Book Review: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

This is the first time I have read this novel, even though it has been sitting on my bookshelf since 2012. It comes with several expectations attached simply because of its popularity, and fortunately I wasn’t disappointed. I had seen the 2011 film adaptation starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, so I knew the basics of the story, but I have to admit that the book was even better (as they often are).

Brontë’s novel follows the story of a young Jane Eyre, from her time growing up in her aunt’s household, to her progression into adulthood as she seeks work as a governess. Despite its sophisticated and somewhat tricky archaic language, the narrative is confessional and conversational, which makes it a healthy page-turner. The reader becomes an intimate, a friend, a witness to all that prevails in the book, which I found was a skilful method of keeping readers like me invested.

I didn’t expect to find the narrative quite so compelling, but as a heroine, Jane is intriguing and embodies a lot of qualities which make her a great role model for young girls and women even today. Jane is not a character who settles with what she has. It pains her to think that all she might behold in life is limited by the horizon she sees before her every day, while a man can travel and learn and do whatever he chooses. Through her protagonist, Brontë explores the truth that women in this period of history wanted more than they were allowed to want by society, and this is what I found so fascinating about the novel. Jane’s unconventional traits are what make her such an appealing heroine. She promotes female agency at a time when women were generally perceived to be the inferior sex, and refuses to sacrifice her dignity and self-respect for a man, even when it pains her to do so. I found that incredibly empowering, and walked away from this text with great respect and admiration for Brontë’s heroine. If she teaches readers nothing else, I hope Brontë succeeds in convincing them that a person’s self-worth is more important than whether they are ‘plain’ or ‘unattractive’ or ‘inexperienced’.

This novel takes the shape of a bildungsroman (coming-of-age novel) which explores many different topics and themes throughout: romance, feminism, class struggles, family/absence of family, to name a few. I particularly liked that the romance between Jane and Mr. Rochester wasn’t all that conventional. Rochester’s conversations are challenging and provide Jane with a mental stimulant to push boundaries and question things openly, and the main reason he’s able to offer her this is because he asks her to speak to him as if they were equals. Given the gender inequality of the period, I’m making an educated guess that not many men did this, which is why Rochester lives fairly high in my esteem.

Jane Eyre is a text I have heard about many times but never encountered on a college or university reading list. Part of me regrets this because I’ve been living ignorant of just how good a text it really is for much longer than I like to admit. But another part of me is glad because I’ve been able to read it at my own leisure. I thoroughly enjoyed every chapter, and wasn’t under any pressure to finish in time for a seminar discussion. I didn’t have to read it with a highlighter in hand and a fresh pad of sticky notes to flag important passages or language use (though my brain still notices them by default). In short, I whole-heartedly enjoyed Brontë’s novel, and commend her for providing the world with an ordinary yet extraordinary heroine.

 

October Book Review: Death Comes to Pemberley by P. D. James

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My Writing Journey

So picture this. I was curled up on my bed one night before bed reading Becca Fitzpatrick’s Hush, Hush, (an all-time favourite), and as I finished the last page and turned to her author bio, I thought to myself, maybe I could do this. I could write novels. And that’s how it came about. Five minutes later, I had a wad of paper in my lap, a pen in my hand, and I started brainstorming.

Of course, things have evolved immensely since then. Now I write using my laptop because I find I can translate my thoughts onto the page more quickly when typing than writing. My brain tends to work faster than my fingers. And I no longer have to brainstorm, because it seems that when I’m busy working on one novel, my mind is already cooking up something new. It’s an endless routine, and quite annoying sometimes because it means I don’t always get things finished.

So yeah, I started my first novel that night. And no, it will never see the light of day because it was shockingly terrible. I think during the first year, I had to get all the rubbish stuff out of my system. Uncannily, most of my characters closely resembled other characters I’d read about, with one or two slyly altered letters in their names. Now I feel like I was merely projecting all of my fictional fantasies of what characters should have done, or could have done, into my own ‘story’. Then somewhere along that self-destructive path, I inevitably realised that writing novels, or any kind of creative piece for that matter, is about finding your own world, your own characters. You have to find a story that hasn’t been told yet and run with it. So that’s what I’ve been doing.

And it’s still a struggle. I still have to actively challenge myself to make my characters different, because so often you unwittingly project your own thoughts/opinions/feelings onto your character, or they are somehow reflected in your character’s actions. It is getting easier. And the more I succeed, the more original I find my stories to be.

Six years later, I spend every waking moment I can writing – when I’m not obsessing over a new book, (which is very rare). But I guess that can only help, because the more your read, the better your writing becomes. You start to build up an arsenal of vocabulary and knowledge of what makes people tick, what makes you rally behind a character, what kind of plot points get you hooked, what kind of message can be communicated through your work. The list is endless.

And I have to say, the ideas haven’t stopped flowing since I started all those years ago. It’s been like opening a floodgate, that’s the only way I can think to describe it. My ideas tend to come when I least expect them to, like my brain is constantly mulling things over in the background on auto-pilot. Oddly enough, the bath seems to be the best place for me to work out fiddly plot points or structural issues. And typically that’s because I don’t have a piece of paper handy to record everything I end up working out. Likewise, I tend to think of a lot of brilliant ideas and scenes when I’m on the verge of falling asleep. I’m thinking there’s logic in it somewhere – maybe the ideas occur because I’m so relaxed. Either way, I don’t mind. It keeps me on my toes.

I know my writing journey isn’t all that spectacular, and maybe not even that interesting, but I felt like sharing it. Each person’s writing evolution is different and therefore unique, and mine’s quite close to my heart. Looking back, I feel like I’ve grown so much, and I hope that continues, so that in another 7 years I’ll be able to see just how much further my writing has taken me. Until then I’ll keep doing what I’m doing, because that’s what makes me happy.

 

Book Review: The Raven Cycle series by Maggie Stiefvater

On my journey through literature, I often encounter a period of several weeks, sometimes months, when I just don’t find reading material that satisfies me. I was experiencing this dry spell some time ago when I came across The Raven Cycle series, written by Maggie Stiefvater. And let me tell you, the dry spell soon cleared right up.

Maggie has a valuable knack for harnessing language to create something truly magical. And yet, the magical elements of the narrative don’t overrun the story, because the story itself remains grounded in the authenticity of the characters. They are so complex and dynamic, and I think this has a lot to do with the fact that every book in the series is composed in third person. Ordinarily, this might distance the reader from the characters a little too much (in my opinion), but it happens to be close third person, which almost feels like first person, but offers the writer more freedom. As a result, we, as the reader, are painted lavish, all-round views, close, intimate encounters with a character’s thoughts and feelings, and are even made privy to the omniscient voice of the narrator who embodies the kind of fated core of the narrative. In amongst all of this genius layering, I like to think of Maggie, seated at the easel, capturing every detail of this carefully crafted world. Literature is art, and this is a perfect example of the validity of that statement.

All good novels offer up feel-good moments for the reader, and The Raven Cycle series is no exception. Whether it’s a prophesy coming to fruition, the finest sliver of truth falling into place, or a narrative circle drawing to a close, this series has an amalgamation of feel-good moments. Plot twists aren’t spelled out for the reader, instead Maggie offers up a few well-chosen words or phrases that trigger realisation, leaving the reader to supply the rest. That is when you know you are reading good literature. It is not the telling which makes a story great, but the effect a writer’s words have upon the reader’s imagination, and the feeling the reader gets from this. In a nutshell, that is one of the great things about reading.

But mostly, Maggie’s characters are what endeared me to this series so definitively. She explores the complexity of human nature and human resilience, and it makes for a truly compelling read. I love all the characters from the series, even Piper and Greenmantle, because of the way humour is sewn into every syllable. Gansey is probably the most wonderful character name I’ve ever come across. Ronan’s incessant and increasingly creative methods of cursing surprisingly became one of the reasons why I enjoyed him so much as a character. As for Adam, I loved loved loved the description of him being made from the dust of the trailer park, and the evolution of his character was one of the most gratifying. Blue Sargent is prickly and difficult and unorthodox, and that is what makes her so likeable. She is the girl I have always wanted to be: unafraid of sticking to her principles, can hold her own no matter whose company she is in. And she is sensible, which makes her feel ancient around people her own age. Personally, that is something I identify with above all else. Blue is other, just as we all feel other at some point in our lives. For me, she was my tether to the story. She is the girl who dreams of doing what she loves and experiences that crushing disappointment when she realises it has never really been an option because of her class. She is the girl who seeks to change the world despite its enormity and her relative lack of resources, and is willing to try anyway, despite having the odds stacked against her. Ultimately, this story is about belonging and wanting to belong, and that will always be a universal theme that I think many people can relate to.

In fact, there are so many universal themes in this series that only seek to enrich the story. Sexuality, domestic abuse, and class struggles, are merely a few. Throughout her series, Maggie has successfully navigated the space between real life and escapism. People read fiction to escape from reality a lot of the time, and Maggie draws on this beautifully. She explores the more mundane struggles of everyday life and marries them with magic in a way that kind of breeds hope. It’s that childhood innocence again, of being ignorant of cynicism and no longer trapped by reality. Maggie creates a space for us to believe in magic again, in a space where the struggles of reality, of everyday life, are still close at hand, are still affecting these characters emotionally, but just as the characters have an outlet, so do we. And it’s this that gives the series a uniqueness that is quite difficult to pinpoint. But perhaps that is the point. This is a great work of fiction, and maybe we shouldn’t seek to understand it quite so completely. Perhaps it is simply enough to acknowledge that whatever Maggie does, works.

Major weakness: naming characters

I am shockingly bad at naming my characters. I either end up settling for ordinary, everyday household names (which isn’t a bad thing), but when you’re writing an novel you want your character names to be memorable. I tend to get pretty desperate and end up choosing outrageous names that translate into names for trees or funghi in other languages. Okay maybe that’s a slight exaggeration, but you get my drift. Most of the time I get desperate and end up Googling baby names for inspiration. More often than not, I choose a fairly common name and just spell it differently. For example – Justyn, Dillon…yeah, you get the idea.

If I could wish for one little tiny improvement in my writing, it would be to be able to conjure awesome names for my characters. I read books like Divergent and The Maze Runner and The Raven Boys and I envy the variety and uniqueness of the names these authors use. Tris. Four. Gally. Newt. Blue. Gansey. Some of them may be a little out there, but that’s GOOD. They hold their own. They’re memorable. I would like a superpower like this. But I have to make do. So I’ll take the name Blue as inspiration for example, and start thinking…hmm…a colour…why didn’t I think about using a colour…brown?…green? No. It doesn’t work.

Maybe it’s all part of the learning curve that comes with being a writer. You’re constantly striving for something original, or a least for something unique. So I’ll keep working on it. In the meantime, any suggestions are more than welcome. Seriously. MORE THAN welcome.

Books vs. eBooks

I had a lecture a while back at university that discussed the pros and cons of books and eBooks. It’s never a debate I’ve really considered before, but it got me thinking.

When I was younger my mum used to take me and my sister to the library every couple of weeks to hire out books. I used to think it was magical – a place that held so many stories – how could one building possibly contain all of them? Unfortunately now libraries are becoming a thing of the past in the UK because of the state of the economy and such. Both my local libraries, in the village where I live, and in the nearest town centre, have been closed, and it really is a crying shame. I pity the children nowadays because they won’t have the same access to books as I did growing up.

Thankfully, now that I’m old enough to have my own money, I can buy and keep all my favourites. And they’re all special to me. Some I enjoy more than others, but regardless, I paid good money for them, so they all go pride of place on my floor-to-ceiling bookshelf that stands in a corner of my room, draped in heart-shaped fairy lights. Books are a part of my life; they’re ingrained in my identity. They made me who I am today. So I can’t help but have a certain sentimentality about them.

On the flip side of the coin, I like technology and I like to keep up with it (as best I can, since mostly you have to have the money to do so). But initially, when it was a new thing, eBooks did appeal to me. It made sense to keep all your books in one place where you could access them easily instead of having them physically take up space in your room or in your bag…

But I still don’t remain fully convinced. From holding so many different books as a little girl, to collecting them throughout my teenage – and now adult – years, they’ve made an impression on me. There’s something about holding a book in your hands that makes you feel closer to the characters. There’s something about leafing through the pages that is satisfying – especially when you’re on the edge of your seat waiting for something to happen and you can’t turn the page fast enough. There’s something about that unique smell of the paper that reminds me of home, of comfort, of giddy excitement. The book becomes a talisman of your childhood, of your memories, of you. Ironically, my favourite books are the most worn and battered. But that’s good, because they’ve lived a life with me, they age with me. And the more wrinkly the spine grows, the more weak the binding, the more I’ve enjoyed it because I’ve read it enough times to leave my mark on it several times over.

An eBook just doesn’t have that same appeal to me. As my lecturer observed, there’s a kind of aura to a book that holds much more than the story printed on its pages. It holds an association with you, and perhaps most importantly, it holds the evolution of your emotions.

Being a productive writer

I hear all the time that if you want to be a writer, you have to write all the time. You can’t just write ‘when you feel like it’ or write when you’re in ‘the right frame of mind’. And I actually started thinking that maybe people were right. But then I realised something.

I write better when I feel like I want to write, when I’m in the right frame of mind. If I sit down to write when I’m not really feeling it, what I end up with is usually all the stuff I scrap at the end. True, if you’re a writer by career then you kind of don’t have a choice; you have to be able to write on demand. But when you’re writing for fun? I don’t think you should pressure yourself into getting things done. It may feel like a pain when you’re still slogging away at your novel after a year, even a couple of years, but at the end of the day, genius takes time. If you want your work to be the best it can possibly be, then it only makes sense that you have put in the time and effort.

Still, it got me thinking. I may not agree that all writers should write all the time, even when they don’t feel like it, but there is an element of truth in that idea. Time you don’t spend writing is kind of a waste. So I’ve come up with a compromise. If I don’t feel like I’m in the right mind frame, I’ll edit what I’ve already written instead. That may seem like the worst compromise to some people, but I actually get a kick out of editing. I think it’s all tied in with my slightly OCD-ish tendencies; I like to have things all neat and straightened out. It makes me feel like everything is in order. I suppose if I psychoanalysed it, editing makes me feel in control of my writing. And in more practical terms, editing as I go is useful because it means I don’t have as much to do when my novel is finally done.

I guess everyone has their own way of doing things because every person is unique. What works for me might not work for you, but I think the point is that no matter what other people say, it’s okay to question it. Ultimately, you can’t write like anyone else, you can only write as you.

Book Review: The Mara Dyer series by Michelle Hodkin

I recently found myself revisiting these books simply because I absolutely love them. They’re entertaining, packed with witty dialogue and haunting incidents, romance, despair, and all manner of emotional upheaval. And what does all this equate to? A damn good read.

Whilst I enjoy reading books for the characters and the story itself, I’m a big believer that every book, particularly those that can influence young minds, should engage with political and social context wherever they can. And Michelle does this really well. Her trilogy deals with sexual abuse, animal abuse, the stigma surrounding mental health, identity struggles, racial and sexual prejudice and discrimination, the concept of the self, and the reality of misdiagnosis in healthcare. Through Mara’s character, the reader begins to understand how mental health affects a person’s life, and because we receive Mara’s story through first person, we experience everything in a very immersive way. This is very subtly yet effectively places the reader in the position of someone suffering from psychological issues. It’s a way of making people listen and, to a certain extent, making them experience it. Just like Mara, we feel betrayed by her family when she is committed. Just like Mara, we experience moments of confusion over events that may or may not have happened. Was Noah really dying when Mara kissed him, or did she imagine it? We begin to second-guess ourselves and Mara, too, as a narrator – is she unreliable because of her ‘unstable’ state of mind? And then we feel guilty for thinking of her as the professionals do, as her family do – someone who does not know her own mind. It plays with the reader psychologically, which I imagine echoes the confusion experienced by anyone suffering from a mental health issue. But above all, it reveals the truth of how lonely and isolating the experience can be.

There’s a lot of emphasis on Mara wanting to be ‘normal’. She is afraid of what she’s going through, and just wants to be an ordinary teenage girl, which I found really interesting. It reminds us that people suffering from mental health don’t want to be going through it. They just want to be okay like the rest of us. Mara’s fear of institutionalisation is actually one of the reasons she doesn’t get the help she needs. In order to prevent her institutionalisation, she pretends to be better than she is. In society, it is easier if someone ‘different’ is labelled as ‘unstable’ and consequently removed, and even in this fictional setting, that sticks true. The people Mara should be able to open up to – the professionals and doctors she should be able to be honest with about her issues are actually the ones who make her feel more crazy, and even threatened. When she tries to seek help, she doesn’t find it, and that perfectly reflects today’s problems surrounding the way mental illness is treated (or, perhaps, not treated).

There’s also the concept of misdiagnosis too. Mara isn’t actually crazy. She suffers from PTSD, but her actual diagnosis and the fact that she’s on medication for psychosis is wrong. It just so happens that her actual diagnosis is rather more outlandish and strays into the realm of the supernatural and magical, which makes it difficult for her to reveal the truth. As a result, she has no way of declaring herself sane, and is powerless to refuse treatment. I think it is incredibly poignant that the final scene in Evolution is of Mara, induced with a drug that is like truth serum but prevents her from saying what she really wants to say. Her voice is literally being suppressed by medicine. The healthcare she should be getting is manipulating her. She has no voice except the one they give her. Mara’s rights are stripped away when she is finally committed by her family, and I found this pretty distressing to read about. She cannot leave, she has no control over what happens to her, and because people keep telling her so, Mara begins to believe she might actually be crazy. Self-doubt sets in because of what others tell her about herself. I suppose there’s something bigger in there for everyone to take away from this. If you know the truth, trust yourself – that’s all that matters. Not what other people think. Not what other people say.

The narrative also focuses heavily on the theme of identity, which is one I think resonates deeply with young readers. Mara doesn’t recognise herself when she looks in the mirror, and what makes her different is what makes her hate herself. The fear of being different is a universal struggle I think we can all relate to one way or another. Yes, Mara’s power is disturbing and lethal, but it is still what makes her different, and being different is good. This is essentially a coming of age story, which means it touches on a lot of relevant and timeless topics. One of Mara’s most significant journeys through the series is her attempt to grow comfortable in her own skin. I particularly appreciated all those awkward teenage moments in the novel, for instance when Mara trips into her first class and literally falls on her face, ending up with a nosebleed. I mean, that resonated with me on a very personal level because that’s the kind of thing that would happen to me. The idea of image is another important concept in the novel: looking in the mirror and not liking the reflection that is staring back at you. I find this particularly applicable to young girls, because, for them, appearance is inevitably linked to identity.

Michelle certainly explores the damage in young people, even through Noah’s character. Externally, he’s in control, carefree, beautiful. Internally, he’s broken, wounded, and lost. He has self-harmed and attempted suicide in his past, and carries with him the trauma of seeing his mother killed before his eyes as a child. As for Jamie, who is one of my absolute favourite characters in the series, he is the victim of racial and sexual discrimination – sadly, an issue which is particularly relevant at the moment.

But for all of these serious elements, there are rare and beautiful moments to counter them. Michelle employs the use of some truly striking imagery, some of which has made it onto the canvas of favourite quotes currently that hangs in my room.

We snuggled like quotation marks in his room full of words.

Thinking something can make it true. Wanting something can make it real.

I LOVE that naming is given particular significance in the books, and that by the end of the series, Mara has regained a sense of agency in this way. She literally becomes the narrator of her own story, and uses that power to help others – to keep them from feeling alone in their struggles. She has the last say, because, although she brands this as a love story, it’s so much more than that. It’s a survival story. She has beaten her demons and is living a relatively ordinary life – not because she’s ‘normal’, but because she’s learned to accept herself for who she really is. There’s something undoubtedly inspirational about that. As Mara distinguishes in Evolution: ‘Our [medical] files were a part of us – the parts that people wanted to fix. But they weren’t all of us. They weren’t who we were. Only we could decide that’. Mara and the others are so much more than these labels they’ve been given, and they refuse to be defined by their struggles. And as Jamie rightfully points out: “This is bullshit,” he said suddenly. “We’re teenagers. We’re supposed to be sarcastic.” […] “But we’re in here and they’re out there?” He shook his head slowly. “Everyone’s a little crazy. The only difference between us and them is that they hide it better.” If we can take anything away from this particular quote, I’d hope it would be that the binary of ‘us and them’ should no longer exist.

In the end, Mara realises that she does not need to be fixed or saved. She just needs to keep going and accept who she really is. She calls herself the villain of the story, but as we all know by now, the villain is simply the hero of her own story.