Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Review by M

Here's the fuzzy lead up to why I read Half of a Yellow Sun in the first place, and my mixed but hopeful expectations for it:

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Purple Hibiscus is one of those books that has a special place on my shelves. I read it during a period when I was reading little fiction and not making note of my thoughts about that which I did read (other than the piles of non-fiction, of course!). Consequently, I remember little of what Purple Hibiscus is about other than that my enduring response to it is similar to the one I hold for Tsisti Dangarembga's Nervous Conditions (both are about teenage girls in African countries). In short, Ngozi Adichie had earned a place in my reading heart. But then I tried reading Americanah, her most recent novel and the main character's internal whining jarred too much with me, and I left it unfinished and disappointed. But then someone from Booktrust told me how much they'd loved Half of a Yellow Sun, so I kept a wary eye out for it, curious as to whether it would be another Purple Hibiscus, an Americanah, or something else for me.

It was definitely more Purple Hibiscus, so I'm very happy and would recommend this novel to a variety of people.

Three things stood out most for me in Half of a Yellow Sun. - I learned something, I enjoyed the storytelling/plot over character (I know!), and yes, there is something about the writing (or structure) that jars with me a little.

The story is set in 1960s Nigeria, just before and during the civil war and the establishment of Biafra. Yes, I'd forgotten about Biafra (and Ngozi Adichie raises an eyebrow or smiles wryly inwardly), so I learned quite a bit from the plot, which often pleases me. For example, the title of the book is taken from a symbol on the Biafran flag. I'm sure I never knew that.

The plot became the page turner for me, and I read this novel for long uninterrupted periods over a few days - which is the first novel of the five I've read this year that has had that effect on me. Either I've reached a turning point or that's saying something about Half of a Yellow Sun. At least, it's saying that the novel tells a good story: that of love and human relationships within an extended family/household, and civil war.

Characterwise, the narrator and the novel moves back and forth among its main characters: Ugwu (the houseboy), Olanna (the long suffering beauty), Kainene (the ugly twin), Odenigbo (Master and revolutionary lover), and Richard (white man writer in Africa). Ugwu, for me, is by far the most charming of the characters. Olanna is a character who doesn't feel 'right' to me and I'm starting to think that Ngozi Adichie's main female characters are always going to have this effect on me. But, that thought doesn't sit true with Purple Hibiscus, whose main character is female. Interestingly, too, Ugwu and Kambili (Purple Hibiscus) are both teenagers. Perhaps then, I like Ngozi Adichie's characterisation of teenagers but not female adults. I'd have to reread Purple Hibiscus to get to the bottom of that one.

Structurally, I wasn't overly keen. The novel moves back and forth between the early and the late 1960s. The middle of these periods turns on two points: Biafra and war, and personal relationship troubles. Often I feel that this is done for no other reason than to introduce suspense. The novel does this but annoyingly it also 'spoils' some of the plot by telling me what happens before the story has reached it natural course (yep, for once, I'm plumping for a more linear tale!). There's also a strange device that occasionally tags the draft of a novel onto the end of chapters. The strange thing about this is it's written by the narrator and not the 'author'. For me, it obstructs the flow. I understand that Ngozi Adichie is making a political point about who should tell which stories but the whole of Half of a Yellow Sun does this anyway.

A last and, for me, interesting observation: sexual references are littered throughout the novel. Far more than I remember reading in other novels for a long time. This, perhaps, says more about the other novels that I've been reading rather than the amount of sex in Half of a Yellow Sun.

Most of this review sounds quite critical, more so than some of my other reviews. Maybe it just had more personal bite for me, and maybe I like that because it's the novel I've enjoyed reading most so far this year.

Publication details:
This copy: My own; Fourth estate, 2014

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Why I'm not reading Go Set A Watchman

For months, the question a few people have asked me is 'Are you going to read Harper Lee's new book'? On hearing that Go Set A Watchman (GSAW) was some sort of sequel or prequel to To Kill A Mockingbird (TKAM) and that there was controversy around its publication, my alarm bells started ringing.

TKAM is one of my favourite novels. I recently re-read it and enjoyed it far more than I did when I was at school. This is partly because it's a novel legendary in its stand alone character and it is symbolic of much that is very personal to me, its reader. A bit like an impressionist painting, for me, it artistically captures a moment. While the characters are very much alive for me, I've locked them in that moment and tied them to TKAM's form. And so, I didn't particularly wish to visit a story about Scout in adulthood. And, on hearing snippets from naughtily early reviews about a different characterisation of Atticus, I was quite certain that this was not somewhere that I wanted to go in my fiction reading.

My gut instincts were calmly saying ' No, I'll not read it,' but my curiosity and raised sense of excitement at the huge publication promotions, meant that not having a copy of this brand new GSAW made me feel left out. This side of me was screaming, "Go read it now!'

But the gut instinct niggled and then, a review out today and some critics who criticise the other critics and readers, pulled me back and out of the hype. GSAW is a novel that was rejected for publication and was then reworked into TKAM. In terms of novel development, GSAW is a draft in the publishing (or writing) process. From this perspective, it may be wonderful for literary theorists and students of literature. But, in this instance, my curiosity as a reader doesn't stretch that far, and for now, I'm sticking with the original legend. In my head, To Kill A Mockingbird is as real as fiction gets.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

The True Face Revolution: Dream Boldy

True Face is a new non-fiction book from author, Siobhan Curham. It's an interactive self-help and exploratory guide that will get teens thinking (so says Little M (15) who has been reading an advance copy ). It's all about how you think and feel about, and see, yourself in today's social media frenzy world and in the future. It's full of advice and 'quizzes' (a bit like the ones a life coach might get you to do). It publishes in the UK today and I'd keep a look out for it if I was you.
One of the things Siobhan talks widely about is the importance, the freedom and even the courage to dream boldly.  Here, Siobhan shares an exercise that gives you a taste of what True Face offers. And there's a website too - Siobhan is building up an ambassadorial revolution!
Over to Siobhan.


In True Face I talk a lot about the importance of dreaming boldly. But how can we make our dreams a reality? 
The following exercise is taken from True Face and it’s one I did way back when I was still dreaming of becoming a writer. I’d like to point out that at the time I had no contacts in the publishing world, I’d dropped out of uni, I’d never attended a writing class and I was a young mum. So if it worked for me, it can definitely work for you!
Take some time when you know you won’t be interrupted. Sit or lie somewhere comfortable, with a notebook and pen handy, then close your eyes and relax. 
Picture yourself in five years’ time. 
  • How old will you be?
  • Where would you like to be?
  • What would you like to be doing?
  • Who would you like to be with?
In this dream world anything is possible, so if your inner voice starts saying things like: ‘you could never achieve that’, please just ignore it. For the purposes of this exercise, anything is possible.
Once you’ve got a basic idea of how you’d like your life to be let’s get a bit more detailed.
Picture yourself waking up in your dream life five years from now and slowly take yourself through your dream day.
  • Where are you living?
  • Who are you living with?
  • Where do you work?
  • What do you do for fun?
Dream boldly, remembering that anything’s possible.
How do you feel, living this dream life?
Really enjoy getting into these feelings.
Imagine the places you go to and all the different things you do throughout your day.
Then, when you’re ready, open your eyes and jot down everything you can remember.
When I first did this exercise I was living in a flat above a chip shop in London with a new baby. I’d never had a word published and I was on maternity leave. As the youngest of my friends to become a mum, I was feeling slightly down and isolated.
My five-year goal was to be living in the countryside with a book deal.
When I got more detailed about it, I added in a lunch with a big group of friend, a dance class and an evening stroll somewhere scenic.
It seemed so far from where I was to where I wanted to be, the enormity of my dream was daunting to say the least.
But the joy of this exercise is that it breaks things right down.
So, if your five year dream seems impossible to get to from where you are right now, don’t panic.
In your notebook, write a new title: ONE YEAR DREAM
What could you realistically achieve in the next year towards your overall goal?
When I did this I realised that I could realistically try to get an article and short story published so I made that my goal.
Once you’re clear on your one year goal, break it down even further.
What could you realistically achieve towards that one year goal in the next month?
I made my one month goal to write the first draft of a short story.
And, if you like, you can break it down even further than that, asking yourself what you could achieve in the next week and the next day.
By breaking our dreams down like this, we create manageable stepping stones. And with each stepping stone we cross, we become more confident and our five year dream looks more possible.
This is exactly what happened to me.
Within a year, I’d had a handful of articles and short stories published.
And within two years, I’d got my first book deal.
I’m writing this blog post from my home in the Hertfordshire countryside (nowhere near a chippy!), earlier today I went dancing and had lunch with friends and True Face is my tenth book to be published, with another couple to follow soon. This is what happens when we dream boldly; our reality can exceed even our wildest dreams!

To find out more about True Face please visit: www.TrueFaceRevolution.com 

Saturday, 14 February 2015

UKYA Extravaganza: Dawn Kurtagich

Welcome to our stop on the UKYA Extravaganza blog tour where Dawn Kurtagich, author of the forthcoming YA novel, The Dead House, is our guest.  UKYA Extravanagaza is one of the first big author organised events outside of London and the home counties. Well done to author Kerry Drewery for spearheading it. And now to Dawn who you can meet alongside 34 other YA authors in Birmingham on 28th February. 

And look, there’s a heart on the UK cover: just as well it’s Valentines Day (though Dawn is really a writer of creepy, spooky and psychologically sinister YA fiction!). 

Left: UK cover; Right: US cover

Because The Dead House isn’t out in the UK ’til August (& we haven’t read it), here’s what Dawn says about it (nothing quite like whetting an appetite on Valentine’s, is there?): 

THE DEAD HOUSE is a twisty little book full of half untruths and a broken girl who doesn't exist.

Three students: dead.
Carly Johnson: vanished without a trace.

Two decades have passed since an inferno swept through Elmbridge High, claiming the lives of three teenagers and causing one student, Carly Johnson, to disappear. The main suspect: Kaitlyn, “the girl of nowhere.”

Kaitlyn’s diary, discovered in the ruins of Elmbridge High, reveals the thoughts of a disturbed mind. Its charred pages tell a sinister version of events that took place that tragic night, and the girl of nowhere is caught in the center of it all. But many claim Kaitlyn doesn’t exist, and in a way, she doesn’t – because she is the alter-ego of Carly Johnson.

Carly gets the day. Kaitlyn has the night. It’s during the night that a mystery surrounding the Dead House unravels and a dark, twisted magic ruins the lives of each student that dares touch it.”

Dawn Kurtagich sporting 'Watson'
And now here’re a few things you probably never knew about Dawn:

WSD: "I wrote a letter to my love and on the way I dropped it." To whom would you write and where would you drop it? 

Dawn Kurtagich: Hm… I'd want a very clever homing pigeon to find it and fly it to my love (so he'd think I had all kinds of mad Cinderella skills). Either that, or I would hope it could find its way to someone who really needed it.  

WSD: What book would you recommend someone else read on Valentine's Day and why? 

DK: I make no secret of the fact that I am a big fan of Juliet Marillier's work. Her Daughter of the Forest is definitely the most romantic book I have ever read (I've linked to the Goodreads page if you want more info). A little magic makes it even better. I love this book because of Sorcha, the main character. She is so strong, but so alone. Everything is taken away from her, yet she has strength enough to try and get it back, and it nearly costs her even more. Then, after all she's been through, she has to give up the person she loves most. It's beautiful. It's romantic in every way, with a capital "R"—and a fictional medieval Ireland? Yes, please. A second really good choice is Spirit Fox by Mickey Zucker Reichert and Michelle Wingert. Very readable. For YA: Anna and the French Kiss. CUTE!

WSD: Apparently your accent is a bit of a hodge-podge (welcome to my world!). What places might we detect in it?

DK: It is! You might detect an English accent, a little South African, a little American and possibly a little Australian. Though, when my Canadian friend comes to see me, I take on her lilt, apparently! Growing up in so many places means that I can't really answer the question "where are you from?" very easily. It's a problem. A very interesting problem! 

WSD: Why is orange your favourite colour?

DK: I’d say that orange is definitely one of my favourite colours—it's a colour for passion and warmth. But my favourite is a very specific type of green. Green is the best colour, anyway. The end. ;)

WSD: How and why did your hat get named Watson?

DK: Watson named himself. You'll need to ask him why... (though he's a cheeky bugger and may evade questions with more questions). He even makes an appearance in The Dead House!

The Dead House is forthcoming from Orion/Indigo (UK) and Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (US) in 2015.