Julian Corkle is a Filthy Liar, DJ Connell

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The Premise:

From the moment he is born, Julian’s mother decides that he has ‘star quality’ and will achieve great things. But his father’s fear difference could hold Julian back, especially when they are forced to relocate to Hobart. Will Julian find the place he belongs? Or will he fall by the wayside?

The Verdict

I did not enjoy this book. It was too much like a biography – a bunch of nonsense things that happened to a person before they became famous that helped to make them who they are. Whilst for people who like biographies, this is fine, for me, it just wasn’t enough – definitely not my type of fiction. It’s the book for my June book club meeting, and after The Hate You Give it was a massive disappointment!

The genre and the writing style aside, I have to say that Connell paints what I can only assume is an accurate but rather bleak picture of 1960s Australia, in which homosexuality is a ‘dirty little secret’ and those who openly express their orientation in Tasmania are marked as outsiders. Julian’s homosexuality is made clear from about page 2 of the novel, making it a natural part of the narrative, and his keeping it a secret is a part of his every day life. Whilst it seems to me that ‘star quality’ seems to be a euphemism for homosexuality, there are also elements of Julian’s nature that could also account for this reference. It seems that Connell attempts to inhabit the mindset of 1960s Tasmanians and is, in this sense, successful, as she creates a very realistic and believable society with their own damaging preconceptions and idiosyncrasies.

Julian himself is a frustrating character. He is pampered by his mother and bullied by his father, but believes that he is destined to do great things. This belief in his destiny makes him lazy and almost unbearable as a protagonist. His flair for story telling, and constantly embellishing the truth with unnecessary lies, as hard to pin point at first but one of the key reasons I disliked him so much.

To be honest, I don’ have much to say about this book. It really wasn’t for me and I wouldn’t seek out this author again.

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The Woman in White, Wilkie Collins

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The Premise

Wilkie Collins is hailed as the author of the first ‘detective’ and ‘mystery’ novels, often in reference to his 1860s novel Moonstone. The Woman in White, published almost a decade before, is one of Collins’ most successful novels, and the only one mentioned by name on his tombstone. As far as I’m concerned, The Woman in White far exceeds Moonstone, which I read several years ago, and I have barely been able to put it down over the past few days.

Walter Hartright, a drawing master, goes to the home of Mr Fredrick Fairlie to teach his two young charges – one a niece by blood and the other her half-sister. While there, Walter falls hopelessly in love with the already betrothed Laura Fairlie. In order to not dishonour her and her commitment, he leaves the home, but the intentions of Laura’s husband are not as honourable as they may have initially appeared and as Lord Percival Glyde begins to achieve his nefarious aims, it is down to Laura’s sister, Marian Halcombe, and Walter to ensure that justice can be done.

The Verdict

I want to open this review by acknowledging the elephant in the room that is the blatant sexism and disregard for females that this novel contains. It is all well and good to pass it off as a product of its time, but when the strongest female character spends most of her time apologising for being a woman, in the spirit of Lady Macbeth’s ‘unsex me now’ fever, it is painful, as a woman, to read something so powerfully written and feel so much despair at the antiquated attitude. I will spend a little time on this subject, focussing on Marian Halcombe.

When Hartright first sees Marian, he does not see her face immediately, and he takes an inordinate amount of time to describe her attractive physique. He is shocked to discover, when she turns around, that the matching face is not beautiful but manly and unattractive, and he is shocked by this. Marian’s physical appearance is matched by a ‘manly’ courage that she shows throughout the novel, going to great extent to rescue Laura from the clutches of her husband – and others. Several times, Marian wishes that she was not a woman but a man, so that she could properly defend her family. To see an independent and intriguing woman so undermined by her sex was hard to read. The unusual nature of Marian’s womanhood and its similarities to manhood was echoed by the fact that of all the men in the book, the antagonist, Count Fosco fell for Marian to the detriment of his evil plan. Marian is so unlike the Victorian feminine ideal that it takes the wayward foreigner to truly love her as she is, and this is irrelevant because she will never return those feelings. Fosco’s passion for Marian reflects society’s dislike of such woman because only a true villain could so admire her character. Marian stays firm, and is a likeable and productive member of the narrative, but her happiness is ultimately in being Laura’s sister, and Laura’s child’s aunt, rather than in pursuing the skills and abilities that she demonstrates throughout the text. Hartright acknowledges her usefulness and skills, and others trust Hartright simply on Marian’s word, but she is not to progress in a world that is so threatened by the strength of her personality. Both the portrayal of her physicality, and Fosco’s opinion of Marian, present her to the reader as something ugly and unnatural, and she is the exception to the weak femininity seen throughout the rest of the novel.

Laura Fairlie is Marian’s stark opposite in looks and temperament – childlike in her innocence before her marriage and reduced to being almost a child after her experiences in the asylum. The fact that Hartright ultimately marries Laura in spite of her infirmities and helplessness, emphasises the true Victorian ideal that Collins presents. It is a shame that Laura is given no voice in the multi-narrator narrative, as her character is seen only through the eyes of the strong around her, and she is left in the shadows, despite most of the action of the novel centring around her.

Collins’ narrative presents what we would commonly recognise now as a form of detective work. Hartright, an artist, has gathered accounts from each step of the way of the story in order to prove that Laura Fairlie is a live and that another lies in her marked grave. As a result, he doesn’t speak for anyone else (apart from for Laura), but has collected their narratives to present to the reader as evidence of what has taken place. When Hartright does narrate, he frequently hints towards the ending, such as mentioning his ownership of treasured pieces of artwork drawn by Laura, but does not reveal the ultimately happy ending the novel has until the last moment. Unlike many, the retrospective narrative gives the entire novel a real sense of discovery and mystery, which had me on the edge of my seat waiting to find out how the story concluded.

Throughout the novel, Collins’ greatest skill was in weaving a complex story in a relatively simplistic way. Sometimes, before we even actually met characters, we would know their names and their role because they were so perfectly framed by the preceding narrative. Lord Percival Glyde’s secret was well kept for a long time but hinted at beforehand to such an extent that it was possible to work out of it, but no sooner than Collins wanted you to. The answers to many mysteries were revealed without you necessarily even knowing that an answer was being sought, a skill of subtle story telling that you rarely see.

One of the most striking quotes in the novel, and the only one I noted down, was Hartright’s comment that: “the best men are not consistent in good – why should the worst men be consistent in evil?”. Collins addresses a truly profound contradiction in human nature, showing that he is aware of the dual personalities human kind possesses. His protagonists are flawed, and his antagonists show aspects of humanity, so it feels like you are truly reading about real people and their real lives.

Collins opened up a now much exploited genre, that translates just as well to our screens as it does to our modern literature. The Woman in White is in every sense a classic and is beautiful in its weaving of story and investigative narrative. Definitely the best of the Collins I have read so far, I feel a true sense of sadness at saying goodbye to the characters I have spent so much time with and know so well, and I look forwards to reading more from him in the future.

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas

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The Premise

On her way home from a party, teenager Starr witnesses the unprovoked shooting of her unarmed, childhood friend. The incident incites riots and chaos in her home of Garden Heights as the truth comes out, and the policeman responsible experiences no consequences for his actions. In a ‘he said, she said’ world, will justice ever be rightfully served?

The Verdict

As part of my integration into Cheltenham, I have decided to join a book club. I adore reading so much, and I felt that reading purposefully could be really good for me in not only combating the anxiety that first time meet ups always cause me, but also addressing the deep loneliness I experience when Jack is at work. My first meeting with them isn’t until May, but I decided to buy the book nice and early – this was their choice.

It has been a long time since I started a book in the morning and finished it at 11.15pm that evening – mostly because I don’t tend to stay up past 9pm! As a result, it’s taken me two days of reflection to feel able to review this book, and let me say before I begin that nothing I say will be able to do it justice. This was a breathtaking novel, that had me on the edge of my seat on every single page, addressing horrific and real issues with sensitivity and honesty. I’m going to focus my review around three central themes of the novel: ‘Identity’, ‘Justice’ and ‘Race’, however, this is a book of many levels and whilst I will do my best to discuss these, you will definitely get more from reading the novel itself – so do that before you read this!

Theme 1 – Identity

Thomas takes the age old tale of a teenager at school, unsure of where they belong, and gives it greater meaning. Unlike the common High School Musical (to sing or play football) or Twilight (vampire or werewolf!) dilemmas, Starr’s struggle is multi faceted and truly identifiable. Starr attends a school outside of Garden Heights, where her friends are not black, like she is, and her home is referred to as the ‘ghetto’. She moderates her speech, refuses to sound ‘street’ and ensures that her lives don’t mix. Her two best friends, Hailey and Maya, and her white boyfriend Chris, aren’t allowed an insight into her world at Garden Heights. If they see her, it’s at her uncle’s house. They have only once met those Starr grew up with, and that didn’t go well. Starr cannot truly identify with her friends from school because they live such different lives. What is sad is that Starr also struggles to identify with those from her neck of the woods, such as Kenya, because they see her as different to them because she attends a different school. So Starr cannot truly be herself amongst those from her town either, because they don’t understand why she hasn’t stayed around with them.

Starr’s struggle for identity is paralleled by her parents’ journey from die hard loyalty to Garden Heights to accepting that it is actually okay to progress from one place to another in order to protect yourselves and your family. While Starr learns to integrate her two worlds, her parents seek safety and security that cannot be found in their home.

The wider context of the theme of identity is Starr’s choice to stand up for what happened to her friend Khalil. Her dilemma is complex – if she is honest and speaks out, she will be under threat not only from the police who she is ousting, but also the drug dealer who Khalil worked for, who is worried that she will reveal more than is pertinent. Being a black child, accusing a white police officer of a cold blooded shooting, will not only put Starr at risk but her entire family. Nowhere was this more painfully displayed than the scene where Starr’s father is questioned, because he is black and looks like he could be causing trouble, and then, when his name is discovered, he is forced onto the ground and thoroughly searched. Now, I am a white British female, and I have no experience of American policing, and this scene almost had me in tears. You witness the loss of innocence for Starr’s youngest brother, for whom the simplicity of being human has instantly become more complex. You witness the loss of dignity for Starr’s father, and for Starr herself, as they are unable to fight for their rights. And you witness the loss of humanity in the police force, who allow their prejudices to dictate their actions. Ignoring the pleas of the children and neighbours, they pursue what they have already decided must be a trouble maker, despite all evidence to the contrary. The general dilemma of identity is this – how can you possibly identify as an honest and productive member of society when you are treated as a sub-citizen? And how can you identify that way when you judge others according to the colour of their skin?

Thomas portrays Starr’s struggle to find her identity and not just become a ‘statistic’ or, as she phrases it ‘a hashtag’. The conclusion of the novel shows Starr beginning to integrate her worlds, but it seems the world is still not yet ready for a person such as her, with justice failing to be served.

Theme 2 – Justice

Which leads me nicely onto my second theme – Justice. I believe that, for whatever reason, we are raising a generation that is passionate about justice, and identifying right from wrong. The #neveragain movement, and the #metoo movement are two current and relevant examples of justice for victims – past, present and future – being sought. It is surprising, therefore, that Thomas withholds justice for Khalil – or maybe not surprising considering the ongoing climate of hate and racism that seems to be found in America.

The entire community of Garden Heights is enraged at Khalil’s murder, and even more so when they discover that he was unarmed. It was uncomfortable to read the policeman’s father’s description of the event given on the news, as the reader witnesses the event from Starr’s perspective and knows the discrepancies. I’m going to avoid getting into the discussion of an unreliable narrator here, because I want to spend the time focussing on the pursuit of justice, but don’t worry – I am aware!

Despite being taken through the proper channels, and having an eye witness, the policeman who kills Khalil is never brought to account for his action. He is protected by the police force, and the media who share his story without contrasting it with the alternative facts. It is infuriating that the lack of justice leads to riots which damage the neighbourhood itself, emphasising the futile nature of opposing those in power – even when something wrong is done, the only real damage ends up being done to those who are wronged. This is a disheartening and powerful message for a world that is seeking justice at every turn.

Theme 3 – Racism

Thomas’ story addresses the key issue of ingrained racism through the lack of justice distributed and Starr’s search for identity.

I found the character of Hailey fascinating. At first, she seems a normal teenager, with a variety of friends and therefore, surely an open mind. It is only as the novel progresses that you learn why she unfollowed Starr on Tumblr (because she was sharing to many #blacklivesmatter posts) and that she has made racist comments towards Maya. Hailey is not aware of her own racism – she sees them as harmless jokes – and those around her have been conditioned to accept it because she represents the majority. It is pleasing that Maya and Starr come out from Hailey’s shadow, and although she does apologise for her actions (via text, I must add), her character does not have enough of a character arc to show true change and progress in her opinions. Perhaps it would have been interesting to write a sub-story showing what it is that made Hailey this way, because it is her attitude that is at the centre of all the problems faced in the novel. Oblivious racism. Profiling based on race. Deliberate racism.

There were some things for me that were a bit odd, but perhaps they have more meaning to an American readership. I found references to ‘Black Jesus’ strange and, from my point of view, unnecessary – Jesus is the son of God no matter how he is portrayed, and race doesn’t really come into it (but maybe I’m being naive – I’m sure I only think that because Jesus is often portrayed to look like m). There were a few references to various high profile equality fighters such as King and Malcolm X, of whom I have limited knowledge, especially regarding the latter. But overall, I feel that Thomas portrayed a society so steeped in its racism that it can’t see it anymore, even among those who are the victims of the attitude.

For example, whenever Starr sees the police she reminds herself of three things – hands visible, don’t make any sudden moves and speak only when you’re spoken to. Starr tells the reader that she was taught this when she was 12, and that is was as normal a conversation for her family as the birds and the bees. This tore me apart because no one ever had that conversation with me (what to do if the police stopped you, not the birds and the bees!) because they never needed to. Why do the police see black people as more of a threat? Why should an entire race live their lives in fear of being stopped by the police, just because of their skin colour? This institutional racism is, I believe, why Thomas must have written this novel, and why things need to change.

Thomas portrays these three key themes and many more, with sensitivity and relevance. This is a book for a generation of readers who need to know where they come from – and need to know that where they’re going needs to be different. Advertised as a ‘teen read’, this novel is more than that, and perhaps if more people read it, more people would be able to reflect on their lives and see that if they changed their attitudes, then maybe a greater change would be achieved.

The Rose and the Dagger, Renee Ahdieh

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The Premise

Returned to her family and separated from the man she loves, Shazi must now reconcile her love for a ‘monster’ with the family that believe they have rescued her. But there are darker forces at work – the curse which drove Khalid to his initial killings is rearing its head now that he has stopped bowing to its requirements, and the whole kingdom stands poised to fall as nature and greed stand firm. With betrayal coming from every angle, who can Shazi and Khalid trust with their secret? And can the curse really be broken?

The Verdict

It’s nice to read a duology which is truly that – two books in which all the action takes place and everything is wrapped up, even more so when some of the issues I raised before are addressed.

So let’s start there with the gender imbalance of power. Ahdieh showed a stubborn young woman and her maid, )really a spy in her chambers), in the first novel, as exceptions to the rule, where they stood out because of their independence and strength in a very male dominated world. I commented on this last time, and was pleased to see the development of a few more female characters in The Rose and The Dagger, namely the character development of Shazi’s sister Irsa, probably my favourite character. Unlike Shazi and Despina, Irsa is not the exception that surprises everyone because a woman is strong. Rather, Irsa is a true representation of the progression from childhood into womanhood – a character with faults who learns to overcome them. She is overplayed initially as the ‘perfect’ younger sister, who rarely has a temper and is loyal to her family but also her kingdom. Ahdieh begins to unravel this as Irsa helps Shazi to hide the ring belonging to Khalid, and continues to do this throughout the novel, such as where Irsa uses her innocent reputation to steal the book her father clings to. Ahdieh begins to develop more rounded and believable characters that are different to the standard ones that plagued the first book. You could lift Shazi and Khalid and plant them into any young person’s book and they would fit (with a little tweaking), whereas Irsa moves away from this generic characterisation and begins to show some of Ahdieh’s talents in creating unique fictional characters. I believe she still has a way to go, but this was definitely a step in the right direction.

As a result of this improved characterisation of Irsa, the focus on the strength of the male characters was drawn away – in fact, Ahdieh exploited more of their weaknesses and highlighted the importance of the female role. This was most apparent at the conclusion, where Yasmine replaces her father on the throne and is considered a far more fitting ruler. There is a lot of potential in this novel for the development of characters that was left unexplored, and Yasmine was one who suffered – she was a means towards an end rather than a person in the narrative, which was a shame.

The plot was satisfying and the conclusion was well done. I always prefer a nice big twist, which the reveal that Despina was in fact the Sultan’s daughter didn’t quite satisfy, but for a young person’s novel, everything was well wrapped up and explained. I enjoyed the ‘battle’ scene, if it can be called that, and found Ahdieh’s descriptions eliciting very visual images, demonstrating her skill with descriptive language. All the different strands of the story tied up, and the cliched happy ending was nice – a break from some of the more serious stuff I find myself reading sometimes!

Overall, the series was a creative retelling of a popular tale, filled with likeable characters, one stand out little sister, and descriptions that brought the location to life. I enjoyed the plot, although I found it predictable, but I would definitely read something by Ahdieh again if I came across it.

The Wrath & The Dawn, Renee Ahdieh

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Chosen for me by my loving fiance, who thought that I needed something a little lighter than some of the stuff I normally read, I have raced through The Wrath & The Dawn with eagerness. A well written tale based on the Arabian Nights, Ahdieh paints a picture of a tortured king and the young woman stubborn enough to save him with finesse and skill.

The Premise

I have never read a version of Arabian Nights (Disney’s Aladdin does not count!) but was familiar with the concept prior to starting this novel, and a few chapters in had to put the book down and check that it was deliberately following the popular framing I knew already existed. Once satisfied that this was a deliberate narrative choice, I was able to settle down to enjoy the novel.

Shazi has volunteered to marry a troubled young prince, who executes his brides at dawn and has done for several months. The death of Shazi’s best friend has driven her to seek retribution against the man who caused the death, but instead she finds herself puzzled by the quietly spoken boy-king she faces. Two young people carrying heavy secrets, seeking to be understood in a world that can’t understand them find comfort in each other… but this is not to everyone’s pleasure.

The Verdict

I have enjoyed this novel surprisingly much – so much so that its sequel is on the way already (it is nice to read a duology rather than a 14 book series for a change!). Ahdieh takes a well known narrative frame (that of the queen telling stories to save her life), but focusses more on the surroundings of the story than that stories themselves, which from what I know is what the original Arabian Nights does. Her subtle nods to the original tales are clear and respectful, but it is obvious that her real fascination was with the couple, the development of their relationship and their individual motivations.

The parallel between the two main characters, Shazi and Khalid, is striking. Khalid, a murdering king, meets Shazi and decides for one night to hold her execution. Shazi, an innocent girl in love with another man who has never hurt another person, has entered the royal palace with the intention of killing Khalid. Her murderous intent is driven by the death of her best friend, while Khalid’s breaking of habit is driven by wanting to get to know the girl in front of him. Her anger and his interest collide several times, creating the complex romantic narrative outside of the normal ‘boy meets girl’ trope. Ahdieh shows their confusion with depth and skill, exploring how the couple can possibly come to be in love when their motivations are so against each other. The real heart break is when Shazi learns why Khalid does what he does, and suggests that he should kill her too. His determination to keep her alive, at the risk of losing his kingdom, is the greatest show of love the novel contains, as is the lead up to the final love-making scene in the novel – a stark contrast to the business-like transactions that have gone before. Ahdieh shows the internal conflicts of both protagonists thoroughly, and whilst there are occasional overt comments that stand out for the obviousness of the statement they put forwards, it is mostly done subtly and gently.

Ahdieh shows a world very dominated by men, where women have a role to play in the grand scheme of things, but always in a subservient manner. This suits the setting and style of the writing, but does raise several questions – why is Shazi the first to halt the king? What right does Tariq have to demand she go with him? Is her father wrong in not stopping her from marrying the king? There are 2 women in the novel – Shazi and Despina. Shazi is in an arranged marriage with the threat of death hanging over her, and Despina is a pregnant maid who dares not dishonour the father by telling him the truth.  Both are, in their own way, strong characters, but the perceptions around them are that they need rescuing, taming and controlling. Shazi can hold her own against Khalid’s enemies, but Tariq cannot accept her independence and still sees her as a beautiful thing to be rescued. Khalid is the only male who comes to any realisation concerning Shazi’s independence, when he agrees that she is not a ‘thing’ to be sent away, but it is his love for her and fear of losing her that drives this and not a change of attitude towards women. Some of the repression experienced is difficult to read, albeit culturally sensitive.

It is interesting that when putting this into a genre I immediately went for ‘fantasy’. Magic and the supernatural only play a small part in the main narrative – the curse that Khalid is under happened prior to the events of the novel, and whilst Shazi’s father’s experiments with magic are interspersed throughout, they only really appear towards the end of the narrative. However, there is a strong sense of a fantastical culture and the writing suits the fantasy genre. I will be interested to see how this develops in the conclusion to the series.

This was an interesting take on an age-old tale, filled with innovative thinking and expression. It wasn’t full of surprises or shocks, not for a seasoned reader, but it was a nicely decorated and intriguing narrative filled with some stunning descriptions, especially of the clothes, and characters with depth that was expressed with skill and charm. Definitely recommended, though likely to a teenage audience!