Book Reviews, Non-Fiction

Review – ‘Angela’s Ashes’ – Frank McCourt

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In Angela’s Ashes, Frank McCourt recalls his impoverished childhood in Limerick, Ireland. Although the subject matter itself and many of the stories contained within the book are heartbreaking, McCourt’s writing mixes tragic situations and events with a searingly honest and lighthearted voice. It was a heartbreaking yet marvellous read, filled with lifelike people, shocking anecdotes and Irish wit.

Born in New York to Irish parents, Frank’s family return to Ireland after tragedy strikes the family when a baby daughter dies. Angela’s Ashes describes the dire poverty and struggles Frank faced living in Limerick with his doting mother, determined to protect and provide for her children, and an alcoholic, almost perpetually unemployed father. As he grows, Frank becomes more and more determined to “be a man”, earn money, provide for his family, and return to the land of opportunity – America. This book follows not only his family life, but also describes many aspects of Frank McCourt’s Ireland; as a Catholic in a country divided by religion, and in a society which fears sin, Hell, and the English above all things.

5649-MAlthough Angela’s Ashes is undoubtedly a depressing story, what made it stand out to me was that McCourt’s writing style itself is not depressing. At no point does it feel like McCourt is trying to force you to feel sorry for him. In fact, his narrative style is often funny, and it had the childlike tone of a young boy who barely understands what is happening around him for much of the book. I also liked that although many terrible things happen to Frank and his family, like deaths in the family, characters were defined by their strength of character. For instance, when I think of the character of Angela, my feelings are not only of pity for her loss and suffering, but also admiration and respect for her bravery and determination.

The humour in Angela’s Ashes was another fantastic aspect of the book. Amid passages of so much suffering, such as having to use wood from the walls of the McCourt’s house to keep a fire going, there were anecdotes that made me stop and laugh, like Frank accidentally causing the roof of the house to collapse by taking wood from the beams holding up the structure. Similarly, whilst painting a picture of an Irish city completely preoccupied by the Catholic religion and the atrocities of the English against the Irish, there’s the glorious line where Frank says, “The master says it’s a glorious thing to die for the Faith and Dad says it’s a glorious thing to die for Ireland and I wonder if there’s anyone in the world who would like us to live.” This line itself is a perfect example of Angela’s Ashes – a childhood mired in misery, suffering, and grief, all wrapped up with a bit of humour.

This humorous narrative voice also has the effect of making Angela’s Ashes a much more bearable read. I couldn’t have trudged through a 400-page book about children dying, walking around with broken shoes in the rain, being turned away from schools and struggling to make ends meat if every single word was written in an effort to make me weep. I would have surely ended up throwing the book across a room and wanting to tear my hair out – even with this humourous voice I felt guilty for taking the comforts in my life for granted! Also, this voice makes you really love Frank for his ability to make light of difficult times, and makes you root for him even when he does terrible things, like stealing money from employers (and even dead people), purely because he seems like the kind of guy who would cheer up your day. Its honesty and straight-talking tone makes you feel as if you are listening to the real Frank McCourt tell you stories – right from the horse’s mouth. At no point did I feel in the least bored by the story, nor at any point did I have to push myself to get through a particularly heavy, loaded with useless words passage. Rather, every single page felt like I was listening to a nice, chatty man tell me about his life.

In conclusion, I absolutely loved Angela’s Ashes. Despite having read that much of McCourt’s memoirs are exaggerated tales of his life, frankly, I don’t care. This book is so well written, that it feels like you are being transported into Limerick. You can almost feel the rain seeping through your clothes, you can almost smell the stink of the shared lavatory wafting in through the window, and you can feel the same drive that Frank feels when he plans his journey to America. And what else is a book like this supposed to do?

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Book Reviews, Sci-Fi & Fantasy

Review – ‘Wicked’ – Gregory Maguire

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Taken from: @inkdropsbooks (Instagram)

Rating: ★ ★ ★

Wicked is my favourite musical. I love the story, I long the characters, I love the songs – in short, I love everything about it. So it seemed like a no-brainer that I absolutely had to read the book. I enjoyed reading Wicked in order to read the story in more detail, and revisit the characters in another format, but I wouldn’t recommend it to people merely because they enjoyed the musical. Wicked is an okay/good book, as a standalone book, but it isn’t a chance to revisit the musical in literary form.

1939s-wicked-witch-of-the-west-looks-much-sexier-in-todays-ozWicked is a retelling of the life of the Wicked Witch of the West, the villain from the Wizard of Oz. In the original story, she is green-skinned, definitely witchy-looking, dresses all in black, has a broom and pointed hat etc. etc. In this retelling, this character is fleshed out more, as Elphaba Thropp. We follow her life from odd baby, surprising her parents by being green-skinned among other strange characteristics, through to her years at university where she makes friends with ‘Galinda’ (Glinda the Good Witch), on to her time as an activist/terrorist/reluctant heiress. It is an interesting story, but it wasn’t everything that I hoped it would be, and was unfortunately a little boring at times.

An interesting central component of Wicked was the political commentary on the land of Oz, with the issues surrounding Animals, the divisions between different groups of people in Oz, conspiracies, and divisions according to religion. However, this also turned out to be the book’s most damning feature at times, as it sometimes felt like a mission to read about so many issues and not see a clear storyline. One of my favourite parts of the book concerned Elphaba being a member of a secret underground terrorist organisation, however it felt like it was told from too far a distance. The story moved on after her failed campaign and it felt like a whole part of her life was left behind for much of the book. It wasn’t until the end when Elphaba revisited her old research into Animals. This meant that what felt like it should be a significant storyline was merely left as a background plot point, making the story feel muddled and confused.

7025Another aspect of the book which felt like it wasn’t explored enough was Elphaba’s relationships. Perhaps this is my fault for approaching this book which precise expectation from the musical, but I always loved the unlikely relationships Elphaba struck with Galinda, Fiyero, and Boq in the musical. They showed a much more human side to Elphaba that isn’t present in the book. Instead, Elphaba is separated from G(a)linda in the Emerald City, and for much of the book there is no mention of her. Then they meet again for a brief, bland period of time only to separate again. As for Fiyero, the part of the book where they are at university together, there are few scenes between them, followed by an affair later, and then by his mysterious death – which is never fully explained. This meant that central relationships in Elphaba’s life felt unexplored and unexplained. I feel like Maguire didn’t take advantage of an opportunity to really pull on reader’s heartstrings and make us root for Elphaba – or against her – just to feel anything for her.

I was at first surprised by the book’s ending and how the story unravelled. The final chapters were tense and exciting – making up for a large period beforehand where the story felt muddled. The scenes with Dorothy were interesting, but also felt a little rushed for such a climatic event. On the one hand – I was upset that the clever ending that I love from the musical, where various characters are transformed into Dorothy’s friends – the scarecrow being Fiyero, Boq being the Tin Man – the only one which is the same in the book is the lion being a cub which Elphaba helped to escape. On the other hand, I somewhat liked the element of tragedy in Elphaba’s story. Still, it would have been nice for Elphaba’s story regarding other characters in the book, like Boq and Fiyero, to have been revisited and closed off a bit nicer, as they are in the musical. After all, that ending still has an element of tragedy about it, without it being so final and feeling like something is missing.

Overall, Wicked is not a bad book. In fact, the story of Elphaba’s life story as told by Gregory Maguire is very interesting. I just think that there was something missing about it, an emotional aspect to the story. For all of Elphaba’s strength, it is clear that she is a more complex character and I don’t think that this is really addressed. As many book-lovers say, the book is better than the movie – but in this case, I would not hesitate to say that the musical (soon to be movie, hopefully) is better than the book. The changes made to the plot flesh Elphaba out more and make us feel something for the characters, which the book failed to do enough.