Book Reviews, YA Contemporary, Young Adult

Review – ‘How I Live Now’ – Meg Rosoff

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How I Live Now has appealed to me for a while now, and while I did enjoy it, I have some reservations. I liked the modern war-time setting, the imagined Third World War and the story of a group of youngsters struggling to survive in a war-torn country with nobody to look after them. However my central complaint, isn’t to do with the love story as many other people’s is, but instead to do with the writing style. Still, as it is a quick, enjoyable and sometimes quite tense read, so I would not say that it was a bad book.

The central character of this novel is Daisy, an American fifteen year old who has ben sent by her father to stay with her Aunt Penn and cousins in England. It is no secret that the world is on the brink of a war, but unfortunately, the outbreak strikes when the youngsters, Daisy, and her four cousins Osbert, Edmond, Isaac and Piper, are home alone, with Aunt Penn abroad for work. They are alone in their farmhouse and at first, have a great time, not worried at all about the war which is miles away, but eventually as the war escalates, they are separated and the book follows Daisy as she struggles to get herself and Piper reunited with the rest of their family.

How-I-Live-Now-2I thought that Daisy was an interesting character to follow, not because she was particularly likable, but because Rosoff made no attempts to hide that Daisy can be quite selfish and rude at times. Daisy constantly writes about her father and stepmather being evil and hating her, but I suspect this is a little bit of that good old unreliable narrator peeping through, as at the end of the novel, it is made clear that Daisy’s father has been searching for her in order to bring her home. Also, it is clear that Daisy has an eating disorder, which Rosoff approached brilliantly, as Daisy’s eating habits were not her sole defining feature, unlike other fictional characters with similar conditions who are often reduced to their illness. However, although Daisy says that she wanted to be thin, she also remarks that she was afraid of her stepmother poisoning her. All in all, I thought that Rosoff wrote about Daisy’s complexities and layers brilliantly, letting us slowly into the workings of her mind whilst never telling us the whole truth, what was real and what was a figment of Daisy’s imagination.

The main complaint that I seem to have seen regarding this book is the love story component of the book, in which Daisy falls in love with her cousin. I admit, I did find it weird, and although I could sense that something would happen between the two, I was still shocked when the book actually went there. Although I was never fully comfortable with this storyline, I do appreciate that Rosoff did not sensationalise it and turn it into a sordid Jaime-and-Cersei-Lannister type of thing. Above all however, I can look past the romantic story that I didn’t feel completely okay with and look at the bigger picture, that the story is about the relationship between Daisy and all of her cousins; the love story, despite being important for Daisy, is not the only thing that we focus on, for example, I loved her relationship with Piper, her youngest cousin, of whom she is very protective, best of all, and the development of Isaac’s character at the end of the book.

Meg_Rosoff-largeHowever, the shortcoming of this book, in my opinion, was the writing style. I accept that Rosoff was trying to capture the voice of a young girl, but I did not like the rambling sentences that seemed to go on for pages at a time and just felt messy and unorganised. I just felt like Daisy had never been taught about punctuation in her life, even though by the time I was fifteen I had been through several years of schooling where I was told exactly was a full stop and a comma were for. This was true in particular for the beginning of the book, as the long sentences seemed to fit more as the book became more tense and dramatic, but not for the first half of the book where the characters were living a blissful, calm countryside life. I often thought how much I wished the book had been written better, and that that would have made it into a real masterpiece, but alas, I would not say that the less than perfect writing style overshadowed the story or the characters, which were what kept me reading.

Overall, How I Live Now, despite not being perfect, did impress me. I do not tend to like young adult or romance books, but I decided to read this because I love war and survival stories and dystopian fiction. Rosoff got the perfect balance of the different elements of the story, not focusing too much on the intricacies of war to the detriment of the characters, but not making romance overpower the strength of the relationships between all of the characters. So, although this book is not perfect, I would not hesitate to recommend it.

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Book Reviews, Classics

Review – ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ – Gaston Leroux

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I love the 2004 movie production of musical The Phantom of the Opera. The songs are amazing and the story fascinating, so I decided to read the book that inspired it. It is originally a French novel written by Gaston Leroux and published in 1909, and I found it to succeed in areas which many classic novels fail – to be genuinely tense. Admittedly, there were parts which I found boring and wanted to skip, but I did enjoy reading it.

For those who do not know, The Phantom of the Opera is set, you guessed it, in the Paris Opera in the nineteenth century and follows a series of strange events. At the centre of the story are three characters. Christine Daae has just made her debut at the lead singer at the Opera to great praise from the audience, and Raoul, who is among the audience, is in love with her. They were childhood friends, and now he wants nothing but to be with Christine. However, Christine is plagued by a mysterious voice who guides her called the Angel of Music, who turns out not to be an angel but a real man, the same man who has been nicknamed ‘The Phantom of the Opera’ by the other inhabitants of the opera. Why has he been named in this way? His appearance is ghastly, with those who glimpse him comparing him to death itself, and the way that the Phantom, whose real name is Erik, travels around the opera through hidden tunnels and doorways, means that he has become a sort of myth. In fact, Erik lives in the cellars of the Opera, and is himself in love with, or obsessed with, Christine. The story comes to its climax when Erik kidnaps Christine, threatens the lives of everyone in the opera, and Raoul must undertake to save her.

Gaston_Leroux_-_Le_Fantôme_de_l'OpéraThe main thing that I liked about this story was the character of Erik. There is a marvellous line in the story that “he had a heart that could have held the entire empire of the world; and, in the end, he had to content himself with a cellar.” He was much more interesting than the rather dull and predictably sickly-sweet couple that was Christine and Raoul, and Erik was the only character who I truly pitied. Through Leroux’s writing, the pain and betrayal that Erik felt when Christine turned against him, disgusted by his looks was clear. In fact, most of the book I spent wondering what Erik would do next and when he would pop up for the next time.

In fact, Christine and Raoul were at times nauseating. It was truly disappointing, considering the depth of Erik’s character and the pity that we felt for him, that these two characters were not given the same emotional exploration. Yes, we were given a lot of their backstory, but this was more of an information dump style of storytelling. Frankly, I did not like Christine at all and felt that the presentation of her as nothing more but a pious girl who needed saving and whose only solution to her problems was to elope and marry was bland and her character reminded me a little of Cossette – much less interesting than her central role in the story would suggest. I was also disappointed that Raoul and Christine were not more heroic at the final stages of the story. It was the mysterious Persian who saved the day and it was clear that Raoul would have achieved nothing without his help.

AVT_Gaston-Leroux_7086On the other hand, this could all have just been a clever way for Leroux to show us how pathetic Raoul was in comparison to the intelligent and passionate Erik, who the world has turned into a monster, and the fickleness of Christine, who decides pretty easily to abandon her dear Angel of Music for Raoul. Also, it was clear through all of the characters that Leroux wanted to explore the dangers of obsessive love. I wasn’t particularly convinced by any of the love stories, neither Christine and Erik’s nor Christine and Raoul’s, but it was clear that neither of them were free of faults.

On another note, I found the book easy to read, although the structure and changes in narrative style were rather off-putting and could venture into the realm of dullness. In particular, I hated the final few chapters that were told from the diary entries of the Persian. I understand that Leroux was trying to root it in historical events and give us a reminder of real time and place, but it was just boring, especially when the diary entries began to turn into retellings of the characters’ biographies. I would have much preferred for Leroux to have kept to his usual writing style, and it would have made the final few chapters as tense and exciting as the first.

Overall, The Phantom of the Opera was not a great book, but it was entertaining. Unlike many books which have mystery at their core, it felt like the book got more boring as it went on, but I loved the character of the Phantom and what I took to be a commentary on superficial and obsessive love.