Two books with one month.

One of my aims for this year is to read two books a month. I’m quite a slow reader and although I managed (almost) to read a book a week whilst studying for my Masters, I found that I was missing the smaller details of the prose and story, and lost some of my enjoyment of reading. I want to be binge-eating books this year, so I think a two week period is slow enough for me to take time to savour the small treasures of each novel, but fast enough to keep me engaged.   And so, below are the two books I read for January 2013.

Swamplandia! Swamplandia! by Karen Russell – 4/5

This book is described as quirky and eccentric, and I guess it terms of some of the story lines, it was, although at times perhaps it was a little too aware of this. Set in gator-park Swamplandia!, in the Florida Everglades, we follow thirteen year old Ava as her mother, Hilola Bigtree, champion alligator-wrestler, succumbs to cancer and leaves Ava alone with her younger siblings to defend the gator-park. The prose style of this book took a little while to get used to; it’s dense, the words even look dense on the page, and it felt like there wasn’t a need for it to be so. The story itself is streamline and simple if we break it down into important scenes, and the characters are under-complicated enough to allow for a more paired-back prose style. The writing is of course very strong, but perhaps over-stated for the style of the story being told. Each character is, in essence, going through their own ‘coming of age’ moment, though what makes this novel different is the environment of which they have grown up, in the gator-park. I enjoyed the naivety of the characters and the way they tried to fit in and understand the mainlanders, the brother even trying to adapt his vocabulary.

I was disappointed by the ending. Someone called The Bird Man shows up and promises to take Ava to the Underworld. The novel sets the tone of this wonderfully, using Ava’s imagination to exaggerate details of the swamp so you can almost believe the Underworld is a real place, whilst remaining aware that we are seeing the story through the mind of a thirteen year old. However, it is as though the author grew concerned that there hadn’t been enough story to complete the novel and so felt that something dramatic had to happen. I won’t say what it is, but I feel the threat of the event was enough, without it needing to happen. This didn’t spoil the novel for me, the journey was enough without the need for a dramatic conclusion.

Hope a TragedyHope: A Tradegy by Shalom Auslander – 4 ½ / 5

This book is funny, and couldn’t be more opposite to Swamplandia! Simple, clean prose with one simple story line that progresses chronologically, from one characters point of view. I don’t know if it’s because it was so different to the book I read before, but I think this is the funniest book I have ever read. It even encouraged me to try and write light-hearted things as my work is usually quite melancholic. The book follows Solomon Kugel as he moves to a small rural town  with his family, ‘where nothing of import has ever happened’, and discovers Anne Frank living in his attic. Yes, The Anne Frank. Apparently.

What I loved about this novel was how on-edge the narrator seemed, always on the verge of losing his mind or having a nervous break-down but never admitting it. What I didn’t like about this novel was the ending (again). The author seems to push and push at Solomon until you think he’s finally lost it, (his sanity that is) except he never quite does. As I reader I have to admit that I did feel a little let down, to feel like the novel was building towards something that never happened. Another point I didn’t like was the surprise twist at the end, where a character appears to become the hero of the novel, you could say, except I wasn’t sure who this character was. He had appeared before, but long before the moment of reveal and I had to read back to remember what his significance was. Perhaps this is me being an unobservant reader, but it annoyed me. Other than that, I laughed until I almost cried, and gulped down the words with an energy like I was tasting my favourite birthday cake for the first time, afraid that others would eat it all before I could. I loved this book.

Not a bad start to the year. I’m already on to my first book of February, but any suggestions for the next one? I want something funny, melancholic, dark, energetic, beautiful, mind-consuming (don’t we all).

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About Nici West

Nici West currently lives in Manchester with her boyfriend and her two punk rocker guinea pigs. She recently graduated from Manchester University with an MA in Creative Writing and spends her time writing and working on writing projects. She wishes there were more guinea pigs in her life.
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