Review Wednesday | Book Review- The Blind Assassin

The Blind Assassin

‘“Ten days after the war ended, my sister Laura drove a car off a bridge.”

More than fifty years on, Iris Chase is remembering Laura’s death. And so begins an extraordinary and compelling story of two sisters and their secrets. Set against a panoramic backdrop of twentieth century history, The Blind Assassin is an epic tale of memory, intrigue and betrayal.’

The Blind Assassin is the first Margaret Atwood novel I’ve read. I’d heard rave reviews for The Handmaid’s Tale and The Heart Goes Last, but nothing of The Blind Assassin. It had been sat on the bookshelf in my conservatory for a long time, but I’d thought nothing of it until recently – what a mistake that was.

The Blind Assassin had me hooked from very early on in the story. While Dune, a novel of similar length, had me struggling to get even half way through in weeks (and I’ve still not picked it up again), I finished this book in five days.

The book is split into several view points and narratives. There are often newspaper clippings, invitations and other forms of literature among the text, placing the part of the story in a time and showing a more general perspective before Iris discusses details. The central narrative is that of Iris writing a sort of memoir-cum-letter to her descendents. There is also another narrative, showing extracts of ‘The Blind Assassin’, the revered novel by Laura Chase, which was posthumously published. The novel in the novel is about a couple meeting in secret, and sharing a story about an alien planet – a story in a story in a story.

The main narrative reminds me of The House I Loved in many ways – Iris is an elderly woman writing her life story, much like Rose Bazelet, and often the writing feels similar, despite being set in completely different eras. Both stories lead up to end of life revelations, of similar natures. They differ, however, in what they’re centred around. Iris is mostly focused on Laura’s death, while Rose’s letter to her husband is largely about their home. Iris’ viewpoint, therefore, is often a lot broader –she explores the entire world around her and her sister, rather than centring her story on her own house and street.

The brief explanations I offer here may sound vague and confusing, but this is far from the effect that Atwood’s own words achieve. Atwood manages to write clearly and steer the story incredibly well, even in the most hectic and confusing aspects. While the climax is fast paced and information-heavy, it somehow remains enjoyable. Iris and Atwood both remain calm and clearly know what they’re doing with the text. The result of this is a remarkable novel, full of twists, humour, sadness and mystery. My first foray into the world of Margaret Atwood certainly won’t be my last.

See you soon,

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Review: Welcome to Night Vale

Before we get into today’s post, a quick announcement: Always in the Write has Facebook and Goodreads! Like us on Facebook here and follow us on Goodreads here. Now back  to our usual scheduling! Ro x 

‘And now a brief public service announcement. Alligators: can they kill your children? Yes.’ – Welcome to Night Vale, Episode 1 ‘Pilot’

Welcome to Night Vale is fortnightly podcast. It is in the format of a community radio for the fictional American town of Night Vale, hosted by Cecil Gershwin Palmer (voiced by Cecil Baldwin). There are currently 89 episodes as I’m writing this, along with 7 bonus episodes and separate live performances that are available to purchase separately.

The podcast is free to listen to and ad-free. It usually starts with co-creator Joseph Fink discussing tour dates, merchandise and other Night Vale related updates, and ends with a brief message and proverb from Meg Bashwiner. There are many guest voices, including Wil Wheaton as Earl Harlan, Mara Wilson as The Faceless Old Woman and Retta as Old Woman Josie. It is available on iTunes, via their website or YouTube channel, on most podcast apps and more (see their website).

I must admit, I’m not actually up to date on the show. I started listening when there were about 25/30 episodes and unfortunately didn’t have time to catch up and keep up to date with them. I pick it up every few months or so but I’m yet to catch up. This past week however I’ve been listening to it a lot – I’ve had a lot of packing/tidying/unpacking/tidying to do, and it makes a nice change from listening to the same playlist over and over again, as I’m prone to do. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to episode 76. Each episode is around 25-30 minutes long, including the introductions and proverbs.

When listening to previous episodes of the show, especially if you’re binging as I tend to do, the introductions do get boring – the announcements are out of date and same-y, but you have to remember that the show is only released every two weeks and wasn’t really meant to be binged. The introductions aren’t very long, however, and break up listening quite nicely; so it’s not all bad.

I realise I’ve written 300 words of this review without actually reviewing anything! So, here goes. The show is darkly funny, which suits my sense of humour perfectly. Science fiction is quite hit and miss for me, however Night Vale seems to get it just right. It isn’t too complicated, and yet paints a picture of the town brilliantly. Despite the plots and events being told mostly retrospectively by our host, Cecil, Welcome to Night Vale manages to find the balance between ‘showing’ and ‘telling’ the audience well. The show aims to mix the supernatural, horrific and down-right weird with everyday life, and does so in a charmingly amusing way. It dips into the serious and profoundly philosophical matters of the meaning of life, humanity’s place in the universe and other such topics, but never for too long without returning to light-hearted comedy. For me, Welcome to Night Vale is reminiscent of the original radio performances of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and is following a similar path in the publication of the Night Vale novel last October.

The format of a podcast is a really interesting one for storytelling, and Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor use it incredibly well. Using the premise of a radio show is a convenient and effective way to use podcasting. The different segments keep it organised but interesting, and add separate aspects to the podcast as well as the main plotline for the episode. Episodes often revolve around a certain event, for example, but this is broken up by segments such as horoscopes, sponsor messages, an advice section, traffic updates and of course, the weather.

The weather segment is a song performed by a different independent artist every episode, providing exposure for new and budding artists from many different genres – even though the show revolves around similar plots and the same characters, you never know what you’re going to get with the weather. Although they are currently fully booked for the next year, they do take music submissions when they can; listeners are able to contribute to the show and get exposure for their work. Fink and Cranor truly go out of their way to support fellow independent creators in everything they do, Night Vale related and otherwise. This year saw the creation of Night Vale Presents, described on their website as;

The Night Vale Presents network continues Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink’s mission to encourage new, independent podcasting from writers and artists who haven’t worked in the format before. More podcasts will follow under the Night Vale Presents network in 2016 and 2017, both from the Night Vale artistic team and from other artists with a similar vision for independent, original podcasting.’

Not only is Welcome to Night Vale a great show that supports independent artists, but is also very diverse and inclusive. Cecil Baldwin, our host, is openly gay, and the cast and characters are diverse in age, race, gender and sexuality. In a town where a five-headed dragon runs for mayor and a Glow Cloud (allll haillll) is the head of the PTA, it’s difficult to be prejudiced. Unless you’re from rival town Desert Bluffs, no one really cares who you are.

Welcome to Night Vale is a well-established podcast now, and so may be difficult to catch up on, but I’d definitely recommend giving it a go, for several reasons. It is a brilliant show and a fantastic success story for independent creators, which is giving back to the independent arts community in many ways. If you do want to listen but are behind, don’t panic! Most episodes can be listened to as stand-alone plots, and they recently released a catch-up episode for the last few episodes. There are long-standing jokes and mentions of previous plotlines, however these are largely explained enough for new listeners to understand as well.

In the words of the Night Vale website: Turn on your radio and hide.

See you soon,

Ro x


Book Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (Spoiler Free!)

 

‘Rosemary doesn’t talk very much, and about certain things she’s silent. She had a sister, Fern, her whirlwind other half, who vanished from her life in circumstances she wishes she could forget. And it’s been ten years since she last saw her beloved older brother Lowell.

Now at college, Rosemary starts to see that she can’t go forward without going back, back to the time when, aged five, she was sent away from her home to her grandparents and returned to find Fern gone.’

This novel was recommended to me by my boyfriend. I was sat next to him on a tube over Easter when he reached ‘the twist’ – the infamous page 77. He told me almost immediately that I needed to read this book. As soon as I reached page 77 myself, I knew where he was coming from. As soon as I finished the book, I recommended it to my mum (and now I’m recommending it to you).

The start of the novel is good, but largely unremarkable to me – as a fan of John Green, Stephen Chbosky and Winona Ryder, the start (or, middle, which is where Fowler decides to start) of Rosemary’s story is pretty familiar; unassuming young adult with traumatic childhood event meets wild, rebellious young adult and does something reckless. I like those kinds of stories, and I still wanted to read on, but I’ve seen a lot of them.

I’ve mentioned page 77 twice already, but this is the ultimate turning point. A twist that is both shocking and blindingly obvious is so hard to achieve, but Fowler pulls it off perfectly; you’re left both astounded by the revelation and your own stupidity at not seeing it coming. Fowler hints at it from the start, and yet I at least never fully picked up on it.  I went from feeling like I’d seen this story before to submerging myself in the narrative completely; while before I’d been able to pick it up for a few pages here and there and happily leave it when I needed to do work or wanted to read something else, I binge-read the rest of it in two days. It only took that long because there were other things that unfortunately pulled me away from it.

The problem with ‘the twist’ is that it adds so many extra layers to the text – I could go on and on about various other topics, but that would spoil it completely. Maybe I’ll write a spoiler-filled piece on it some other time instead, because it’s such an interesting text to discuss in contexts that I just can’t talk about without ruining it.

This book is so deep. The characters are realistic and well-rounded, if frustrating at times, and the story is fantastic. The structure of it works surprisingly well and has hints of meta-fiction that as a reader I kind of love and as a writer I admire. Fowler writes beautifully and has created something incredibly powerful that I could only dream of achieving myself.

Last words on the matter: if you’re not sold at the start, wait until page 77. It’s worth it.

Ro x