Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

I’m going to divert from Young Adult fiction today to look at a bit of classic literature.  You will soon discover that I’m a bit of an Austen fan and she is one of the few romance writers that I can stand.  I would like to eventually review all six of Jane Austen’s published novels, but I felt it was very important that I start not with one of the three high profile Austen classics (Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility and Emma) but with Jane’s first novel.  Northanger Abbey was the first novel that Austen completed, however it was not the first published – in fact it wasn’t published until after her death. 

Now I’m nowhere near decisive enough to actually be able to pick a favourite Jane Austen novel, but if I were to try, Northanger Abbey would be one of the front-runners.  It is a delightful book, short in length and fairly simple to follow (unlike a lot of her other, rather complex narratives), which makes it my pick if you are new to Austen or even classic literature.  But let’s look at the story before I give any more opinions.

Our heroine (because Jane Austen books always have a heroine as opposed to a main character or protagonist), is young Catherine Morland.  She is 17 years of age, which if you know your history, was a good marrying age for women in the Regency era, and one of ten children of a very loving country clergyman.  She is an avid reader with a very active imagination and a love of Gothic novels, in particular the works of Ann Radcliffe.

At the kind invitation of their wealthy neighbours Mr and Mrs Allen, Catherine joins the childless couple on a journey to Bath to enjoy the winter season and her first encounter in real ‘society’.  After a slow start due to not really having any friends in Bath, Catherine meets the charming, clever and handsome Mr. Henry Tilney, the second son of a rather wealthy family.  Soon after, Catherine meets Isabella Thorpe, the rather spirited and exceptionally flirtatious daughter of one of Mrs Allen’s old school friends, and the sister of John Thorpe, a friend of her elder brother James.  Catherine and Isabella become fast friends, sharing a love of gothic novels, and they are soon joined by James and John, the latter of whom forms a prompt interest in Catherine. 

Before long, Mr. Tilney re-enters the story, this time with his sister, the perfectly elegant but extremely sweet and kind Eleanor.  Catherine forms an immediate friendship with the siblings, and also meets their rather pompous and imposing father, General Tilney.  After spending a good part of the season in Bath, Catherine is surprisingly invited by General Tilney to join the family at their estate – Northanger Abbey, which she of course accepts.  The large, old house holds many secrets, and with an overactive imagination like Catherine’s, intriguing and often amusing incidents are certain to unfold.

As I mentioned earlier, the storyline is rather simple, not in a negative way, but in the sense that it is very easily to follow.  If you are new to this sort of literature, the language can be a challenge in itself, so the simplicity of the narrative helps to make it accessible. 

The characters though, are anything but simple.  Catherine Morland is delightful as the heroine of this story.  She is ridiculously naïve and the fact that she has almost no idea that several gentlemen are interested in her is actually quite endearing and amusing.  She is terribly trusting and assumes that those who are her friends would not lie to her or abuse her trust on purpose, which of course leads to all sorts of complications and misunderstandings.  The Thorpes are extremely amusing in their vulgarity and constant attempts to raise their own importance at the expense of others.  They seem to jump off the page, almost as caricatures, and the fact that you can see not-so-pleasant qualities in them that Catherine obviously misses, just seems to make the whole thing more enjoyable.  The Allens are pleasant and unimposingly amusing ‘sidekicks’, who bring their own quirks to Catherine’s little world (Mrs Allen’s obsession with fashion and clothing always makes me smile) and add some extra colour and depth to the cast of characters.

Whilst I cannot pin down a favourite Austen Novel, Henry Tilney is by far my favourite of all Jane Austen’s male love interests.  To say he is charming would be to do him a disservice; he is clever, funny, honest, caring and a complete and utter flirt!  He shows great kindness towards his sister Eleanor, and is incredibly patient with the terribly clueless Catherine, although he does love to tease her (good-naturedly of course).  He is a man who understands the ways of the world and yet is not swayed by it; he knows his own heart and mind and eventually that serves him well.

Besides being a lovely story with well-written characters, it is fascinating to note how much of Jane Austen’s personality and thoughts you can discern from Northanger Abbey.  Austen has a very specific writing style, which reveals something of her inner self in all of her works, but I find Northanger to be one of the most interesting.  There is a lot of focus in the book on the ridiculousness and frivolity of novels and in the dangers of letting one’s mind wander too far from reality into the realms of fantasy.  Austen’s own insecurities of herself as a young writer and her choice of profession (female writers were very rare and even less so respected at the time) are expressed through her teasing of novels and the romantic minds of young women.  It is rather special and almost intimate to get such an insight into a talented and respected author’s mind.

Northanger Abbey is definitely a book I recommend, it is delightful and one of those stories that quickly welcomes you in to its world.  I would love to hear your thoughts, especially if you decide to read the book after reading this review. 

I am currently reading ‘The Great Gatsby’ so that will be my next review, hopefully it will be up soon.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

The Selection by Kiera Cass

Ok, so for our next book we’ll have a change of pace and enter this interesting new fad of Young Adult fiction set in a future dystopian society, usually built on the rubble of a destroyed United States of America.  The story of how I found ‘The Selection’ is my favourite kind of book discovery; I picked it up off a shelf in Big W because I thought the picture on the front was pretty, read the blurb and thought it sounded vaguely interesting, and checked the price, which I think was about eight dollars.  Simple as that!  I’ve found a lot of dud books that way, but occasionally you find a gem.

I wouldn’t put ‘The Selection’ in either of those categories; it’s not brilliant, but it’s not awful either.  It’s a fabulously easy read, the kind of fluffy book you want to read when you don’t really want to think.  Quality-wise, I would stick this book somewhere between the Twilight Saga and The Hunger Games trilogy, and I imagine that if you like those books, you will probably like this one too.  Interestingly enough, it is the first book in a proposed trilogy (the second due for release in April 2013) which is an important fact, because if I had realised that before I reached the end of the book, I would have been a lot less confused, but I’ll talk more about that later.
So what is it about?  The best description I could give is that it is like the illegitimate love child of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins and the TV show The Bachelor.  I know, right?  But you’ll understand when you read it.

Our protagonist is America Singer, a rather independent redheaded teenager (we never find out her exact age but my guess would be 17 or 18), and the middle child of five living in Illea, the country that used to be North America (sound familiar?).  America and her whole family are ‘fives’, which means they are artists, whether they want to be or not; that’s right, the citizens of Illea are organised into ‘castes’ which is basically their social status, wealth demographic and profession all rolled into one delightful number somewhere between one and eight (one being the highest, eight the lowest).  Choosing your caste would not complicate the story enough, so you inherit your number from your parents; changes are possible, but usually have strings attached such as marriage, money, military drafting or in rare cases, sheer luck.  Fortunately for America, she is a talented musician, which means she can work quite happily as a five; unfortunately for America she is in love with a ‘six’ which means trouble (dun dun dun!) because only a fool would marry down, right? 

Now Illea is a monarchy (Chapter 17 provides a detailed history lesson), and they have a little tradition when it comes to marrying off their royals.  Whilst the girls are betrothed to members of other nation’s monarchies to encourage alliances and good graces between countries, the boys must marry a ‘daughter of Illea’, to make sure there is a fellow countrywoman on the throne, or to boost morale or something along those lines.  Of course, this is done through a process called ‘The Selection’, which allows all girls of eligible age to apply for consideration.  One girl from each province is selected to be taken to the palace where she will learn to be a princess, whilst trying to get to know the prince in a televised thirty-five-way-date.  America, who has no desire to marry the prince, is eventually talked in to applying and inevitably finds herself in the midst of The Selection.  Cat-fights, potentially dangerous political uprisings and the obligatory love triangle ensue.

I am trying not to be too disparaging here, because for all its faults (there is barely one original idea in the text and Cass is very much riding on the waves of the current young-adult-dystopian-future trend), this book is actually still a pretty good read.  Kiera Cass has some good ideas, I’m just not sure that she’s executed them as well as she could have.  I felt like many of the aspects of the story were compartmentalised where they could have been more interwoven, and I felt that this really broke up the flow of the story.  The messages that Cass is trying to get across could also be handled with a little more subtlety (Maxon becomes the poor people’s champion after one little conversation with America? Really?), but at least the story has some moral and socially aware issues included.  Cass is not the world’s most evocative writer, so you are left up to your own imaginative powers when it comes to visualising Illea and its peoples,  and even America herself is not really described well (although her red hair is mentioned frequently).  I also spent most of the book thinking that the story just wasn’t coming together quickly enough and that it was going to have a terrible resolution, until I reached those magic words: END OF BOOK ONE, and I realised that Cass was leaving loose threads on purpose.  I suppose this isn’t really anybody’s fault, although I did feel like the book ended in an odd place.
America works well as a heroine, she could be a little stronger in my opinion, but she’s no vapid, characterless Bella Swan either; there is definitely a lack of development in the character, but there is enough to get by.  Naturally, America doesn’t like being in front of crowds nor does she believe in her own beauty, but at least Cass had the good sense to give her a mother who rarely praises her, making the low self-esteem much more believable.  And let’s face facts – her name is ridiculous! Though to be perfectly honest I’m more disturbed by her last name than her first.  Her first name is at least explained in the book, but her surname seems ironically linked to the fact that she is from a family of artists and is herself a musician and ‘singer’.  I personally thought that was one step too far towards corny.

The other characters are varied in terms of their ability to make you feel connected; Prince Maxon is rather delightful and my inner 14 year-old was soon swooning, whilst Aspen, America’s secret love from home is less personable, although he loses a lot of page-time in the middle and I’m hoping this might be rectified in the following two books. The love triangle isn’t terribly thrilling, but once again it has the potential to be expanded in future books.  America’s family are characterised relatively well, as are some of the other girls in the competition, although I feel like most of them needed something more to bring them to life and there is certainly more than one blatant cliché among the supporting cast.  

Overall, I did enjoy the book.  I have many unanswered questions, however, optimist that I am, I am holding out hope that they will be answered in the final two instalments.  At the risk of sounding mean, The Selection is really just an old idea dressed up in a new outfit, and not one that’s brilliantly written either.  Will it change your life or challenge your thinking? Not a chance.  But will it give you something fluffy and easy to read just before you crawl in to bed?  Probably.   Personally, I read a good third of it at the hairdressers – much more interesting than eighteen month old gossip mags!

Tuesday, 16 October 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

So here we are – my first review!  This could be the start of something exciting or the beginning of the end!  Only time will tell I suppose.

So, the first book I want to talk about is ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ a coming of age story, set in suburban America in the early 1990’s.  It is written as a first person narrative, in the form of letters from the main character Charlie to an anonymous ‘friend’ (whom Charlie has never actually met incidentally) so it naturally skips between past and present tense.  Despite this choice in format, the narrative flows incredibly easily and is not at all disrupted by the ‘letters’.
Our protagonist is Charlie, a fifteen year-old boy about to start high school.  It is obvious from early on that Charlie has some very distinct challenges in regards to his social abilities; and, as we are treated to the inner workings of his mind, an analytical and process-oriented mind-set is revealed.  There are some allusions to deeper difficulties or disabilities, however ‘diagnosis’ of Charlie is not really the point here and the reader is left up to their own opinions for most of the story.  There are a lot of hints throughout, (in my opinion anyway) that the real problem is psychological, which does resolve itself somewhat as Charlie’s tale progresses.
The main focus in the story is on the way Charlie relates to the two important groups in his life: his family and friends.  Despite being socially awkward, Charlie does not like feeling lonely and desires friends.  At the suggestion of his English teacher Bill, he makes an effort to ‘participate’ in order to develop these relationships.  This results in Charlie being accepted into a circle of friends slightly older than himself, the most important to Charlie being the step-sibling duo of Patrick and Sam.  Equally important, though maybe not getting as much page-time, is Charlie’s relationship with his mother, father, older brother and sister and his relationship with his deceased Aunt Helen.
As is to be expected with this kind of story, ‘The Perks of Being a Wallflower’ brings its fair share of delicate and pertinent adolescent issues.  There’s more smoking, drinking, drug-use, romance, sex, sexuality, abuse, rape, teen pregnancy and mental illness than in a whole season of Degrassi High, and yet it doesn’t feel overdone; it feels real and honest and strangely innocent when viewed through Charlie’s eyes.  Profanity is used liberally but not gratuitously, adding to the realism of the characters and setting.  Don’t get me wrong, there are moments in this book that will make you very uncomfortable, but none of these encounters seem to be without purpose.
I particularly appreciated Chbosky’s decision to give Charlie’s family only the slightest amount of dysfunction.  Certainly we encounter a lot of tension and angst within the family unit, particularly when the extended family makes an appearance, but it doesn’t fall into the cliché of ‘Charlie is odd because his home-life is awful.’  What we actually experience is a very average middle class family that have their own set of worries and differences, but love each other enough to be there for each other when they need to be.  Perhaps that won’t matter to you, but it seemed extremely important to me.
Talking about Charlie himself is something I could do all day long, but I will try to keep it short.  First, I will not pretend to be unbiased when I say that I simply adored the character of Charlie.  He is frighteningly well-written, with an awkward lack of social conventions, a delightful sense of humour (I literally laughed aloud more than once!) and a heart-breaking innocence.  There is so much beauty in the way Charlie sees the world, but there is a lot of darkness in him too, and I probably wouldn’t recommend you read this book if you are in a particularly dark place yourself.  He is wonderfully complex and you find yourself investing in him rather quickly, something that doesn’t happen to me a lot (I have a tendency to be much more interested in supporting characters myself).  Charlie is very unique and special, and yet there is something so relatable about him that sometimes I felt like he was speaking the very words in my mind; Charlie articulates a lot of those secret thoughts and desires we all have, and there’s something liberating in reading that – even when it comes from a fictional character!
The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a wonderful book that will send you through a tumult of emotions and leave you wondering for some time afterwards; it is funny, thought-provoking and heat-breaking all at the same time.  However, I was left with a smile on my face and I know there will always be a special place in my heart reserved for this book.
Omigosh, I actually did it!  I finished my first review, and it was a bit longer than I was expecting but I had so much to say.  I would love to hear your thoughts, especially if you decide to read this book.
Just a heads up that I just finished my next book, ‘The Selection’ by Kiera Cass, so expect a review on that soon.  Thanks to everyone who has read this blog and please tell your friends!

Monday, 15 October 2012


So....hello!  Alright, first off, I have never written a blog before, so this is all very new to me and I ask that you please bear with me as I learn the ropes and sort out the kinks.

Basically, the idea for this blog came after a suggestion from my lovely sister-in-law that I should write books reviews.  She made this suggestion after she borrowed a pile of books from me and I was able to give a running review on every single one.  So, I figured that in this world of social media and everyone having an opinion, I may as well try my hand at sharing mine.  Maybe people will read this, maybe not.  perhaps you will agree with my opinions, perhaps not.  Either way, it's always good to try new things, which is what I'm determined to do!

I'm going to do my best to write the reviews without spoilers, so that if you haven't read the book, you can read the review without the book being ruined for you, and maybe it will help you decide if it is the book for you! 

I am going to keep within my tastes as far as books go, which can be somewhat varied, although there will be certain genres I'm just not interested in.  for example, it is rare that I would pick up a novel about an FBI agent on the trail of a serial killer...it's just not my thing.  Likewise, I'm not likely to be interested in a book about a 40-something divorcee who moves to a small town, opens up a coffe shop and eventually falls for the rough around the edges but essentially sweet and oh-so-handsome local joe.  I have always had a fascination with young adult fiction and even children's books, so that theme will be prevalent, but I'm also fussy about good writing, so I can also be picky (there's a lot of terribly written YA fiction out there people!).  Of course I also love me some classics (Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte are sure to make an appearance at some point) and certainly other books will feature along the way.

I should also add here, that whilst I consider myself to be educated, I do not claim to be any sort of literary expert.  I don't have a degree in classic literature, and I'm not expecting every book I read to be a masterpiece.  I want this blog to be for those who are, like me and as the blog title suggests, 'amatuer' bookworms - people who read for the love of the stories and the magical escape that only books can give.

I may occasionally branch in to movie reviews, but essentially, this blog is about books and reading and a way for me to share my love of the written word.  I hope you can join me and share in that joy.

The first review I'm going to write is on the last book I read, being 'The Perks of Being a Wallflower' by Stephen Chbosky.  I won't give too much away now, but I will try to post it soon.

Thank you for reading and I can't wait to hear from you all!

Bec xx

P.S. If you have a book that you think I might enjoy reading and reviewing, please let me know and I'll try to add it to my list!