The Bookshop, Penelope Fitzgerald

I picked up this book to read because it was a short novel – I’ve been wanting to read more short novels recently. (Not only is it a resolution to myself, but it also makes me feel better about the number of books I’ve read, and helps with my ambitious Goodreads reading challenge!) I’m not completely naive though; I had looked up what short novels are recommended, and this one particularly caught my eye. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, it depicts the life of Florence Green who lives in her small East Anglian town, and decides, against polite but ruthless local opposition, to open a bookshop. For me, anything about working in a bookshop or with books will always persuade me to want to give it a chance and read it, and this novel was no exception.

This wasn’t a bad book – certainly there was nothing specific that made me react negatively to it. Yet, when I was asked how I felt about this book, all I could think of was “pleasant”. It’s an easy read for sure: the writing is good, there’s no denying her ability to create interesting and realistic characters – which is so central to this novel. Her writing captures a sense of place to the story, specifically the close community that is so opposed to the establishing of a bookshop, against the stubbornness and strong-will of the protagonist, Florence.

However, there is absolutely no sense of danger in the story – the stakes are extremely low (at the end of the day, there either is a bookshop or there isn’t). It’s certainly not a life or death situation, and there is no mystery as to who is trying to prevent Florence from succeeding, and thus there was no impressive action to the plot that could catch my imagination and attention. It was all rather sedate, with ripples of disturbance rather than waves.

Maybe this just goes to show the change in readers’ interests, moving towards more fast-paced plots, or maybe it’s just my opinion of the book. In no way do I regret reading this short novel, but I think perhaps I just expected more from it.

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MaddAddam, Margaret Atwood

Maddaddam is the final novel in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian trilogy of the same name. Having enjoyed the first two novels – Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood – I was looking forward to starting the final novel, particularly to see how it would all end, and like the previous novels, I wasn’t at all disappointed.

Whereas the trilogy’s two previous novel’s plots run within the same period of time, along parallel timelines, Maddaddam continues on from their endings, providing a completely new and unknown plot. This was great for establishing the novel as both a continuation of the story, and its inevitable conclusion too, while also bringing something different from the rest of the trilogy.

The novel is written from two points of view: Zeb and Toby (characters both introduced in TYOTF). Toby’s perspective is written as though the novel is her journal, where she recounts the events that occur within their little camp of survivors – including the stories about Zeb that she tells to the hybrid Craker creatures (human-type creatures that were created by Oryx in the first book, designed to survive after the apocalypse). Contrastingly, Zeb’s point of view is introduced to tell the true account of these tales.

Overall, the plot of this final novel was pretty good: lots of action and high-risk events to keep the plot moving, but interspersed with some equally as important calm and thoughtful moments. I particularly enjoyed the inclusion of Zeb’s stories, despite it moving the narrative away from the central story. Usually this type of change in narrative would frustrate me, but the whole novel’s structure was too well paced for it to do anything other than keep me invested in the story. As for the ending (of course I won’t include any spoilers), it really pulled at my heartstrings – it felt more rushed in comparison to the rest of the novel, but nevertheless it came to a oddly satisfying conclusion.

I loved the Maddaddam trilogy, and this novel was a great conclusion to it. It brings into question our ideas about nature and evolution (particularly with the new Crakers species that is created), as well as our own ability as a species to adapt and survive in the future. It’s rather different from the more typical dystopian structure (a totalitarian society set in the near future in which the survival of the entire human race isn’t questioned), which is why Atwood often describes her writing instead as ‘speculative fiction’. However, by being different from anything else I have read, it made me all the more interested to find out what would happen. If you’re looking to getting into more dystopian or Atwood, I would really recommend this trilogy.

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When Creativity Takes the Stage: Edinburgh Fringe Festival, 2017

Last week I travelled up to Edinburgh in Scotland, to the famous Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I’ve wanted to go for a few years now, and finally I got around to it! (Well, it was my birthday present to my boyfriend, who wanted to go too, so I thought that was as good an excuse as any!).

During my time at the Fringe I kept being taken aback my just how it completely takes over the entire city: it’s not just a few places all in one small area, as I had expected, but venues spread across the city centre – all of which were remarkably well signposted. The venues themselves were all fitted to accommodate the various types of performances at the Fringe, both big and small. Not only was it well-organised, including the many bars and food stalls, but the number of  posters covering the city was astonishing – on the sides of buses, on lamp-posts, and on the walls of buildings all the way into Leith (where we stayed), in addition to all the flyers that were being constantly handed out. Given that this year marked the 70th anniversary of the Fringe I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised at the level of organisation, but I really was impressed.

As expected, we saw some brilliant shows – we booked all of them in advance (as is often recommended), which although makes it easier once you get to Edinburgh, also has the potential to be a risky strategy as we didn’t know how good they would actually be. We stuck mostly to what we knew, particularly with the short amount of time we were there, but still packed 12 shows into three days – with our fourth day spent exploring the city itself before we caught our train.

The Shows

Improvised Comedy:
‘Austentatious‘ was by far my favourite show we saw; it’s relatively well-known, having sold-out at the Fringe for the last 2 years, and for good reason! It takes a ‘lost Austen’ book title, suggested by an audience member at random, and performs the story in the style of Austen, but completely improvised. It’s hilarious!

‘Folie à Deux‘ ran along a similar idea (although not Austen-themed), improvising small scenes all related to one word, chosen by the audience (ours was ‘civilian’) – performed by only two actors, who both also perform in Austentatious: Andrew Hunter Murray and Charlotte Gittins.

‘Murder She Didn’t Write’ was also very impressive; an improvised murder-mystery which uses the audience’s ideas to create the title of a case, before setting about a humorous enactment of a murder – a cross between Agatha Christie and Cluedo, where at the start even the actors don’t know who the victim or murderer will be! (And no, I didn’t correctly guess ‘whodunit’!)

Stand-Up:
Ed Byrne was the most well-known of all the comedians we saw, and definitely stood up to my expectations. We also went to some smaller venues to see comedians I hadn’t heard of before: Kai Humphries, Gary Delaney and Edd Hedges. I feel like I’ve never laughed so much in only a few days, they were all so funny in such different ways.

Theatre:
We also went to a couple of more serious theatrical shows, which I really enjoyed. I would love to see some more if (when) I come again. They seem to be nearly always forgotten among the big names of all the comedy.

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Inside the National Museum

Typical Tourists

We also spent some time going around the city, seeing what it had to offer separate from the Fringe. We went to some of the more typical tourist areas, including the National Museum (which was in a gorgeous building), the National Gallery, and the Royal Mile. However, out of everywhere I definitely enjoyed our visit to Victoria Street the most. Edinburgh seemed to be rather proud of its literary heritage, particularly its roots to the author JK Rowling and her creations. Just off Royal Mile, Victoria Street is a two-levelled street – the perfect example of an incredible triumph of Victorian design. However, its literary connection is what makes it so interesting: this impressive architecture was the inspiration for ‘Diagon Alley’ in the Harry Potter series. It really is quite striking!

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I had the best time in Edinburgh, and especially at the Fringe Festival – I laughed so much that I don’t think it was possible not to enjoy myself! I have no doubt that I will return to the Festival one day.


The Power, Naomi Alderman

I first found this novel in a bookshop about a month or so ago, just days before it won the ‘Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction‘. Following this it seemed to be advertised in every bookstore I went into; it had suddenly become a hugely important novel in the literary community. And thus, when I finally bought myself a copy, I was really looking forward to reading it!

The story really caught my attention from the moment I started reading – hence why I finished it in three days while on holiday! However, I guess it’s not surprising that I enjoyed it, with my love for the dystopian and the obvious feminist aspect to the story’s premise: a world where teenage girls develop an immense physical power – they can cause agonising pain and even death, with electricity that now flows through their bodies.

The novel itself is written partly like a historical novel, including illustrations of ‘archaeological findings’ between chapters, which juxtaposed the multiple perspectives of the characters, each telling their separate stories – males and females, with varying ages, race, class and places of origin. This mixture of ‘historical non-fiction’ that the novel masquerades as, and the four characters’ stories, could have really confused a reader trying to follow the plot, but in my opinion it worked – although mostly because I only really was aware of the ‘historical’ side of the novel when I saw the illustrations, as the novel tells the different characters’ stories without a historical perspective. I liked how the separate stories enabled the reader to see multiple events occurring at once, and the way they were related before the characters themselves had even met. Additionally, the historical element made me more aware of the inherent bias that is present in each individuals’ accounts of their lives.

The topics explored within this novel are (at least in my opinion) important ideas that need to be discussed. Although not explicit, the women’s abuse of their supernatural powers  is an obvious allusion to the opposite manipulation of power by men – and consequences of this such as rape culture – that is present in current society. Furthermore, the reactions in cultures of other countries and religion, are also considered in relation to the inversion of gender and social positions of power, even if we don’t always realise the gender positions we conform to – resulting in phenomenons such as ‘everyday sexism’. I don’t want to make this review all about gender equality, however the idea of women having a power that provokes fear among men is certainly an interesting and provocative concept, with clear connotations to gender and social positions.

However, I did find it difficult to find a cultural or time perspective to read the story from. I was often confused as to whether it was set in our future, or the present day, or even an alternate universe. The nature of the ‘historical text’ idea made it especially difficult to decipher this (although the questions I had to do with the ‘historical’ writing was mostly solved by the very end). In addition, the novel seemed to have a central ‘western’ view: not only that it is mostly set in America with only Western’ perspectives, but also some of the reactions of other characters (such as women from Muslim cultures) seemed rather unbelievable. (Although, in all fairness, I didn’t think of this until a few days after I had finished reading it.)

Nevertheless, this was still an absolutely brilliant book; it had some strong and clever ideas which were brought together in an innovative way.

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Croatia – from North to South, and some countries in between…

Over the summer my family and I went away for a couple of weeks to Croatia, where we travelled from the North to the South. I was so excited about this holiday: I had never been to Croatia before, and the idea of a road trip – stopping at some interesting places along the way – seemed a fun way to truly discover the country.

Istria

We started in an area near the North of Croatia, called Istria –  the largest peninsula in the Adriatic, it lies in three countries of Croatia, Slovenia and Italy. It was a lovely area, although seems to be traveled to less by British tourists, and instead lots of German travellers. (Whenever we were greeted by anyone who knew we weren’t Croatian, it was assumed that we spoke German!)

Pula
Pula is the largest city in Istrian Croatia, and is one of Croatia’s important historical cities. It has a rather impressive Roman amphitheatre (I’ve said before that we always have to find a theatre while on holiday!) which was very well intact, as well as other places of interest such as the Temple of Augustus and some fortress walls too. It was an great day out, although very hot and sunny!

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The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood

This book is the second book in Margaret Atwood’s dystopian ‘MaddAddam’ trilogy, which I started last summer. I really liked the first book (Oryx and Crake), so was looking forward to finding out what would happen next.

As in Oryx and Crake, the plot starts after the apocalyptic events and, from the character’s memories, looks back at what has happened in their lives to bring them up to the ‘present day’ of the story. Different from the first novel however, this sequel followed two characters’ journeys: two females who are part of a religious environmental cult, as they try to survive in their dying society. I really enjoyed how this allowed me to see certain characters and events that I had already read about in the first novel, but from different perspectives. Very clever!

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The Ferryman, Jez Butterworth

I was lucky enough to see Jez Butterworth’s new play The Ferryman last month at the Royal Court Theatre in London. It was a highly anticipated production, particularly due to the success of his previous writing, and the prowess of a performance at the Royal Court. Nevertheless, this play exceeded my expectations: I thought it was brilliant.

As I settled down in my seat before the performance started, I was worried the writing would be too profound or self-indulgent (I’m not sure why), but actually it wasn’t at all. Luckily I know a fair bit about the history of the Irish Troubles and the IRA, the context of the play, which I felt helped me get into the plot and characters quickly – although I think it still would have been understandable and easy to follow even without any knowledge. The history of Ireland is itself a fascinating topic, and was incorporated brilliantly into a plot that had me always wondering what would happen next. It was some of the best playwriting I’ve seen all year – yep, Butterworth yet again has written a great play!

The production itself was brilliant too, in which I was especially drawn to the gorgeous set! With the play all occurring in one setting (except the opening scene), a lot of time was put into the single set. It was the attention to small details that caught my eye most – such as the children’s drawings pinned to the walls of the stage – making it feel like a real family home. The stage was a big space, which was important for a play with such a large cast, which made it look smaller. Yet, the production made the most of its size  just by moving the furniture around, as well using the stairs for characters to enter and exit, and a space to stand when not directly involved with the action.

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