Aliya Whiteley’s ‘The Beauty’


Somewhere away from the cities and towns, a group of men and boys gather around the fire each night to listen to their stories in the Valley of the Rocks. For when the women are all gone the rest of your life is all there is for everyone. The men are waiting to pass into the night.

The story shall be told to preserve the past. History has gone back to its aural roots and the power of words is strong. Meet Nate, the storyteller, and the new secrets he brings back from the woods. William rules the group with youth and strength, but how long can that last? And what about Uncle Ted, who spends so much time out in the woods?

Hear the tales, watch a myth be formed. For what can man hope to achieve in a world without women? When the past is only grief how long should you hold on to it? What secrets can the forest offer to change it all?

This book was recommended to me by a friend so when I started reading I really had no idea what to expect. I certainly would not have expected what I found. The story is set in a world where all the women have died due to an unknown infectious disease that doesn’t effect the men. But it begins many years after the women have already died out and the men have adapted to life without them. The story allows enough time for gender to have become almost obsolete as a social construct. Near forgotten by the younger generation and an idolized haze by the older generation. But from the graves of their women, mushrooms begin to grow and then from those mushrooms female figures, women-like creatures, emerge. But they are not the women that the men remember, they take the form of women but are something entirely different. The story that then unfolds is one that looks at what defines men and women and how those definitions change the way we look at ourselves as it is not just a look at gender but at how we construct our society.

‘The Beauty’, as the females are called, offer physical comfort to the men but they also have the ability to transmit images and emotions by touch so that the men become almost addicted to their companionship. But they are also much stronger than the men and therefore begin to take over the more taxing tasks and roles that we traditionally fulfilled by men, even before the disease struck. However, there are differing opinions with regards to whether the Beauty are there to save or do damn them. When violence is committed against the Beauty the community have to then decide how to treat the ‘women’ and those who commit ‘crimes’ against them. The society that they have formed has to change and adapt to the new circumstances.

Procreation becomes possible once again through a union between the men and the beauty but it is now the men that carry and sustain the young. It is this that triggers the transition from male to female both physically and arguably socially. This story is not particularly fast paced or action lead but it does intrigue right to the end as you want to see how their society develops and it isn’t an overly long story. It’s just long enough to get you thinking but short enough to make you want more.

If you are fond of dystopian fiction that causes reflection and social commentary than I would recommend picking this story up. You won’t be disappointed.

If you’ve already picked it up, let us know what you think!

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Posted by on February 2, 2016 in Literature Review


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Jonas Jonasson’s ‘The Hundred Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared’

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared

It all starts on the one-hundredth birthday of Allan Karlsson. Sitting quietly in his room in an old people’s home, he is waiting for the party he-never-wanted-anyway to begin. The Mayor is going to be there. The press is going to be there. But, as it turns out, Allan is not… Slowly but surely Allan climbs out of his bedroom window, into the flowerbed (in his slippers) and makes his getaway. And so begins his picaresque and unlikely journey involving criminals, several murders, a suitcase full of cash, and incompetent police. As his escapades unfold, we learn something of Allan’s earlier life in which – remarkably – he helped to make the atom bomb, became friends with American presidents, Russian tyrants, and Chinese leaders, and was a participant behind the scenes in many key events of the twentieth century. Already a huge best-seller across Europe, The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared is a fun and feel-good book for all ages.

I first came across this book four years ago at the end of my work experience placement at Waterstones the summer after my first year at college, I have since finished my second year at college and three years at university so this book has been a long time coming for me. Part of the hold up for me was book guilt, as any Literature student will tell you, when doing a degree whenever you pick up a book to read recreationally you immediately get a sense of guilt as it is time you could be using to read your course texts. Course texts that you know are important, but that you also know won’t be as much fun as the book you’ve chosen for yourself purely for your own pleasure. The other source of my reluctance was my fear that I would be disappointed. Every time I picked up this book to enjoy and was overwhelmed by guilt I put it back down, time ticked by a year, another year, then it had been three years, then four that this book sat on my shelf promising humour and levity but I was scared that I wouldn’t be all that I had anticipated it would be and by this point there was a lot of anticipation.

What initially drew me to this novel was the title. For a start, it’s not often that you get such a long title on a novel but the title itself tells you nothing but a fact, it’s about a 100 year old man who climbs out of a window and disappears. But in saying nothing but that you are immediately dragged into the mystique, you’re imagination immediately reels with the possibilities of the adventures he goes on. So having been drawn in by the title, I read the first page and then two random pages from the body of the text, I was hooked. That was all I needed! I distinctly remember, even after all this time, one of the pages that I turned two depicted the protagonist was breaking out of jail with explosives and a big ball of fire and I remember thinking ‘Yes, this is going to be hilarious’ and proceeded to recommend it to any who would listen. But after four years of waiting, I finally worked up the courage to see if I was right.

I am happy to report that I was! It’s brilliant! Well worth waiting for! I’ve spoken to others who have read the book and reported it to be ‘okay’ or too fantastical but they’re wrong. Ordinarily I’d be diplomatic and say that all opinions are valid and different people would approach a narrative in different ways and therefore relate to the novel differently. Pish! In this case I will say I see no reason why anyone wouldn’t love this book.

The Hundred Year Old Man is absolutely hilarious, so much so that it had me laughing out loud (literally) in public with people looking at me like I was insane but I couldn’t stop, I didn’t want to stop. The hilarity stems from the fact that it is fantastical, that is the beauty. It makes the ridiculous seem possible it a chain of seemingly fluke events that culminate in the best life you could possibly hope to live! Let me explain. The narrative is in two parts (which I’m discovering is one of my favourite styles), one tells Allen’s story after he climbs out of the window and the other tells his 100 year life story that leads him to the care home he has just liberated himself from. Both narratives however are equally ridiculous and wonderful.

Throughout Allan’s life he saved Churchill, met Stalin, Chairman Moa (also rescuing his wife), Kim Il-Sung and comforted a young Kim Jong-Il. He helped Dr Oppenheimer, got drunk with (Vice) President Harry Truman and turned spy for the FBI. And those are just the big names! So it is not so had to believe that once he escapes the docile care home he manages to get himself caught up with the police, crooks, biker gangs and a very well trained elephant! It is well known that the best lies are based in truth and this novel exploits that fact to the best possible advantage, that is what makes Jonas Jonasson a genius.

The beauty of this novel is that Allan has a finger in every historical pie of the last century but in a way that is integral but so innocuous that it would never have been mentioned. Jonasson weaves a version of history that would show that the most influential man to walk the earth would never have been a foot note even though every decision he made would have completely changed the course of history. I know that it seems like I’m being deliberately vague but to say anymore could potentially spoil the experience should you choose to pick up a copy and I would never want to deprive you of a single moment of surprise and awe.

But it is not just Allen’s fantastical and, quite literally, awesome life that makes this novel. The supporting characters are equally brilliant and charming. I’m not even referring to the big names that we would all recognize but the friends that he makes along the way, Einstein’s half brother, a man who used up his and his brother’s inheritance studying at university for decades but never actually graduating, instead changing major at the last exam. The woman with a dog, a shot gun, a bus and an elephant who got lost having wandered off from the circus.

This book is thought of (by me!) as a work of genius! I loved it whole heatedly, I couldn’t put it down, it is clever, humorous, well thought out and a wholly satisfying read. If you haven’t read it yet go and read it now! Buy a copy, beg, borrow or steal a copy! (Disclaimer: I’m not really recommending that you steal a copy, that’s just silly talk. I was a bookseller for goodness sake!)

Once you do, let me know what you think?


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Rita Cameron’s ‘Ophelia’s Muse’

“I’ll never want to draw anyone else but you. You are my muse. Without you there is no art in me.”

With her pale, luminous skin and cloud of copper-coloured hair, nineteen-year-old Lizzie Siddal looks nothing like the rosy-cheeked ideal of Victorian beauty. Working in a London milliner’s shop, Lizzie stitches elegant bonnets destined for wealthier young women, until a chance meeting brings her to the attention of painter and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Enchanted both by her ethereal appearance and her artistic ambitions–quite out of place for a shop girl–Rossetti draws her into his glittering world of salons and bohemian soirees.

Lizzie begins to sit for some of the most celebrated members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, posing for John Everett Millais as Shakespeare’s Ophelia, for William Holman Hunt–and especially for Rossetti, who immortalizes her in countless paintings as his namesake’s beloved Beatrice. The passionate visions Rossetti creates on canvas are echoed in their intense affair. But while Lizzie strives to establish herself as a painter and poet in her own right, betrayal, illness, and addiction leave her struggling to save her marriage and her sense of self.

I was initially drawn to this book for two reason, one of which (as is to be expected) was to find out more about the subjects of the novel the other being that having been introduced to and thoroughly enjoying biographical fiction through The Determined Heart.  Having studied Pre-Raphaelite art and Christina Rossetti briefly at university I was intrigued to know more about them and their lives and this book offered a more interesting way to explore their lives than an ordinary biography or google. Part of me also wanted to see if I would enjoy the genre as much as I did when reading about Mary Shelley or if it was just a fluke; which I can now confidently say it was not. It’s difficult not to draw comparisons between Lizzie Siddal and Mary Shelley as they seem to have lead very similar lives dealing with the same difficulties. Both showed artistic talent in a world that was dominated by men, both had their reputations ruined due to pre-marital affairs, both had to cope with the loss of a child/ren as well as unfaithful husbands. The difference between the two women is that one of them managed to overcome all adversity and the other was crushed by it. However, neither are given the recognition they deserve for their the accomplishments they achieved in spite of the difficult lives they lead.

In this particular novel, Rita Cameron adopts a very relaxed style of narrative that occasionally can leave the writing feeling in authentic but mostly allowing the reader to better connect with the storyline and characters. It is clearly very well researched but as with all biographical fictions you are left wondering how much is accurate and how much is embellished as it is impossible to know what a person was truly thinking at any one moment in their lives or the exact wording of a private conversation. However, at the end of the book there is a very informative and insightful Q/A session with Cameron explaining her interest and writing influences. For example, I found it interesting to note that when researching for the book she began by looking at all the paintings and works of the characters featured in order to gain an impression of them, a truth that shines across time through their work, before looking at biographies and letters etc. She states that her particular method was to effectively use factual biographical events to structure the novel but the private scenes between characters where born out of her impression of the people themselves gained through their works. To have this insight into the writer and the writer’s processes, especially as a début author, I found not only invaluable but also integral to my understanding of the novel itself. The Q/A puts to bed any unease you feel about how much of the story you can take to heart as fact or just another fiction.

When looking at this period in art the focus is largely dominated by the Pre-Raphaelite ‘Brotherhood’ rather than ‘Sisterhood’ as I’ve seen it described on occasion. Therefore it is wonderfully refreshing to have the focus shifted from the pioneering men to the revolutionary women, more revolutionary in fact as it was seen as just an idle past time for women rather than an actual worthy pursuit. However, once again I can’t help feeling rankled by the inequality and often times injustice foisted upon women. Rather than tear off on a rant about how unfair the way of the world was, I will instead accept that there is nothing that any of us can do to change that period (or any) period in history and instead be thankful for all that has happened in between then and now to try to address the imbalance. However, I will mention that one of the things that shocked me was the way in which women were treated by the medical profession, perhaps I shouldn’t have been shocked but there you have it. Lizzie Siddal often suffered from ailing health for one reason or another and was seen by many doctors which Cameron includes in her life story. However, it is the idea that many of the doctors just sent her off with a handful of drugs and said ‘There, there, you must be tired. Stop painting, it’s too hard on you, it’s a men’s pursuit anyway and get some rest. Perhaps go for a walk, you’ll be fine’. Yes, I know at this point I’m once again supposed to say, society wasn’t as advanced as it is now they didn’t know any better, I should judge history by modern norms but come on! But fine a shall say no more on the subject, just that although I know that I’m not supposed to dwell on these things I do anyway and there’s nothing you can do to stop me! So there!

What I did enjoy about the novel was the ‘supporting cast’ if you will, the other characters/artists that float in and out of the her life and therefore the story. Why I loved it was because you get the impression that they all have their own stories to tell but because they are not the focus of the novel their appearances are more like cameos. Almost as if a person’s life is like a corridor that you’re wandering down and you come across a door with someone else’s name on it, you could choose to open it and wander down their corridor or stick with the one you’re on. For example, Lizzie’s life story intersects with John Millais, the effects of which change her life forever, but then his name is brought up here and their in passing. Such as his affair with and subsequent marriage to Effie Grey, about whom a movie was not long ago released, but because the story is focused on Lizzie, that particular storyline is just let go. I love the idea that each artist has their own story that intertwines with all the others but is fundamentally its own. If Rita Cameron were to write a similar book for each of them as a collection I’d read every one. But once again I’m rambling. But I will say that Rita Cameron leaves you with a desire to know more, see more and read more which is what I think an enjoyable novel should do, the moment you close the last page you want to open another. I enjoyed and was thoroughly moved but this novel, I personally can’t wait to see what Cameron does next!

The novel is out on the 29/09/15, so let me know what you think?

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Posted by on September 8, 2015 in Literature Review


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Paula Hawkins’ ‘The Girl on the Train’

Rachel catches the same commuter train every morning. She knows it will wait at the same signal each time, overlooking a row of back gardens. She’s even started to feel like she knows the people who live in one of the houses. ‘Jess and Jason’, she calls them. Their life – as she sees it – is perfect. If only Rachel could be that happy.

And then she sees something shocking. It’s only a minute until the train moves on, but it’s enough.

Now everything’s changed. Now Rachel has a chance to become a part of the lives she’s only watched from afar.

Now they’ll see; she’s much more than just the girl on the train…

Girl on the Train has been one of the hottest books of the year and so from a bookseller’s perspective I wanted to know what all the hype was about and more importantly if it was deserved. At Waterstones, we had been advertising Disclaimer by Renée Knight as the book to go for if you loved Girl on the Train, I read them the other way around but figured the theory would still apply. I will point out though that I do not advise that young females read this particular book whilst on the train as I did, I was going away for the weekend which meant I had to take a long train journey there and back which left me open to some very strange looks (one stranger actually started talking to me!). However, now that I’ve read them both I completely understand why they’ve been paired together, both have mysteries and twists that you don’t quite expect to see coming. What I like about both is that they are not like your average mystery novels in the pursuit of a criminal, trying to get to the bottom of a gruesome murder in an established format but instead is more about the individual characters and perspective even going so far as to have the different characters voice themselves individually.

We meet Rachel on the commute home on a Friday focusing her attention out of the window to see if she can catch a glimpse of the couple she has come to idolise in an effort to distract herself from the disaster that is her own house. That is until she reads an article stating that the Megan, whom she’s named ‘Jess’, has been reported missing and that the police suspect the husband, ‘Jason’, is responsible. Rachel, having become so attached to the perfect couple she’s created in her mind, can’t possibly believe that he would have anything to do with it at first tenuously involves herself in order to clear his name but is slowly sucked further and further in as it makes her feel more and more estimable. The more we get to know Rachel and Megan the more we come to realise that nothing is as it seems and everyone lies, even to themselves.

What makes Girl on the Train standout is its ability to confront your assumptions. Reading the synopsis and then the book itself is a bit like watching The Sixth Sense (I apologise if you’ve not seen it already) where you get to the end and think ‘hang on! That’s not right’ only to go back and see that nothing was technically misleading. The blurb for this story gives an impression that is not necessarily same as the one you are given by the story itself but at the same time not inaccurate. However, that is the case throughout the book as there are lots of little details that you take for granted until they are shown to be completely different later on. Hawkins is the master of slowly introducing salient details that can completely change events and perspectives. I know it seems as though I’m trying to sound as cryptic and evasive as possible but it truly is a difficult concept to explain without giving too much away. The narrative is told by various women featured, in first person but it also spans different time frames. Predominantly the story is told by the girl on the train in the present, as well as ‘Jess’ from an earlier timeline before she is reported missing.

What I love most about this story is that it is that the mystery is really that of human nature, the mystery of what has happened to ‘Jess’ is secondary to that, it is just the scenario in which we observe these characters. Hawkins explores jealousy, abuse, addiction, relationships as well as exploring different character types. It wasn’t until I finished the book that I realised that there is no one good character, not one good person and no-one that is blameless. Girl on the Train was ‘unputdownable’ for me, I was pulled through from beginning to end in the space of two days because I honestly had no idea what would be revealed next!

I would recommend this book if you are bored of formulaic, run of the mill thrillers and want something with strong characterisation that tries to reflect how transient and complex life can be. It’s currently out in hardback, paperback available in January next year.

Have you already got your hands on a copy? What did you think?

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Posted by on July 23, 2015 in Literature Review


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Antoinette May’s ‘The Determined Heart’

The Determined Heart: The Tale of Mary Shelley and Her Frankenstein

The Determined Heart reveals the life of Mary Shelley in a story of love and obsession, betrayal and redemption.

The daughter of political philosopher William Godwin and feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, Mary Shelley had an unconventional childhood populated with the most talented and eccentric personalities of the time. After losing her mother at an early age, she finds herself in constant conflict with a resentful stepmother and a jealous stepsister. When she meets the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, she falls deeply in love, and they elope with disastrous consequences. Soon she finds herself destitute and embroiled in a torturous love triangle as Percy takes Mary’s stepsister as a lover. Over the next several years, Mary struggles to write while she and Percy face ostracism, constant debt, and the heartbreaking deaths of three children. Ultimately, she achieves great acclaim for Frankenstein, but at what cost?

Most people you speak to will have heard of Frankenstein and some may even be aware that it was born out of boredom on a rainy evening when Lord Byron and the Shelleys attempted to entertain themselves by creating and telling scary stories. But very few of us really know very much else about its creator, Mary Shelley, the woman behind the monster. For example, I for one did not know that she was the daughter of such radical and influential parents. I also did not know what a difficult life she lead in her late teens and into her early adulthood. In this biography Antoinette May manages to both depict the events of Shelley’s life but at the same time illustrate key moments that helped to shape the novel that would go on to immortalise her forever. But unlike most biographies, May does not just give accounts of her life supported by evidence, she quite literally tells us the story of Mary Shelley’s life up until the age of roughly 25.

Mary Shelley led a life that would leave most broken, by the age of 21 she had had an affair, married, become estranged from her family, lost 3 children, her sister and her husband as well as her step-sister’s two children (one of which was also her husband’s), as well as writing Frankenstein among other things. In the space of two decades she went through more than most do in a life time but still found the strength and courage to continue to live a full life. However, because her life is depicted as a narrative, you become invested in her life as a character. May writes the story with very little emotional inflection from the narrator as none is warranted, she just writes the story as it was rather than asking for your pity or empathy, but it is very difficult not to give it as you watch the characters go through life changing events time after time. Another way in which this story is not your typical biography is in that it does not just tell the story of Mary Shelley’s life, but also sometimes delves into the the lives of the other characters in order to illustrate how they had an impact of Shelley’s life. Characters such as Lord Byron, Claire Clairmont, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft who had a considerable influence on her.

Although there is no explicit disclaimer stating the authenticity of the events in the story, it is billed as a biography and the source list at the end is extensive so that you do feel comfortable suggesting that these are in fact accurate depictions. However, I found the story to be so intriguing and unbelievable that I was compelled to do some research for myself and everything that I found was concurrent with May’s depictions. On the whole, this biography is very compelling especially as I don’t often find myself interested in reading non-fiction recreationally but this one in particular is so well written that it strikes a very happy balance between fiction and non-fiction. But more than that, what I liked about this book was the subject matter; I never expected the author’s life to be so interesting and really put my own life (as I myself am 21) into perspective.

As heart-wrenching as her story is, I’m glad to have gotten to know Mary Shelley, the woman rather than the writer, better. I couldn’t’ put it down, at first to find out what happened next and then because I didn’t want to abandon her. I would throughly recommend this tale of perseverance. Keep an eye out for The Determined Heart when it comes out in September this year if you’re looking for something compelling, earthy and heartbreaking.

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Posted by on July 21, 2015 in Literature Review


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