Book Reviews / Books / The Big Read

Review: Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks



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I had long seen Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks lying around my parents house before I decided to read it. I tend to shy away from war novels, finding them both depressing and complex in equal measures. I had, however, been recommended Birdsong by two of my best friends, Sian and Lexy, and thus decided it was high time to give it a go, with the added reward of ticking another book off the BBC’s Big Read.

Birdsong tells the story of a man called Stephen Wraysford and is set against the backdrop of WW1. Split into seven sections across three different time periods in concentrates on Stephen’s life both before and during the war, and also on the life of his granddaughter, Elizabeth as she attempts to trace her grandfather’s history.

The book is, without doubt, a beautifully written novel. I did, however, struggle somewhat with the three different time-spans the book covered. In the first instance, which covered Wraysford’s life prior to WW1, I found Birdsong to be utterly compelling and could barely put it down. Set in Amiens, France, Wraysford is sent to work in a textile factory owned by René Azaire, with whom he also stays. Intrigued by Azaire’s young wife, Isabelle, they engage in a passionate affair. Rife with tension, reckless behaviour and overwhelming desire, Faulks delivers a poignant illustration of the limitless boundaries of passion.

We then move forward to France, 1916, when following the end of Stephen and Isabelle’s relationship, he is now a lieutenant in the British Army. And so follows a depiction of life during the war in which, amongst the trenches and the bombings, themes of loneliness and companionship, of fear and of bravery are tenderly explored. Much of the novel’s power derives from Faulks’ descriptive writing style, in which he skillfully brings the war to life. And while I am not a fan of war themed novels I can appreciate the elegance with which Faulks writes.

The final part of the novel is based in the present day and sees Wraysford’s grand-daughter in her attempt to trace his history, having found his journals that he wrote during the war. It offers a clear juxtaposition to the harrowing story of the war itself.

Birdsong cleverly fuses both romance and blood, in what has been described as a modern masterpiece; the atrocities of war described in this novel will stay with you long after the final page has been turned.

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Book Reviews / Books

Review: The House at Midnight – Lucie Whitehouse

The House at Midnight
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On my last day of interning at Bloomsbury, I was told to help myself to books on my way out, a suggestion I took perhaps quite too literally as I soon found myself wandering through Soho with a stack of books piled under both arms, and one wedged under my neck for good measure.

Amongst the books I chose was Lucie Whitehouse’s debut offering – The House At Midnight, enticed by both the front cover (I’m a sucker for aesthetics) and the novel’s comparison’s to both Rebecca and The Secret History. The sort of tale that hooks its reader from the very first page, The House at Midnight is a gripping tale from the get go.

Set deep in the rolling grounds of an Oxfordshire manor house, one balmy, stormy summer, the atmospheric setting of the novel is as prominent a character as any of the friends around which the tale revolves. Not dissimilar to Du Maurier’s Manderly is Whitehouse’s rolling Stoneborough Manor, left to Lucas by his eccentric late uncle following an untimely and mysterious death. And while the remote country house began as a refuge for the group of friends, Lucas soon becomes obsessed by both his uncle’s death and the discovery of cine films from Stoneborough Manor thirty years ago which depicted a group of friends disturbingly similar to his own. Claustrophobic and decadent, the house quickly seeps a sinister and consuming energy causing tension and insurmountable rifts in relationships as its haunting past makes its way in to the present.

The House at Midnight boasts the perfect blend of ingredients for a gripping gothic horror. Intimately drawn characters, a fast-past and evocative plot and the use of pathetic fallacy and an oppressive setting make a compelling and captivating read.

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Book Reviews / Books / The Big Read

Review: Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

Of Mice and Men
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When I was studying for my GCSEs I was, to put it mildly, a bit of an idiot. I had breezed through English Literature for much of my school life, studying The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively and a beautiful text called Flight by Dorris Lessing which will always remind me of Frangipani trees and verandas.

In my final year at school however, much to my horror, we were to study the following: A Winter’s Tale by Shakespeare, Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift and Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. Despite a thoroughly half-hearted attempt I could get to grips with neither A Winter’s Tale nor Gulliver’s Travels and thus convinced myself and my teacher I would fail my GCSEs if he insisted on me writing coursework on either of these texts.

Thankfully, I was blessed with an incredible teacher, Mr Parsons, to whom I am forever indebted for instilling in me such a love of reading. Rather then force me to get my act together and quit moaning, he allowed me to chose a different Shakespeare play (Othello) and a different text to study (my memory fails me which one), on the condition that I did one hell of a lot of independent studying, which I obliged to do.

Consequently, I studied just one of the three assigned texts in my final year at school and it was Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. Published in 1937, the title came from a poem by Robert Burns’ entitled ‘To A Mouse’ which read: “The best laid scheme o’ mice and men/Gang aft agley”, meaning “The best laid schemes of mice and men/go often askew.”

Set amidst the Great Depression, Of Mice and Men tells the story of migrant field workers Lennie and George who are in search of The American Dream. Not dissimilar to JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Steinbeck’s novel was the victim of censorship due to what was perceived as frequent vulgar language.

Steeped in tragedy, Of Mice and Men explores themes of friendship and loneliness, of aspirations and of dreams. Lennie, whose character is physically strong but mentally childlike, shares George’s dream of owning a patch of land on which they can settle down. His disability, however, is a habitual burden on them both and we see George take on the role of father figure. Depicting a tender yet dependent friendship between the two protagonists, Of Mice and Men is a beautifully constructed story with intimately drawn characters who weave the story together.

The ending is both evocative and tragic, and is the final illustration of George’s love for Lennie. A truly heartbreaking book.

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Book Reviews / Books

Review: Eat Pray Love – Elizabeth Gilbert

Eat, Pray, Love
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As a keen traveller myself, when I heard about Eat Pray Love and how it depicted one woman’s journey through Italy, India and Bali I couldn’t wait to get my hands on a copy. My step-sister first told me about it in the summer of 2010 and it was one of those books that all of a sudden EVERYONE was reading; on the tube, in the park, in Starbucks; it seemed I couldn’t leave the house without seeing a copy.

Written by Elizabeth Gilbert, an American writer who, aged 32 suffers something of a mid-life crises, the memoir follows her post-divorce search for food, spirituality and balance  that spans two continents.

Thus she travels to Italy to indulge in the pleasure of eating, India to explore the power of prayer and Bali, where searching for a balance of pleasure and spirituality, she found love.

Eat Pray Love is an easy and intimate read; one which illustrates the hedonistic highs and the overwhelming lows one is susceptible to when traveling. Gilbert perfectly depicts what life can be like as a traveller – the good, the bad and the ugly – from experiencing harrowing homesickness to encountering people who will remain life-long friends long after the final flight has flown.

Gilbert’s writing style is both humourous and evocative; having been to India myself, I was impressed by her portrayal of a country I found so hard to put into words. Her tales of Italy were romantic and had my mouth watering for the country’s famous foodie scene, while the tranquility and magic of Bali was tangible and inspired many-a-reader in search of a spiritual awakening to venture to Ubud, where much of the novel takes place.

Eat Pray Love is one of the best kind of books – it is both entertaining and informative and it whets your appetite for faraway lands and adventures yet to come.

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