In Commentary, HOME, LITERATURE by Sam Prance

The end of the year is near. Subsequently, Prancing Through LIFE will be posting a review of the year in each of its cultural categories before concluding on the year as a whole. Each post will take a different format but will take a look at 2013’s highs and lows (more of the highs – if we’re honest). From Miley to Malala – it’s been quite a year.

First Half of the Year

LiteratureLife After Life – Kate Atkinson, 02/04/13

Genre: Historical Fiction

‘No point in thinking…you just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.’

Life After Life is about a little girl named Ursula living in war-torn England, cursed to constantly reincarnate herself and die what are, sometimes, horribly gruesome deaths. If you didn’t start humming Poor Unfortunate Souls from The Little Mermaid, then you are obviously well adjusted, unlike the aforementioned poor, unfortunate Ursula and myself.

But it’s about more than that… sometimes Ursula remembers her ‘past lives’, and manages to manoeuvre her way out of a situation because of this, but other times, her knowledge leaves her floundering as much as the next person. The poignant quote above sums up this novel perfectly: do-overs or not, we’re all just muddling through, doing our best. That is what this novel is about: life, and all that that entails. It’s brilliant. It’s heartbreaking, and heart-mending.

Kate Atkinson is the critically acclaimed author of The Human Coquet and One Good Turn. Life After Life earned her a nomination for Shortlist of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. 

The Cuckoo’s Calling – Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling), 30/04/13

Genre: Crime Fiction

You may think you know detectives, but you’ve never met one quite like Strike.

Rowling got away with it for a good few months, and whilst the revelation that the Harry Potter mogul penned this ‘stellar debut’ certainly boosted sales, The Cuckoo’s Calling had already been critically acclaimed by the time the world made the connection. And with good reason.  Cormoran Strike has nothing to lose: his life is in shambles, his financial situation is dire and his girlfriend just left him. So when a supermodel’s brother asks him to investigate the ruled suicide of Lula Landry – the titular ‘Cuckoo’ – Strike dives in… and it’s either sink, or swim.

The tricky thing with crime/mystery fiction is that you have to surprise your reader without making them question the plausibility of your plot: at the end of the novel, the reader wants to be able to look back and understand how they got from A to B. J.K. Rowling is a master at disguising crucial information as something trivial (see golden Snitches, rats called Scabbers, and dusty lockets no one can open). If you enjoy masterfully written who-dun-its, this one is for you.

J.K. Rowling is… okay, really? Does anybody actually need to be told who she is? Robert Galbraith (pseudonym).

Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, 14/05/13

Genre: Literature & Fiction

Americanah tells the story of two Nigerian lovers, Ifemelu and Obinze. Separated when Ifemelu goes to America to study and Obinze’s plans to join her are deterred by a security-conscious post 9/11 America, they reunite years later, different people changed and shaped by their experiences.

This book is so real, so unflinchingly honest; it’s almost hard to believe a human wrote this. Then I remember that this is Adichie, author of Half of A Yellow Sun. When my sister told me to read this, I knew to expect to be stunned (her word is gospel, she led me to Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl amongst others), but Americanah surpassed even my very, very high expectations. In such a globalized world, reading this book should be mandatory. Adichie brilliantly highlights the underside of racism; Ifemelu is so heartbreakingly honest and fragile in her confusion and realization that she can be and will be defined by her skin colour. She exposes the differences between those born aware of their skin colour, and those who were not. When such heavy issues are being explored, it’s easy for a novel to read more like an opinionated thesis, but Americanah is brimming with heart, so laden with humanity that, at least for a little while, we’re made unconscious of things like the colour of our skin.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is the award-winning author of Half of A Yellow Sun and Purple Hibiscus.

And The Mountains Echoed – Khaled Hosseini, 21/05/13

Genre: Literature & Fiction

This is a story that examines the nature of intimacy, of intentions. How relationships change and alter, how betrayal can manifest, how sacrifice can be embraced. With the skill we’ve come to expect form Hosseini, this story is both singular and multi-faceted; a stylistic reflection of how we are all so alone, and yet so intrinsically connected. His writing is flawlessly plush; it’s less like you’re reading words off a page, and more like you’re lying in a bathtub absorbing the novel right into your skin. The story unfolds like the reader is peeling an onion, but from the inside out: the scope of the tale widens, the focus sharpens and a tear or twenty are brought to your eyes.

When you see ‘Khaled Hosseini’ on the front of a book, you pretty much know what you’re getting. It’s going to be powerful, it’s probably going to break your heart. You know you’ll never be the same again. (You understand that I am not being melodramatic if you’ve read any one of his other books). I really don’t know what else to say… it’s Khaled Hosseini. Read it. You just have to.

Khaled Hosseini is a #1 New York Times best-selling author of The Kite Runner and  A Thousand Splendid Suns

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane – Neil Gaiman, 18/06/13 

Genre: Fantasy 

‘You don’t pass or fail at being a person’

 A man recollects the mysterious going-ons at the farm at the end of the lane when he was seven, and his encounters with a young girl possessed of infinite wisdom and her family.

Neil Gaiman. My goodness. There are some writers who can put words to what you were thinking, but couldn’t articulate. There are some who write what you know you should be thinking, or want to be thinking. And then, like Gaiman, some write what you didn’t even know were your thoughts, or feelings, they just were. If I could say use one word to summate this entire novel, it would be ‘reflection’. It’s about the reflections between the old and the young, amongst other things that come in pairs; cruelty and kindness, love and hate, friendship and loneliness. ‘Nobody actually looks like what they really are on the inside.’ When I read books like this, I’m reminded of why this genre is called ‘Fantasy’: imagining something so incredible it’s impossible. Like the best fantasy novels, The Ocean At The End of the Lane left me with a sharp longing for that world.

Neil Gaiman is an award-winning author of The Sandman, Stardust, Coraline and The Graveyard Book.

Second Half of the Year

Literature1The Bone Season – Samantha Shannon, 20/08/13

Genre: Paranormal Fantasy

I know, I know, we’re drowning in all the dystopian fiction surrounding us, and here’s yet another one. But I fancy myself a connoisseur in all things fantasy and dystopian (I was a Hunger Games fan from the get-go, badgering my friends to read it long before it was cool to wear your hair in a French plait, spontaneously whistle minor chords and determinedly find a way to work favoured odds into every conversation), and I must say, The Bone Season is one to read. But aside from my tangential gloating, The Bone Season cannot and should not be compared to The Hunger Games: it is amazing in its own right. A lot of the appeal for me, I admit, was seeing a dystopian London – or Scion London, as it’s called in 2059.

Whilst Shannon’s world is vastly different, it centres around something our present society can relate to: being different means standing out. Dreamwalker Paige Mahoney works for the Seven Seals, a criminal organization, until she is captured by the Scion government, and taken to the voyant (clairvoyant) prison (our Oxford). There, she finds that Scion don’t want to kill the voyants: they want to recruit them. Forced to train under Warden, her enemy, Paige must master her powers in order to fight for her freedom.

Samantha Shannon is a freshman author, and whilst The Bone Season is her debut novel, it is the first in a seven-book series, and film rights have been optioned by Twentieth Century Fox.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up For Education And Was Shot By The Taliban –  Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb, 08/10/13

Genre: Memoirs and Autobiographies

‘I come from a country that was created at midnight. When I almost died it was just after midday’.

Malala Yousafzai was only fifteen when she was shot in the head, point-blank in Pakistan. Her crime: refusing to stop fighting for the right to her education. I Am Malala tells the story of a deeply devoted family who stood for their rights and against global terrorism, an unimaginably brave girl who proved that one voice can provoke change if you only speak loud enough.

Anybody who watches the news will be familiar with her name, and her story: the world was collectively horrified to realise that a schoolgirl could be so cavalierly shot on a bus, but even more in awe of her bravery, her determination.  I Am Malala is a must-read: equal parts eye-opening, awe-inspiring and life-affirming.

Malala Yousafzai is the youngest ever nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. Christina Lamb is a Foreign Correspondent, and has covered the Taliban extensively.

The House of Hades (The Heroes of Olympus) – Rick Riordan, 08/10/13

Genre: Children & Teen Fiction

The heroes of Olympus – the seven prophesied half-mortal, half-god teenagers – have seven days to save the world. They have to find the Doors of Death, battle Gaia – ‘So, Mother Earth is evil?’ – and her army of Giants, and stop the Roman and Greek demigods from killing each other. And their two best warriors – Percy Jackson and his girlfriend, Annabeth – have just fallen into Tartarus, that darkest pit of hell.

If you’re a fan of Greek and Roman mythology, enjoy intricate, brilliant story-telling, and battlegrounds that range from heaven to hell, to the horrible place under hell, then you really should be reading this. The sequel series to the Percy Jackson novels (please don’t talk to me about the film adaptations. It makes me want to cry), Riordan somehow managed to up his game.  And whilst it’s marketed for children, I’m pretty sure it’s the only reason I aced my English A level: it’s The Iliad, The Aeneid, The Odyssey and all the classics transported into modern society. And as a lover of the classics, I do not say that lightly.

Rick Riordan is a #1 New York Times best-selling author of the Percy Jackson series, and The Heroes of Olympus series.

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton, 15/10/13

 Genre: Historical Fiction

Set in 19th century New Zealand, the novel revolves around twelve men intent upon solving a mystery that a thirteenth man – Walter Moody, newly arrived from Edinburgh – is also involved with. They each have secrets… and only in their revelation can the mystery be solved.

I admit, I wish I had read Catton’s debut novel beforehand, because I’ve heard good things about it, and now that I’ve read The Luminaries, my expectations are raised. It is a testament to Catton’s writing that I could even remotely relate to this novel, or be invested in its characters. Truly deserving of the acclaim being lavished upon her, Catton’s prose is effortless, poetic. Despite a sprawling plot and wide array of characters, Catton controls the narrative with an assurance and experience that belies her youth. It is without doubt an instant classic.

Eleanor Catton is an award-winning author. The Luminaries is her sophomore novel, and won the Man Booker Prize and Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction. 

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt, 22/10/13

Genre: Mystery Fiction

‘What if one happens to be possessed of a heart that can’t be trusted?’

When Theo survives an accident that claims his mother, he strikes out on his own rather than be labeled an orphan under the city. His captivation with the titular painting, the one thing that reminds him of his mother, leads him into a different world, a different culture, a different life – one that Theo could never have imagined.

Three books in two decades. What has Donna Tartt been doing? I’ll tell you: honing her craft into pure perfection. Because that is what this is. If you’re a reader, you’ll understand that you always enjoy the act of reading, whether or not you necessarily like the book. Sometimes the book is good enough that you read an extra chapter before bed, even though it’s late. Sometimes it’s so good that you read it on the Tube with your face in alarmingly close proximity to a stranger’s armpit. And sometimes it is so good that you abandon all social niceties and read it at the dinner table in front of all your colleagues, to hell with etiquette. This is that kind of book. When everything comes together, this is what you get. The pacing, the tone, the characters the setting, the PROSE, everything is as mesmerising as The Goldfinch painting itself.

Donna Tartt is the critically acclaimed author of  The Secret History and The Little Friend, the latter which won her the 2003 W H Smith Literary Award.

Sonia Muhwezi

Sonia Muhwezi is 21 years old. She recently graduated from Brighton University, where she studied English Language and Literature. Having interned at Orion publishing, she hopes to go into Publishing. In other Sonia related info, it’s worth mentioning that she can turn any conversation into a game of Six Degrees to Harry Potter and is a Beyoncé stan.

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