Arundhati Roy’s Back with a New Novel, 20 Years After The God of Small Things

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The literary world rejoiced this week as Arundhati Roy, winner of the 1997 Booker Prize for her debut novel The God of Small Things, announced she will publish a new piece of fiction in 2017 entitled The Ministry of Utmost Happiness.

Speaking in a Hamish Hamilton UK and Penguin India press release, Arundhati expressed her joy that “the mad souls (even the wicked ones) in The Ministry of Utmost Happiness have found a way into the world, and that I have found my publishers.”

Although little is known about the novel as of yet, its editors Simon Prosser (Hamish Hamilton) and Meru Gokhale (Penguin India) have been generous with their praise, calling their association with the book “both a pleasure and an honour” and stating the text is “one of the finest we have read in recent times.” David Godwin, the agent managing the acquisition of rights to the book, added that “only Arundhati could have written this novel. Utterly original. It has been 20 years in the making, and [is] well worth the wait.”

If you’re unfamiliar with Arundhati Roy’s work, then The God of Small Things is well worth a read. It tells the story of Rahel and Esthappen, fraternal twins full of secrets whose varying experiences of the laws of Love – that is, “who should be loved, and how… and how much” – have left them damaged and traumatised, with one sibling living in silence and the other being left in a state of insatiable emptiness. The end result is somewhat difficult to describe: the novel functions as both political fable and psychological family drama, yet its overall effect is more akin to that of a fairytale, or perhaps a half-forgotten dream.

Time is splintered and disordered meaning Roy’s text constantly meanders, but these tangents and side-steps can be easily forgiven as readers are kept well-entertained along the way. Revelations are staggered between sentences that are repeated like mantras, giving the narrative a sure and steady rhythm not unlike poetry, and although there are times at which the author’s rich and evocative language can become somewhat overwhelming, one cannot help but become completely immersed in the sights, sounds, smells and sensations that Roy so adeptly describes.

If this doesn’t really sound like your cup of tea, it’s worth noting that Roy is also a prolific political and cultural writer – her non-fiction works, tackling everything from Gandhi’s racism and freedom of the press to femininity and India’s nuclear program, are available in most good bookstores.

(Image: Penguin Random House UK)

13 Creepy Reads for Halloween

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With only three weeks to go before spooky celebrations get underway, I’ve got Halloween on the brain. I love the idea of Halloween, because I love scary stories… and let’s face it, All Hallows Eve is the perfect backdrop for them. Think about it: the wind’s howling like it’s being beaten, there are autumn leaves strewn everywhere, the streets are lost to shadows, and there’s that ever-present chance that just around the corner, something awful is going reach out and touch you…

Yes, okay, that ‘something awful’ is most likely to be a small child in an elaborate costume who wants sweets, but that’s not the point. Halloween, for me, is all about embracing the deliciousness of fear – it’s a night when anything can happen, and you think twice about ignoring that strange bump in the night.

In honour of the occasion, I’ve put together a list of thirteen scary stories that are well worth a read this Halloween. If, like me, you love a fright, why not give one of these a try and spook yourself silly?

#1 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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If you’re looking for a story to give you the chills, then look no further… Shelley’s Frankenstein is a classic for a reason. Inspired by a challenge to write a short ghost story by the great Lord Byron, Shelley claims to have subsequently dreamt of a scientist who galvanises life from the bones he has collected in charnel houses. Enter Viktor Frankenstein.

Shelley’s story follows the long and tragic chain of events that are set into motion by the ‘birth’ of the scientist’s monster, after which Frankenstein must watch his creation destroy everything he loves, bringing him to the brink of madness. This is a tale of friendship, hubris and horror – an oldie, but most definitely a ‘goodie.’ Shelley is credited by many as the producer of one of the first great works of science fiction and, after reading her debut, I am sure you will be inclined to agree.

#2 The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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Ah, another classic. Jackson’s archetypal story of the creepy, old haunted house on the hill might sound cliché, but you should let her off given that this story is the original that inspired oh so many copies and adaptations! Jackson is a master of tension and suspense, and certainly knows how to tell a good ghost story – there are quite a few moments reading this book where every hair on the back of my neck stood on end.

The novel follows four characters in search of a paranormal experience wherein, at first, all seems to be well. However, soon enough, strange things start to happen. Due to the unreliability of the characters and the unwavering presence of the place, Hill House (the setting for the novel) becomes practically a character in itself, and it is perhaps here that Jackson really works her magic – whilst you’re reading it, the quirks of your own surroundings suddenly become a lot harder to ignore… is that really rain on the window, or the gentle tapping of fingernails? Is the house creaking because its old, or is there really someone up there? Anyone who can get me thinking like that is a genius in my book… I don’t scare easily.

#3 The Collector by John Fowles

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Fowles weaves a sinister tale of obsession and abduction, told from the perspective of loner and butterfly collector, Frederick Clegg. Clegg develops an obsession with a beautiful Art student called Miranda and, not wanting to be lonely anymore, one day decides to “collect” her. You probably think you can guess the rest, more or less, but Fowles still has a few plot twists up his sleeve…

What is so impressive about this book is the way in which Fowles portrays his central character – even Miranda, as his captive, views him with both scorn and pity, although she is unable to love him in any kind of real way. Miranda, too, is far from perfect – Fowles himself declares that she is an “arrogant… liberal-humanist slob”. Subsequently, what follows is a story wherein the lines between victim and attacker become blurred, and where nothing is quite what it seems. If you’re in the mood for a horror story that is simultaneously tense, frightening and sad, then this book is well worth a read.

#4 The Thing on the Doorstep, and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft

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‘The Thing on the Doorstep’ is Lovecraft at his finest, and it’s a great place to start if you’re unfamiliar with his work. The protagonist, Daniel Upton, narrates the woeful tale of how he came to murder his best friend… or did he? Lovecraft has been credited as the godfather of horror, and modern writers like King and Barker offer Lovecraft’s work much acclaim, even going so far as to say that horror as we know it would never have existed without him.

After reading a few of Lovecraft’s stories, I would challenge anyone not to look twice at that funny-looking shadow in the periphery of your vision…. then again, I’m one of those people that would never run upstairs if a killer was after me. That is partly because I live on the ground floor, but mostly because I learn from these stories. So, just remember this Halloween: if it walks like your friend and talks like your friend, it’s probably a demon occupying your friend’s skin and you should get out of there, quick, before you suffer the same fate!! *ahem* Better safe than sorry.

#5 The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

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Forget ghosts; forget werewolves; forget vampires – Shakespeare figured out early on that the demons are all here, because the real demons are us. That’s a lesson not lost on Banks. Frank, his central character, is isolated from the world, fearing how it sent his brother mad, and resenting them because he is impotent (after what he believes was a childhood castration in a vicious dog attack).

Frank occupies his time undertaking a series of sadistic rituals, one of which involves the ‘Wasp Factory’ referred to in the title, which is a huge clock face encased in a glass box. Behind each of the twelve numerals is a trap which leads to a different ritual death (such burning, crushing, or drowning in Frank’s urine). Frank believes the death ‘chosen’ by the wasp predicts something about the future.

The horror is his novel is not created by something that goes bump in the night – that, perhaps, is what is most unsettling about it. If you’re unfamiliar with Banks’ work, I would thoroughly recommend this book. If, however, you prefer science fiction, he also writes in this genre under the name Iain M. Banks, and his stories are just as unsettling.

#6 Dracula by Bram Stoker

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Well, you can’t really have a Halloween reading list without Dracula on it, can you? Don’t let a few dodgy films and Stephanie Meyer novels put you off the vampire genre – vampirism taps into an almost instinctual fear we possess (the fear of being neither living nor dead – something unnatural and limitless, like a God), and no work of fiction has explored that better than Stoker’s work.

Is it dated? Yes, of course it is, it was written in 1897! Does that matter? I really don’t think so. The approach taken to the storytelling – a combination of diary entries, prose, and newspaper cuttings – remains to this day novel and intriguing. Although the format has been copied several times (King, for instance, attempted something similar in ‘Salem’s Lot and openly acknowledges Dracula as his inspiration), no one does it better than Stoker. This novel has plenty to offer, and it’s a perfect choice for a good read this Halloween. What more do I need to say?

#7 The Shining by Stephen King

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No list of horror stories is complete without at least one offering from the reigning king of horror, Stephen King. Forget the Kubrick film adaptation: this is the real thing. There’s no “here’s Johnny!”, or “all work and no play…”, no silly garden maze or childish voices groaning “REDRUUUUUUUM!”. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kubrick; but the frights he offers are nothing compared to the chills Stephen King can give you.

The Shining follows the story of Jack Torrance, an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic who accepts a position as an off-season caretaker in the Overlook Hotel. Then, after a winter storm leaves he and his family snowbound, the supernatural forces inhabiting the hotel gain enough power to be able to influence Jack’s sanity, leaving his wife and son in incredible danger. This is a story of a battle with the supernatural.

In this novel, King shows how easily the mind can play tricks on us, how we cannot trust even those closest to us when darkness falls, and how vulnerable we all are to sinister forces that lurk in bad places… and make no mistake, the Overlook is a bad place. Perhaps most importantly, though, The Shining shows us why we should never, ever trust topiary animals. Seriously. Don’t believe me? Read the book.

#8 Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

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I warn you, this one is not for the squeamish. Trumbo’s acclaimed anti-war novel explores the horrific fate of Joe Bonham, a young soldier who, after serving in World War I, awakens in a hospital to learn he has lost his arms, legs, and all of his face (including his eyes, ears, teeth, and tongue). However, his mind functions perfectly, effectively rendering him a prisoner in his own body.

This is, effectively, my worst nightmare: he human body becomes a cage for someone’s consciousness, and there is no way out.  In excruciating detail, the novel explains Joe’s failures to commit suicide and to raise awareness of the horrors of war. It remains highly read despite being published as early as 1939 and, once read, is impossible to forget. The book became a rally point for the political left that had opposed involvement in World War II during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact, and serves to this day a powerful reminder of the human casualties of war. If you’ve got the stomach for it, it is well worth a read.

#9 House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

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Step up, step up, all those who like a challenge: of all the novels highlighted in this series of recommendations, easily the most sophisticated offering is Danielewski’s debut novel, House of Leaves. In terms of format and structure, the book is intriguingly unconventional, containing copious footnotes (many of which contain footnotes themselves) including references to fictional books, films and/or articles. Some pages contain only a few words or lines of text, arranged in strange ways to mirror the events in the story, often creating both an agoraphobic and a claustrophobic effect. The novel is also distinctive for its multiple narrators, who interact with each other throughout the story in elaborate and disorienting ways. It is, truly, a work of art as much as it is a work of fiction.

Here’s the thing about House of Leaves: you could simply enjoy it as a horrifying story that could possibly be true, or as a love story on a number of different levels, or as a whole bunch of puzzles and codes and ciphers, or as a satirical critique of academic criticism, or as a unique reading experience that will make you fall back in love with actual paper books… all of these readings stand alone in their validity. However you choose to enjoy it, though, you’ve got to commit to it if you really want to unlock its magic. You have to let the book take hold of you; believe in the world it creates… and when you’re done, you have to know that Danielewski’s novel will probably embed itself deep inside your mind, in some dark, neglected corner, and will stay with you… and if that’s not the recipe for a cracking Halloween novel, I really don’t know what is!

#10 ‘The Midnight Meat Train’, from Books of Blood by Clive Barker

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Of all the stories in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, ‘The Midnight Meat Train’ is by far the goriest and most sinister. The protagonist is a down-and-out man, Leon Kaufman, who falls asleep on a New York City Subway train, later waking at a secret station beyond the end of the line. Worse, the train carriages contain the carcasses of murdered people, who have been hung up on hooks to drain the way cattle are hung in a slaughterhouse. Who is this mysterious butcher, and who does he work for? The answer is enough to make even the strongest of stomachs turn…

All of Clive Barker’s stories are decidedly dark, and so if you like a good horror story but haven’t encountered his work before, I’d recommend investing in all six volumes of the Books of Blood: they are packed full of gruesome tales of hauntings, demons, the undead, and the worst kind of the living. He has a way to getting under your skin; making you look right into the eye of the beast. As with many of these recommendations, though, these stories are not for the faint-hearted!

#11 Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

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Heart-Shaped Box tells the story of aging rock star, Judas Coyne, who spends his retirement collecting morbid memorabilia such as a witch’s confession, a real snuff film and, after being sent an e-mail directly about the item online, a dead man’s suit. He is told by the seller that the old man’s spirit is attached to this funeral suit, and that the ghost will go wherever it does. Thus, buying this suit would effectively be buying a poltergeist – and this is an opportunity Judas simply cannot pass up. Cue scary music.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a straight-up ghost story, though: the narrative offers by Hill here is full of darkness, anger and the desire for revenge. It is subsequently a story about consequences, rather than simply of supernatural spirits. If you’re a Stephen King fan, then I’d heartily recommend that you see what his son has to offer. There might be a new King of horror in the family…

#12 The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

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Beukes’ novel, set in Depression-era Chicago, follows the story of a drifter named Harper Curtis, who finds a key to a house that grants him access to other points in time. Cool, right? Wrong. Accessing the house comes at great cost: Harper is now tasked with killing all of the ‘Shining Girls’: bright young women throughout history who are burning with potential. Harper thus becomes a time-travelling stalker, following women in different eras and taking their lives.

The turning point comes when, in 1989, one of his victims – Kirby Mazrachi – survives. Being a fiercely bright young woman, Kirby decides to track down her attempted killer, and thus starts to hunt him back. What follows is a fascinating game of cat and mouse, in which the hunter becomes the hunted and the victim becomes the one with all the power. Beukes shows us all why you should never mess with a girl with potential – it’s too hard to get the best of her. There’s a moral we can all get behind!

#13 Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

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Don’t let the film adaptation of this novel put you off: Lindqvist’s novel is deliciously creepy and sinister, and deals with such hard-hitting issues such as existential anxiety, fatherlessness, alcoholism, school bullying, paedophilia, child transgenderism, and murder. The story centres on the relationship between a 12-year-old boy called Oskar and his friend, a centuries-old vampire child called Eli who was turned as a child and is therefore stuck forever in a young body and mind. Oskar and Eli develop a close relationship, and Eli helps Oskar fight back against his tormentors. However, if you think this is a simple undead friendship story, think again….

Throughout the book their relationship gradually becomes closer, and they reveal more of themselves and in particular fragments of Eli’s human life, where we learn that the most dangerous desires cannot even be eradicated by death. This is deeply unsettling stuff, but makes for compelling reading. If you love a good Swedish horror story, why not give Lindqvist’s novel a try this Halloween?

(Images: Amazon UK)

13 Creepy Reads for Halloween: Installments #12 & #13

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13HalloweenReads2With only a couple of days to go before spooky celebrations get underway, I’ve got Halloween on the brain. I love the idea of Halloween, because I love scary stories… and let’s face it, All Hallows Eve is the perfect backdrop for them. Think about it: the wind’s howling like it’s being beaten, there are autumn leaves strewn everywhere, the streets are lost to the shadows, and there’s that ever-present chance that just around the corner, something awful is going reach out and touch you…

Yes, okay, that ‘something awful’ is most likely to be a small child in an elaborate costume who would very much like some sweets, but that’s not the point. Halloween, for me, is all about embracing the deliciousness of fear – it’s a night when anything can happen, and you think twice about ignoring that strange bump in the night.

In honour of the occasion, I’ve put together a list of thirteen scary stories that are well worth a read this Halloween. If, like me, you love a fright, why not give one of these a try and spook yourself silly?


#12 The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

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Beukes’ novel is simply one of the most compelling books I’ve ever read. Set in Depression-era Chicago, it follows the story of a drifter named Harper Curtis, who finds a key to a house that grants him access to other points in time. Cool, right? Wrong. Accessing the house comes at great cost: Harper is now tasked with killing all of the ‘Shining Girls’: bright young women throughout history who are burning with potential. Harper thus becomes a time-travelling stalker, following women in different eras and taking their lives.

The turning point comes when, in 1989, one of his victims – Kirby Mazrachi – survives. Being a fiercely bright young woman, Kirby decides to track down her attempted killer, and thus starts to hunt him back. What follows is a fascinating game of cat and mouse, in which the hunter becomes the hunted and the victim becomes the one with all the power. Beukes shows us all why you should never mess with a girl with potential – it’s too hard to get the best of her. There’s a moral we can all get behind!


#13 Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

lettherightonein

I know this isn’t the first time I’ve said this, but don’t let the film adaptation of this novel put you off: Lindqvist’s novel is deliciously creepy and sinister, and deals with such hard-hitting issues such as existential anxiety, fatherlessness, alcoholism, school bullying, paedophilia, child transgenderism, and murder. The story centres on the relationship between a 12-year-old boy called Oskar and his friend, a centuries-old vampire child called Eli. Eli lives with an older man named Håkan, a former teacher who was fired when caught with possession of child pornography and has since become a vagrant. It is soon revealed that Eli is a vampire who was turned as a child and is therefore stuck forever in a young body and mind. Oskar and Eli develop a close relationship, and Eli helps Oskar fight back against his tormentors. However, if you think this is a simple undead friendship story, think again….

Throughout the book their relationship gradually becomes closer, and they reveal more of themselves and in particular fragments of Eli’s human life. Among the details revealed is that Eli is a boy who was castrated when he was turned into a vampire over 200 years ago. However, Eli dresses in female clothing and is perceived by outsiders as a young girl. Håkan serves Eli, whom he loves, by procuring blood from the living, fighting against his conscience and choosing victims whom he can physically trap, but who are not too young. Eli gives him money for doing this, though Håkan makes it clear he would do it for nothing if Eli allowed them to be physically intimate. This is a desire which cannot even be eradicate by death, and the novel goes on to show…

This is deeply unsettling stuff, but makes for compelling reading. If you love a good Swedish horror story, why not give Lindqvist’s novel a try this Halloween?

(Images: Amazon)

13 Creepy Reads for Halloween: Installments #10 & #11

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13HalloweenReads2With less than a week to go before spooky celebrations get underway, I’ve got Halloween on the brain. I love the idea of Halloween, because I love scary stories… and let’s face it, All Hallows Eve is the perfect backdrop for them. Think about it: the wind’s howling like it’s being beaten, there are autumn leaves strewn everywhere, the streets are lost to the shadows, and there’s that ever-present chance that just around the corner, something awful is going reach out and touch you…

Yes, okay, that ‘something awful’ is most likely to be a small child in an elaborate costume who would very much like some sweets, but that’s not the point. Halloween, for me, is all about embracing the deliciousness of fear – it’s a night when anything can happen, and you think twice about ignoring that strange bump in the night.

In honour of the occasion, I’ve put together a list of thirteen scary stories that are well worth a read this Halloween. If, like me, you love a fright, why not give one of these a try and spook yourself silly?


#10 ‘The Midnight Meat Train’, from Books of Blood by Clive Barker

booksofblood

Of all the stories in Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, ‘The Midnight Meat Train’ is by far the goriest and most sinister. The protagonist is a down-and-out man, Leon Kaufman, who falls asleep on a New York City Subway train, later waking at a secret station beyond the end of the line. Worse, the train carriages contain the carcasses of murdered people, who have been hung up on hooks to drain the way cattle are hung in a slaughterhouse. Who is this mysterious butcher, and who does he work for? The answer is enough to make even the strongest of stomachs turn…

All of Clive Barker’s stories are decidedly dark, and so if you like a good horror story but haven’t encountered his work before, I’d recommend investing in all six volumes of the Books of Blood: they are packed full of gruesome tales of hauntings, demons, the undead, and the worst kind of the living. He has a way to getting under your skin; making you look right into the eye of the best. As with many of these recommendations, though, these stories are not for the faint-hearted!


#11 Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

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Joe Hill is actually a pseudonym – the writer of this book is none other than Stephen King’s son… and I think it is safe to say that he has inherited his parents’ talents (as his mother, Tabitha, is also a successful writer). Heart-Shaped Box tells the story of aging rock star, Judas Coyne, who spends his retirement collecting morbid memorabillia such as a witch’s confession, a real snuff film and, after being sent an e-mail directly about the item online, a dead man’s suit. He is told by the seller that the old man’s spirit is attached to this funeral suit, and that the ghost will go wherever it does. Thus, buying this suit would effectively be buying a poltergeist – and this is an opportunity Judas simply cannot pass up. Cue scary music.

Don’t be fooled into thinking this is a straight-up ghost story, though: the narrative offers by Hill here is full of darkness, anger and the desire for revenge. It is subsequently a story about consequences, rather than simply of supernatural spirits. It also, interestingly, gives a window into the old culture of rock ‘n’ roll; of drugs, booze and women; late nights, fast cars and constant parties. This makes it grittier and all the more real.

If you’re a Stephen King fan, then I’d heartily recommend that you see what his son has to offer. There might be a new King of horror in the family…

(Images: Amazon)

13 Creepy Reads for Halloween: Installments #7, #8, & #9

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13HalloweenReads2With less than a week to go before spooky celebrations get underway, I’ve got Halloween on the brain. I love the idea of Halloween, because I love scary stories… and let’s face it, All Hallows Eve is the perfect backdrop for them. Think about it: the wind’s howling like it’s being beaten, there are autumn leaves strewn everywhere, the streets are lost to the shadows, and there’s that ever-present chance that just around the corner, something awful is going reach out and touch you…

Yes, okay, that ‘something awful’ is most likely to be a small child in an elaborate costume who would very much like some sweets, but that’s not the point. Halloween, for me, is all about embracing the deliciousness of fear – it’s a night when anything can happen, and you think twice about ignoring that strange bump in the night.

In honour of the occasion, I’ve put together a list of thirteen scary stories that are well worth a read this Halloween. If, like me, you love a fright, why not give one of these a try and spook yourself silly?


#7 The Shining by Stephen King

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No list of horror stories is complete without at least one offering from the reigning king of horror, Stephen King, and this is one of my absolute favourites. Forget the Kubrick film adaptation: this is the real thing. There’s no “here’s Johnny!”, or “all work and no play…”. There’s no silly garden maze, or silly childish voices groaning “REDRUUUUUUUM!”. Don’t get me wrong, I love Kubrick; but the frights he offers are nothing compared to the chills Stephen King can give you.

The Shining follows the story of Jack Torrance, an aspiring writer and recovering alcoholic who accepts a position as an off-season caretaker in the Overlook Hotel. As the job means remaining in the hotel all winter, Jack’s wife and young son family accompany him on this job. Danny, Jack’s son, possesses “the shining”: an array of psychic abilities that allow him to see the horrific things that have happened in the hotel. Then, after a winter storm leaves them snowbound, the supernatural forces inhabiting the hotel gain enough power to be able to influence Jack’s sanity, leaving his wife and son in incredible danger. This is a story of a battle with the supernatural.

In this novel, King demonstrates his uncanny ability to vocalise the most primitive of our fears, and give a face to the darkest aspects of the subconscious. He shows how easily the mind can play tricks on us, how we cannot trust even those closest to us when darkness falls, and how vulnerable we all are to sinister forces that lurk in bad places… and make no mistake, the Overlook is a bad place.

Perhaps most importantly, though, The Shining shows us why we should never, ever trust topiary animals.

Seriously.

Don’t believe me? Read the book.


#8 Johnny Got His Gun by Dalton Trumbo

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I warn you, this one is not for the squeamish. Trumbo’s acclaimed anti-war novel explores the horrific fate of Joe Bonham, a young soldier who, after serving in World War I, awakens in a hospital to learn he was caught in the blast of an exploding artillery shell and has subsequently lost his arms, legs, and all of his face (including his eyes, ears, teeth, and tongue). However, his mind functions perfectly, effectively rendering him a prisoner in his own body.

This is, effectively, my worst nightmare. The human body becomes a cage for someone’s consciousness, and there is no way out. Trumbo does not flinch or shy from the subject, though. In excruciating detail, the novel explains Joe’s failures to commit suicide and to raise awareness of the horrors of war.

That is, perhaps, the reason why this novel was so highly acclaimed – it is at once horrific and eye-opening. It remains highly read despite being published as early as 1939 and, once read, is impossible to forget. The book became a rally point for the political left that had opposed involvement in World War II during the period of the Hitler-Stalin pact, and serves to this day a powerful reminder of the human casualties of war. If you’ve got the stomach for it, it is well worth a read.


#9 House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski

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Step up, step up, all those who like a challenge: of all the novels highlighted in this series of recommendations, easily the most sophisticated offering is Danielewski’s debut novel, House of Leaves. In terms of format and structure, the book is intriguingly unconventional, containing copious footnotes (many of which contain footnotes themselves!) including references to fictional books, films and/or articles. Some pages contain only a few words or lines of text, arranged in strange ways to mirror the events in the story, often creating both an agoraphobic and a claustrophobic effect. The novel is also distinctive for its multiple narrators, who interact with each other throughout the story in elaborate and disorienting ways. It is, truly, a work of art as much as it is a work of fiction.

The book begins with a first-person narrative by Johnny Truant, a Los Angeles tattoo parlor employee, desperate flat-hunter, and professed unreliable narrator. Truant discovers a manuscript written by the deceased Zampanò, the former elderly tenant of a flat in his friend Lude’s building, which turns out to be an academic study of a documentary film called ‘The Navidson Record’. The rest of the novel incorporates several narratives, including Zampanò’s report on the fictional film; Truant’s autobiographical interjections; a small transcript of part of the film from Navidson’s brother, Tom; a small transcript of interviews of many people regarding ‘The Navidson Record’ by Navidson’s partner, Karen; and occasional brief notes by unidentified editors, all woven together by a mass of footnotes. There is also another narrator, Truant’s mother, whose voice is presented through a self-contained set of letters titled ‘The Whalestoe Letters’. All this interweaves to create one unforgettable story.

Here’s the thing about House of Leaves: you could simply enjoy it as a horrifying story that could possibly be true, or as a love story on a number of different levels, or as a whole bunch of puzzles and codes and ciphers, or as a satirical critique of academic criticism, or as a unique reading experience that will make you fall back in love with actual paper books… all of these readings stand alone in their validity.  The possibilties really are endless here, because the interpretation required is so subjective – the text manages to be whatever you want it to be.

However you choose to enjoy it, though, you’ve got to commit to it if you really want to unlock its magic. You have to let the book take ahold of you; believe in the world it creates… and when you’re done, you have to know that Danielewski’s novel will probably embed itself deep inside your mind, n some dark, neglected corner, and will stay with you. You’ll find yourself closing the cover, wondering if the nightmares will actually come (assuming they haven’t already, that is)… and if that’s not the recipe for a cracking Halloween novel, I really don’t know what is!

(Images: Amazon)

13 Creepy Reads for Halloween: Installments #4, #5 & #6

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With less than a week to go before spooky celebrations get underway, I’ve got Halloween on the brain. I love the idea of Halloween, because I love scary stories… and let’s face it, All Hallows Eve is the perfect backdrop for them. Think about it: the wind’s howling like it’s being beaten, there are autumn leaves strewn everywhere, the streets are lost to the shadows, and there’s that ever-present chance that just around the corner, something awful is going reach out and touch you…

Yes, okay, that ‘something awful’ is most likely to be a small child in an elaborate costume who would very much like some sweets, but that’s not the point. Halloween, for me, is all about embracing the deliciousness of fear – it’s a night when anything can happen, and you think twice about ignoring that strange bump in the night.

In honour of the occasion, I’ve put together a list of thirteen scary stories that are well worth a read this Halloween. If, like me, you love a fright, why not give one of these a try and spook yourself silly?


 #4 The Thing on the Doorstep, and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft

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‘The Thing on the Doorstep’ is Lovecraft at his finest – in my opinion, this is one of his creepiest stories, and it’s a great place to start if you’re unfamiliar with Lovecraft’s work, because it will give you a good idea of what to expect. The protagonist, Daniel Upton, narrates the woeful tale of how he came to murder his best friend… or did he? If you’re familiar with the Cthulhu mythos universe of horror fiction, then the idea of a body-snatcher that may look, sound and move like us but contains something much darker may be expected – admittedly, none of Lovecraft’s stories have happy endings.

He has, however, credited as the godfather of horror, and modern writers like King and Barker offer Lovecraft’s work much acclaim, even going so far as to say that horror as we know it would never have existed without him. Whether you believe that or not, it’s hard to deny that Lovecraft’s stories are imaginative, sinister and deeply unsettling. After reading a few of these, I would challenge anyone not to look twice at that funny-looking shadow in the periphery of your vision…. then again, I’m one of those people that would never run upstairs if a killer was after me. That is partly because I live on the ground floor, but mostly because I learn from these stories.

So, just remember this Halloween: if it walks like your friend and talks like your friend, its probably a demon occupying your friend’s skin and you should get out of there, quick, before you suffer the same fate!!

*ahem* Better safe than sorry. 🙂


#5 The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

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Admittedly, I am a little bias, as this is one of my favourite books (OK, it has a lot of company on that list, but it’s still a favourite) – however, I think I can fairly say that Banks’ novel is truly a work of modern horror. Forget ghosts; forget werewolves; forget vampires – Shakespeare figured out early on that the demons are all here, On Earth, because the real demons are us. That’s a lesson not lost on Banks. Frank, his central character, is isolated from the world, fearing how it sent his brother mad, and resenting them because he is impotent (after what he believes was a childhood castration in a vicious dog attack).

Frank lives on a rural Scottish island and occupies his time undertaking a series of sadistic rituals – one of these involves the ‘Wasp Factory’, referred to in the title, which is a huge clock face encased in a glass box and salvaged from the local dump. Behind each of the twelve numerals is a trap which leads to a different ritual death (such burning, crushing, or drowning in Frank’s urine) for the wasp that Frank puts into the hole at the centre within tubes. Frank believes the death ‘chosen’ by the wasp predicts something about the future. There are also ‘Sacrifice Poles’, upon which hang the bodies and heads of larger animals that Frank has killed and other sacred items. They define and ‘protect’ the borders of Frank’s territory – something which he guards with an array of weapons (from a catapult to pipe bombs and flame throwers) – and allow him to effectively control his part of the island.

The horror is his novel is not created by something that goes bump in the night – that, perhaps, is what is most unsettling about it. If you’re unfamiliar with Banks’ work, I would thoroughly recommend this book. If, however, you prefer science fiction, he also writes in this genre under the name Iain M. Banks, and his stories are just as unsettling.


#6 Dracula by Bram Stoker

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Well, you can’t really have a Halloween reading list without Dracula on it, can you? Don’t let a few dodgy films and Stephanie Meyer novels put you off the vampire genre – vampirism taps into an almost instinctual fear we possess (the fear of being neither living nor dead – something unnatural and limitless, like a God), and no work of fiction has explored that better than Stoker’s work.

Is it dated? Yes, of course it is, it was written in 1897! Does that matter? I really don’t think so. The approach taken to the storytelling – a combination of diary entries, prose, and newspaper cuttings – remains to this day novel and intriguing. Although the format has been copied several times (King, for instance,  attempted something similar in ‘Salem’s Lot and openly acknowledges Dracula as his inspiration), no one does it better than Stoker. For the academics out there, Stoker’s text offers a rich demonstration of colonialism in action, and when read in this light, it is difficult not to sympathise with the vampires (even if their culinary tastes are somewhat primitive). Stoker also offers an interesting portrayal of womanhood, particularly with Mina, who meets all the standards for a Victorian heroine.

Basically, Stoker’s work has plenty to offer, and it’s a perfect choice for a good read this Halloween. What more do I need to say?

(Images: Amazon)

13 Creepy Reads for Halloween: Installments #1, #2 & #3

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13HalloweenReads2

With less than a week to go before spooky celebrations get underway, I’ve got Halloween on the brain. I love the idea of Halloween, because I love scary stories… and let’s face it, All Hallows Eve is the perfect backdrop for them. Think about it: the wind’s howling like it’s being beaten, there are autumn leaves strewn everywhere, the streets are lost to the shadows, and there’s that ever-present chance that just around the corner, something awful is going reach out and touch you…

Yes, okay, that ‘something awful’ is most likely to be a small child in an elaborate costume who would very much like some sweets, but that’s not the point. Halloween, for me, is all about embracing the deliciousness of fear – it’s a night when anything can happen, and you think twice about ignoring that strange bump in the night.

In honour of the occasion, I’m putting together a list of thirteen scary stories (in instalments) that are well worth a read this Halloween. If, like me, you love a fright, why not give one of these a try and spook yourself silly?


 #1 Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

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If you’re looking for a story to give you the chills, then look no further… Shelley’s Frankenstein is a classic for a reason. Inspired by a challenge to write a short ghost story by the great Lord Byron, the then-18 year old Shelley claims to have subsequently dreamt of a scientist who galvanises life from the bones he has collected in charnel houses. She famously stated that: “I saw – with shut eyes, but acute mental vision – I saw the pale student of unhallowed arts kneeling beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out, and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life, and stir with an uneasy, half vital motion.”

She takes the same eerie approach shown here to the narration in her novel, and the results are breathtaking. The reader soon comes to realise that the creator of this patchwork horror, the scientist Victor Frankenstein, has unleashed forces far beyond his control. Shelley’s story follows the long and tragic chain of events that are set into motion by the ‘birth’ of this monster, in which Frankenstein must watch his creation destroy everything he loves, bringing him to the brink of madness.

This is a tale of friendship, hubris and horror – an oldie, but most definitely a ‘goodie’.  The book embodies qualities of both Gothicism and Romanticism, subverting the Biblical myth of creation to create something both beautiful and terrible. Shelley is credited by many as the producer of one of the first great works of science fiction and, after reading her debut, I am sure you will be inclinced to agree. If you’ve never read it before, why not give it a try this Halloween?


#2 The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

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Ah, another classic. Jackson’s archetypal story of the creepy, old haunted house on the hill might sound cliché, but you can let her off for that, given that this story is, in fact, the original that inspired oh so many copies and adaptations! There’s a good reason so many people have copied it – Jackson is a master of tension and suspense, and certainly knows how to tell a good ghost story. There are quite a few moments reading this book where every hair on the back of my neck stood on end. Jackson has certainly earned her title as the creator of one of the most unnerving ghost stories ever written!

The novel follows four characters in search of a paranormal experience wherein, at first, all seems to be well. However, soon enough, strange things start to happen. Interestingly, it never really becomes clear whether any of this is really happening or simply is a product of their imaginations. Due to the unreliability of the characters and the unwavering presence of the place, Hill House (the setting for the novel) becomes practically a character in itself, and it is perhaps here that Jackson really works her magic – whilst you’re reading it, the quirks of your own surroundings suddenly become a lot harder to ignore… is that really rain on the window, or the gentle tapping of fingernails? Is the house creaking because its old, or is there really someone up there?

Anyone who can get me thinking like that is a genius in my book… I don’t scare easily.  If you think this might be your kind of thing, I would thoroughly recommend it!


#3 The Collector by John Fowles

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In his debut, The Collector, Fowles weaves a sinister tale of obsession and abduction, told from the perspective of loner and butterfly collector, Frederick Clegg. Clegg develops an obsession with a beautiful Art student called Miranda and, not wanting to be lonely anymore, one day decides to “collect” her. You probably think you can guess the rest, more or less, but Fowles still has a few plot twists up his sleeve…

What is so impressive about this book is the way in which Fowles portrays his central character – even Miranda, as his captive, views him with both scorn and pity, although she is unable to love him in any kind of real way. Miranda, too, is far from perfect – in the series of philosophical essays that follows this work, The Aristos, Fowles himself declares that she is an “arrogant… liberal-humanist slob”. Subsequently, what follows is a story wherein the lines between victim and attacker become blurred, and where nothing is quite what it seems. If you’re in the mood for a horror story that is simultaneously tense, frightening and sad, then this book is well worth a read.

(Images: Amazon)


Banned Books Week: Recommended Reads #11 & #12

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BANNED

As some of you might already be aware, this week (21st – 27th September 2014) is Banned Books Week. Held annually (usually in the last week of September), this event celebrates our freedom to read and to express ideas, even those books which are considered by some to be unorthodox, offensive and/or unpopular.

To mark this occasion, I thought it would be appropriate to spend some time this week taking a look at a few of the most important, influential, beautiful, and controversial books that, at some point in history, have been banned. My intent here is not necessarily to endorse these books (although, there are some on this list that I believe everyone should read at some point in their lives), but to simply celebrate the fact that we now live in a world where books no longer need to be burned. After all, as Mary Jo Godwin once said, “a truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone”.

So, on to my eleventh and twelfth and considerations of the week…


Book #11: A Clockwork Orange, by Anthony Burgess

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No doubt about it – A Clockwork Orange is a dark book, indeed. Made famous by Kubrick’s film adaptation of the same name, it tells the story of young teenager, Alex, who loves nothing more than a glass of milk-plus, the sounds of Beethoven’s symphonies, and a cheeky bit of ultra-violence when on a night out with his droogs. The novel is largely centred around the ideas of free will and nature versus nurture (or how much of our personality and choices are determined inherently rather than learned), but also wholeheartedly embraces the aestheticisation of violence – that is the depiction of graphic, over-the-top, excessive violence in a stylised, exaggerated fashion. It is for this reason that, when published in 1962, the book was widely banned in the UK and USA.

What many people don’t know about this book is that it is rumoured that Burgess was prompted to write it when trying to understand the motivations of the men who violently attacked him and his wife at their country home – an attack which is mirrored in the opening stages of the novel, wherein a couple are tricked into opening the door, beaten half to death, and the wife violently gang-raped. By telling the story from the youngster’s perspective, Burgess was effectively trying to climb into the head of the men who sought to hurt him and his wife without reason – this is, perhaps, one of the main reasons for him choosing to tell the story is such an unusual and iconic dialogue. The whole book has the greasy, easy feel of slang about it, despite the protagonist’s eloquence, because of Burgess’ introduction of an entirely new vocabulary.

Let’s get one thing straight right now – this book is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. It is gritty and unapologetic, and is not afraid to get it’s hands dirty to tell a good story. There are scenes in it which will never quite leave you. However, if you’ve got the stomach for it, it’s a powerful novel. The only criticism I have of it is the happy ending that Burgess decided to pin onto the end – his way of expressing his hopefulness for the future; that this ultra-violent nature is something which can be grown out of. I prefer Kubrick’s ending, wherein all hope is lost… but then, I never did like a happy ending.


Book #12:
(well, technically, it’s three books, but who’s counting?)
The Lord of The Rings trilogy, by J.R.R. Tolkien

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Thanks to Peter Jackson, you would have to travel pretty far to find someone who has never heard of The Lord of the Rings – with the films inspiring a new generation of readers, these books continue to draw in the crowds when other works of the same age have long been forgotten. It may come as somewhat of a surprise, then, that Tolkien’s classic trilogy, along with The Hobbit, has been banned in many schools and public libraries across America and England.

There are two main reason put forward for this: the first is related to the Hobbits’ smoking habits. It seems a strange criticism, but given the likeness between children and Hobbits, organisations such as the NHS have stated that allowing children to watch or read such material could be detrimental to their health. Now, I have to admit to being highly cynical regarding this ‘monkey see, monkey do’ philosophy that is used to justify criticisms of everything from punk music to violent video games, but for me, this isn’t really a justification to ban such a wonderful set of books. I mean, I read them, but I didn’t immediately set off for the nearest volcano, looking for some jewellery to destroy, now did I?

The other main criticism of the books relates to them being deemed ‘irreligious’, despite the fact that Tolkien was a devout Catholic and that in the Lord of the Rings, he felt he had consciously created a “fundamentally religious and Christian work.”  It is true that the novel contains quite noticeable Christian themes and subtexts, but this apparently has been lost on many, including the Christian schools that have fought so hard to ban these books.

If you’ve never gotten around to reading them, then I warn you, they can feel pretty long when you’re reading them. You will never read about so much damn walking in your entire life. Even the trees walk! However, that said, the characters will charm you, the languages and landscapes will amaze you, and you’ll find yourself sitting up for hours at night, just to stay with the characters a little longer. After all, no one wants to leave a friend in need, and that’s what Frodo and the gang will become – old, dear friends, with whom you once shared a great adventure. Don’t deny yourself the pleasure…

(Images: Amazon)


Want more information on Banned Books Week 2014?
Visit: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/banned


Banned Books Week: Recommended Reads #8, #9 & #10 (Young Readers’ Edition)

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BANNED

As some of you might already be aware, this week (21st – 27th September 2014) is Banned Books Week. Held annually (usually in the last week of September), this event celebrates our freedom to read and to express ideas, even those books which are considered by some to be unorthodox, offensive and/or unpopular.

To mark this occasion, I thought it would be appropriate to spend some time this week taking a look at a few of the most important, influential, beautiful, and controversial books that, at some point in history, have been banned. My intent here is not necessarily to endorse these books (although, there are some on this list that I believe everyone should read at some point in their lives), but to simply celebrate the fact that we now live in a world where books no longer need to be burned. After all, as Mary Jo Godwin once said, “a truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone”.

All of the banned books I have considered so far have really been aimed at an adult-only audience, so I thought I would dedicate this post to looking at content for all the younger readers out there. I know what you’re thinking – who would ban a kid’s book?! The sad truth is that numerous children’s titles feature on the Banned Books list, though the justification for this in many cases is poor.

This is actually something I feel quite strongly about. As a child, I was an avid reader, and was always looking outside my comfort zone for new material – aged 11, I fought (with the assistance of my mother) for the right to own an adult library card, and thus to read whatever I liked, instead of being limited by what the school thought was ‘age appropriate’. I found the idea that books were ‘unsuitable’ for my young, malleable mind illogical and, frankly, quite insulting!

I think adolescence is the perfect time for exploration and new discoveries, as it offers youngsters the opportunity to see the world from different perspectives… that doesn’t mean that they’re going to freak out if they read something challenging, or difficult, or sad. I believe that by limiting the reading material, you are effectively limiting the child.

OK, OK, rant over… I’ll pop my soapbox away! Let’s move on to my eighth, ninth and tenth considerations of the week so far…


Book #8: The Lorax, by Dr Seuss

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The Lorax
is a whimsical little story about a woodland creature, named the Lorax, who lives among the trees. The Once-ler, another little creature in the forest, cuts down trees and uses them for multiple uses. The Lorax quickly realises that the Once-ler is killing the forest, and so persuades him to stop cutting down trees. The End. Sounds like a cutesy, sweet little story with a happy ending, right? So, why oh why would anyone want to ban it?

Well, California didn’t agree. As home of the one of the largest logging industries in the world, certain Californians did not take kindly to The Lorax portraying the foresting industry in an arguably negative way. They felt that this book could potentially persuade children that the logging industry was a bad thing. In the face of increasing worries regarding climate change and the future of our great planet, I would argue that perhaps the children should see logging as a bad thing. After all, until you see a problem, you’re not likely to start thinking about a solution, are you? The sooner we realise that the rate that we are cutting down trees is not sustainable – I know that more trees are planted to compensate for those cut down, but these take too long to grow to full size for the damage done to truly be offset – the sooner we are likely to think of another way of doing things; a better way. If the children are our future, then shouldn’t we let the harsh reality that Earth’s days are numbered start to sink in now?

If you’re not familiar with Dr Seuss, they’re wonderful for younger children. I still keep a book of tales on my shelf, and look back on them with love.


Book #9
(although, technically, this is a series encompassing 7 books…
but let’s not get fussy!):
The Harry Potter Series, by J.K. Rowling

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Yes, I’m serious – Harry Potter, the highest selling children’s books series of all time, was banned throughout America. Why? Well, amongst other reasons, a number of religious groups claimed that the fantasy series about young wizards promoted occultism and paganism, thereby undermining Christian values.

For me, this makes no sense at all. Yes, it’s a fantasy book, and so it contains wizards, dragons, and magic. It also contains one of the strongest examples in recent times of a story where love conquers evil, friendship endures through tragedy, and the good guy wins in the end. We haven’t had a story of such archetypal strength, arguably, since Star Wars! There is a very good reason why adults love these books just as much as the children do.

In literary circles, Rowling is scorned – something which, I’m now ashamed to admit, kept me from reading these books initially (thinking that they were “just for kids”) – and looked down on for her frequent mentioning of candles, stone walls, and stairs, as if somehow this is not ‘creative’ enough. Well – Hogwarts is a castle, what did you expect? Is the language of magic not intriguing (the spells and incantations, the ingredients, the curses, the fairy tales)? Are you not fascinated by the world that she has created; one that could exist beneath the very noses of Muggles like us? I challenge anyone to read these books and not have their inner child cry out to visit Diagon Alley, eat a Chocolate Frog, or ride on a Nimbus 2000.

I actually think (now that I’ve put my intellectual snobbery aside) that the books are actually rather well-written – the storyline is ripe with twists and turns that constantly keep you guessing, you fall in love with the characters right from the start, and there’s not a single loose end left over when you reach the final page. Not many authors can claim such workmanship. The idea that anyone would want to ban these books makes me sad.

If you’ve never read it – whether you’re 4, 14, or 40 – I would thoroughly recommend that you give it a chance. That’s all I ask. You won’t regret it (although, you might need a box of tissues handy, just in case).


Book #10: Winnie the Pooh, by A.A. Milne

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Winnie the Pooh is another childhood favourite: I look back on Pooh, Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore, Owl, Kanga and Roo as old playmates. I can’t quite imagine my childhood without them. However, this classic has been banned in a variety of countries at different points throughout history, including Russia, China, Turkey, and even England and the United States.

So, why would anyone want to ban such a seemingly harmless and charming story about a group of talking animals? Well, in some cases, the very fact that they were talking animals was grounds for an issue – creating such a thing was considered an ‘insult to God’. Piglet came under fire from certain Muslim groups, who claimed that the character was offensive to them (as Piglet is, of course, a pig – an animal considered unclean by the Muslim faith). In the case of the banning in Russia, it occurred because the book had ‘alleged Nazi ties’ (in truth, the ban was based on a single person who was found to own a picture of a swastika-adorned Pooh… apparently, this one case was evidence enough for Russia that Winnie the Pooh was pro-Nazi, and therefore anti-Russia).

In short, all of the bans are pretty absurd. This book teaches the importance of kindness to others, tolerance of those who are different to you, and sticking together through tough times. In my eyes, that’s exactly what children should be being taught. If you’re unfamiliar with Pooh and the gang, I would suggest getting acquainted, especially if you have little ones around – they’ll love both the drawings and the stories!

(Images: Amazon)


Want more information on Banned Books Week 2014?
Visit: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/banned


Banned Books Week: Recommended Reads #6 & #7

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BANNED

As some of you might already be aware, this week (21st – 27th September 2014) is Banned Books Week. Held annually (usually in the last week of September), this event celebrates our freedom to read and to express ideas, even those books which are considered by some to be unorthodox, offensive and/or unpopular.

To mark this occasion, I thought it would be appropriate to spend some time this week taking a look at a few of the most important, influential, beautiful, and controversial books that, at some point in history, have been banned. My intent here is not necessarily to endorse these books (although, there are some on this list that I believe everyone should read at some point in their lives), but to simply celebrate the fact that we now live in a world where books no longer need to be burned. After all, as Mary Jo Godwin once said, “a truly great library contains something in it to offend everyone”.

So, on to my sixth and seventh considerations of the week so far…


Book #6: Cat’s Cradle, by Kurt Vonnegut

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Chances are, you’re already familiar with this particular book – if not, then you’re in for a treat. Published in 1963 (the year after the Cuban missile crisis had brought humanity closer to annihilation than ever before), Vonnegut’s text is a darkly comic exploration of humankind’s ‘condition’, in an age when the world had quite literally gone MAD. The reasons for its censorship in certain Ohio schools in 1972 remain unclear to this day – some believe that its clear anti-war stance was a contributing factor, whereas others believe it was simple blind ignorance and that, in fact, those banning the book hadn’t even bothered to read it (same old story, eh?).

So, why read it? Apart from the fact that it is a literary classic, it also manages to strike the perfect balance between the comic and the bleak that defines an age overshadowed by nuclear anxiety. The phoney religion that Vonnegut cooks up (Bokononism, and the corresponding Books of Bokonon) show how keen human beings are to give over themselves to ‘fate’ or ‘destiny’, even when they are fully aware that such forces are a figment of their imagination. Furthermore, the book makes an increasingly relevant point regarding mankind’s responsibilities in the face of a God that either doesn’t exist, or doesn’t care – that no one is coming to save us, and if someone presses the big red button, BOOM! That’s the end of everything. In Cat’s Cradle, the world ends in ice instead of fire, but this too can be understood as a metaphor for nuclear winter – the consequence of setting off nuclear bombs.

Vonnegut also makes some rather interesting points about the nature of scientific exploration – that, often, it is devoid of morality. The deadly substance in this novel, ice-nine, was created to solve a relatively mundane military problem (i.e. how to solidify mud so that troops can easily pass over it, instead of getting bogged down), and the other uses for it were all-but-ignored in the quest for knowledge – the fact that the substance, if misused, would contaminate the world’s water supply is considered irrelevant to the puzzle at hand. That ‘knowledge’ brings about the end of the world… so, as you can see, the metaphors for nuclear war are multitudinous here.

The book does have its critics:  some have described Vonnegut’s characters as no more than caricatures, and think his disparaging portrayal of a greedy, selfish, thoughtless human race is too harsh and polarised to be fully believable. For instance, his Dr Hoenikker – the archetypal nuclear scientist – is devoid of any conscience whatsoever, even when faced with the consequences of his creation. His three offspring – Frank, Angela and Newt – are also used to demonstrate just how easily an individual’s morality can fail. All three characters barter away their portion of ice-nine for a governmental position, attractive husband and a week on Cape Cod with a Russian midget respectively, then reassure themselves that the decision was a good one, because they themselves benefitted from the transaction. They, too, fail to take responsibility for placing the ice-nine in the hands of those who will bring about the end of all things.

However, I think Vonnegut manages to capture the absurdity of the situation quite well – that these people are, effectively, squabbling over the right to own the planet’s doom… they will kill, lie, cheat and steal for it, because it represents power and, really, what does humankind desire more than life? Power. And the squabble for this power, dear friends, may one day be what kills us all off. For this reason, if for no other, the novel remains relevant as ever, in my opinion.


Book #7: 1984, by George Orwell

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What can I say that hasn’t been said already? If you’ve never read Orwell’s 1984 before – READ IT! It is quite simply one of the greatest, well-crafted, most devastating books you will ever read in your lifetime. It takes a long, hard look at some of the most important issues of our time: surveillance by the state, class divides, linguistic limitations, power/control, domination/submission, and war. As time passes, the novel seems to get closer and closer to the truth – which, actually, is the most terrifying thing about it.

For instance, Orwell adeptly demonstrates how language is used by those in authority to control its users, and just how easily we surrender that control. Those in power in Orwell’s novel have complete control over all of the information the population is given. This is a pertinent point, given our own reliance on the media for information in reality, and the increasingly digital nature of our communications and records of history. In 1984, Big Brother exploits the temporary nature of the Internet by effectively re-writing Oceania’s history again and again in order to fabricate an eternal war. So, when going into war with Eurasia, history is re-written to declare that Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia.

The public are encouraged to hate their enemy by watching visual propaganda at scheduled times each day. Any deviants from the political and behavioural norms approved by the Ministry are rooted out by the ‘Thought Police’ – with children being some of its most fervent soldier – and taken to Room 101. There, they are broken; they will abandon their own logic and reason; give up on love, hope, and defiance; believe that two plus two does not make four.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is now the language used by those in the novel has begun to shrink, into something known as ‘Newspeak’. Unnecessary and undesirable words are eliminated from the language and, by proxy, are also eliminated from the collective consciousness (a fascinating theory – see Sapir-Whorf’s hypothesis of linguistic relativity and determinism for more information about this idea). For example, the word ‘free’ is stripped of its political connotations in a bid to eliminate freedom itself. So, in ‘Newspeak’ the speaker is unable to express the concept of freedom of speech; political freedom; the freedom to disagree. It merely serves to describe the absence of something (as in ‘the garden is free of weeds’), which is ironic when you consider the absence of the freedom of the speakers of ‘Newspeak’.perceive reality differently.

This is, quite simply, one of the best books ever written. Everyone should read it at least once. Be prepared, though – it does not have a happy ending.

(Images: Amazon)


Want more information on Banned Books Week 2014?
Visit: http://www.ala.org/bbooks/banned