Berelain is successfully holding a city in disarray in as much order as possible, and has ordered the deaths of nobles and peasants alike, and yet the minute Perrin shows up, she turns into a giggling teenage girl.

I don’t even want to get into the love quadilateral which is Rand, Elayne, Aviendha and Min. Elayne thinks she owns Rand, Aviendha slept with him and now seems to be considering sharing him with Elayne, and Min is trying to make Rand love her (which he clearly already does but still…). These are powerful and independent women in their own right driven to distraction by a man… Min was in love with him after one meeting and until this novel barely spent any time with him. Elayne is in love with him and has pushed him away and promised love to him within a week of each other, and is now frustrated because he wants to ‘give’ her the throne… SHE WASN’T THERE TO TAKE IT WAS SHE?! He has protected it from the many hands which would take it from her without a second thought, and has held onto it, as well as wanting to give her more. Elayne is entitled to it, but Rand has ‘won’ it, as it were. Of the three of them, Aviendha has spent the most time with Rand, has the most intense relationship with him, and yet withholds her love for the sake of Elayne. This is the one redeeming feature of the whole situation – Aviendha’s loyalty to her friends in unshakable, and her honesty has allowed their friendship to continue. Min, on the other hand, seems determined to ruin her friendship with Elayne! Argh, it’s all so frustrating.

I would just like one of the key characters to stop pining and get on with things… sometimes it’s like reading ‘Sweet Valley High’ – a guilty secret pleasure of mine when I was younger!

I will say, however, that the capture of Moghedian was very impressive, and showed what a group of girls can do, however the loss of her at the conclusion of the novel was not great really… however it is VERY clever that the transformations and rebirths in the prologue clearly played a role throughout the novel, and that the female of the pair was clearly actually a male forsaken. I’m interested to see where this will go!

That said, the only woman who shows true independence and thought is Alanna, and WE DO NOT LIKE HER. Well, I didn’t. I have a little more sympathy now that she has experienced Rand’s pain are understands what he struggles with every day. But Alanna bonded with Rand without his permission. She does not have the ability to compel him, thank goodness, which would have been very damaging, but what she did, as is stated in the novel, is equated to rape. She took away his ability to consent and acted without thought for the consequences. I am interested to see how their relationship develops as they must now be linked… perhaps Alanna will become Rand’s warder more that Rand will become hers!

Black vs White

This was potentially one of my favourite parts of the novel. Men who can channel have their own name – Asha’man. They have their own place to train – the black tower. Rand’s amnesty is paying off. Whilst their techniques, taught by the untrustworthy Taim, are violent and dangerous, they pay off. I am eager to see a time where Aes Sedai and Asha’man work together, train together and respect each other, and I look forwards to the beginnings of this relationship!

Insanity

One of the most interesting things explored in this novel is the descent into madness and the definitions of insanity. Both Mat and Rand remember things that aren’t their memories. They both show skills and abilities they can’t possibly know. Mat’s are memories, Rand’s is a voice. Looking at these with cold logic, there are elements of schizophrenia, multiple personality disorder and auditory hallucinations. I truly believe that the portrayal of Rand and Lews Therin is a powerful metaphor for the horrors of mental illness.

In this novel especially, Rand has struggled to define whether Lews is in fact Lews Therin, or whether he is simply a symptom off his own madness. The constant voice in his head and the battle for Saidin and reminiscent of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’, parts of which I recently re read on a school work experience which is probably why they’re brought to mind. Similarly to when Mr Hyde eventually takes over Dr Jekyll, Lews Therin believes that he is the true owner of the body. He does not recognise or know Rand, and only begins to acknowledge him in the last few pages. Lews Therin clearly has his own insanity issues to work through, but Rand’s constant fight against him is a really testament to those who have struggled with auditory hallucinations and mental illnesses in which they lose sight of themselves and give in to another personality. Jordan touches on a difficult subject, but his portrayal of Rand’s struggle to continue to be Rand Al’Thor and now Lews Therin, is heart wrenching to witness.

The True Source

The male half of the true source is tainted, but who is to say the female half isn’t as well, in its own way? Men go mad, Aes Sedai become master manipulators and ageless. They live for long beyond their years and are driven to great extents to protect themselves. The final battle is coming (in, like 8 books time), but what will its conclusion be? At this point, I believe that to make the world more fair, better, and to eradicate the dark one, all power should be wiped out. I include Saidin and Saidar in this. Just to put it out there.

The End

Then, of course, there is the quote I opened with, and the final scenes in which the first nine Aes Sedai bow to Rand, who was strong enough to break through three Aes Sedai and then to take them out one by one. I have nothing particularly critical or analytical to say about this bit, except how satisfying it was. Aes Sedai put in their place a little. Rand continuing to step up and take control and the development of the all the characters throughout have been really interesting to watch. I’m fascinated to see where the next novel goes – will they fix the weather? Will Morgase make a comeback so everyone can stop hating Rand for something he didn’t do?

Best get onto reading another book so I can move on with this series!

Skellig, David Almond

Standard

I never read Skellig as a child. I suppose as a result of moving round a bit and having parts of my education in a different country, I must have just missed it. And I can’t say that I feel like I missed much, having finally read it.

Maybe because I’ve come to it as an adult I can’t quite embrace the magic that children and young people feel when reading it for the first time. I would be more inclined to believe that if I didn’t love fantasy literature. I have an imagination and the ability to, in literature, accept the impossible as entirely possible.

Maybe it’s because I don’t like uncertainty. I want a definite answer, not a debate – was Skellig an angel or wasn’t he? But at the same time, I adored the ending of The Life of Pi where the reader has to decide whether what happened was the animals or humans killing each other. So uncertainty certainly isn’t an issue for me normally.

Perhaps it’s because because I don’t like the character of Skellig because he goes against the traditional form of an angel that I, as a Christian, would look for. Then again, I absolute loved Susan Ee’s Angelfall and the angels in that series could not have been less angelic if they tried.

So what is it that I haven’t taken to in Skellig? I’m not really sure. I feel in a way that it’s kind of like James Joyce’s Ulysses. Part of the reason Joyce wrote the novel to be so complex was because he wanted academics scratching their head over it for years to come. Skellig, to me at least (and I’m not saying this is unequivocally the case) seems to be written for children to study. Almond was a teacher when he had the idea for and wrote Skellig. He knew what children were reading and the content and value of the texts they were studying. I read that the idea came to him as a whole, that Almond wrote Skellig as an entire story. Perhaps it was because of the influence of the teacher in him.

That said, I can see how Skellig is a useful book to study with Key Stage 3 pupils, and shall endeavor for the rest of this blog post not to continue moaning about why I didn’t like it, but to explore why, as a teacher, it could be valuable.

Skellig as a Curriculum text

Almond successfully explores the childlike confusion, pain and horror surrounding sickness and death. Michael’s name for the doctor caring for his sister, ‘Doctor Death’ shows a child’s inability to separate the state of death from humanity – he was to give death a figure, a being, to make it manageable. For children who are, hopefully, unfamiliar with sickness and death, and even for those who have grown used to it, Skellig brings a sense of hope to the hopeless, and life to the sick.

The conclusion was very Mary Poppins-esque: ‘”Someone else might find him now” said Mina’ (p. 162). The idea that Skellig was present in their lives simply to save the baby kind of undermines the supposed confusion over what he was. With wings and healing powers, the ability to sense the spirit in a child and his relationship with animals, surely it is obvious that he is angelic. Certainly his attitude might contrast with what we would expect, but I’m pretty sure you’d be annoyed at living on earth if you’d ever seen heaven! But the uncertainty of his identity does introduce pupils to the concept of an unreliable narrator, and the idea that not everything fits neatly into the box we might suppose.

Through the novel there are a variety of literary techniques, useful for close study of the text. Smilies, metaphors, rhetorical questions… there’s a plethora of analysis for the taking.

One of the things I did enjoy about the text was its relationship to art. Whilst on a week long school work experience for Teach First last week, I looked through the text books of a few year 7s. They had been studying A Christmas Carol last term, and the first few pages were filled with drawings of Victorian London, Marley and Scrooge and other little parts of the novella. I can see how teaching Skellig using such creative expression would be really helpful – drawing what we think Skellig looks like, what Mina looks like from Michael’s description, what the garage looks like will all help pupils to engage with the text in a visual and practical manner.

The Verdict

I don’t like the book. The story isn’t for me, the delivery isn’t for me and the underlying tensions of good book to read vs good book to study pulls me away from the story. However, that’s not to say I  can’t see its merits as a curriculum text. I have listed just a few above, and can see how going into this novel would be a good introduction for younger key stage 3 pupils to close textual study and analysis. It does also explore some difficult topics, and with a child protagonist, this makes the much easier to approach.

Personally, I still prefer The Book Thief for those things. But Skellig will do for now!