The Bohemian Rhapsody Book Tag

I saw this tag somewhere and became a bit obsessed with it, so here is my version. Also, I can sing the whole of Bo-Rhap in all the voices, as well as doing a damn fine version of the guitar solo, just so you know.

  1. Mama, just killed a man – A fictional character’s death that really upset youtime traveler.jpg
    I’m slightly embarrassed about this, but the first time I read The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffeneger, my mum had to sit next to me and hold me hand because I was basically dying of emotions (and my husband was sitting on the other side of the room laughing at me). Everything about that book makes me too sad to go on.
  2. Carry on, carry on – A book that was hard to keep reading but worth it in the end cityonfire.jpg
    I read City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg last year, and that was hard work; not because it wasn’t good but because it was so bloody long (911 pages, since you ask). The last 200 pages were a bit more action-packed, and I really enjoyed all the punk references throughout, so it was worth it. Just.
  3. Sends shivers down my spine – A book with a beautiful spine/cover
    Obviously I have to mention the beautiful Penguin English Library classics which I collect. Aside from them, I have serious love for the Six of Crows cover; it appeals to the emo girl within.
  4. Goodbye, everybody; I’ve got to go – A book you couldn’t finish 
    I’m still hoping to get back to The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell; it wasn’t grabbing me when I started it last year, but, hopefully, I will be able to miraculously remember the first 200 pages and pick it up again soon.
  5. Thunderbolt and lightning; very, very frightening – A book you found very, very frighteningdaughters.jpg
    Daughters Unto Devils by Amy Lukavics is a book I haven’t seen talked about very much, which can only be because a) people haven’t heard of it or b) they have read it but were too terrified to discuss it. It was extremely good but absolutely bloody horrifying.
  6. Bismillah, no!/We will not let you go – A book/series you wish there was more of
    In recent times, it’s hard to choose something because so many books are part of a series anyway (sometimes without making this clear when you start reading the first one, which is VERY SNEAKY INDEED). I read Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire recently and, although I believe it is the first in a series, it was so short – only about 160 pages or something ridiculous – and I enjoyed it so much I’d have loved it to be longer.
  7. Mamma mia, mamma mia – A book/series which should be made into a musical
    If Les Miserables can be a musical, then why can’t all great 19th century novels? I think, if I had loads of money and little sense, I would be inventing a Thomas Hardy musical; probably Jude the Obscure, because it contains a level of misery that far exceeds The Grumps, and would be horrific and unwatchable and epic.
  8. The head banging bit – A book that made you face-palm
    Paper Towns was, for me, enjoyable in the middle bit because stupid Margo wasn’t there; I really hoped Q would never find her because she was so incredibly annoying. Every annoying thing she did (who actually hides stupid treasure hunt clues in door hinges?) made me hit the book against a wall.
  9. Oh baby, can’t do this to me, baby – A moment from a book when it felt like the author was being mean to youmosquitoland.jpg
    I have spent my whole life feeling personally victimised by authors, so I could give about a billion examples here. The one I will choose is David Arnold’s Mosquitoland, a book I love more than is healthy; there’s a bit at the end when Arnold makes you think something crucial and heartbreaking has been revealed, and you want  to cry and throw things, but it turns out to have been a false alarm. It is an extremely cruel trick, but an effective one, because here I am talking about Mosquitoland again. Authors are really mean.
  10. Nothing really matters – which character(s) did you not care about?heir of fire.jpg
    I read Heir of Fire recently and there is no trick Sarah J. Maas could pull that would make me care about those witches. Even if they do have iron teeth and dragons. I assume they’ll become really relevant in Queen of Shadows and avenge Yellowhead or whatever her name was, but it was seriously annoying that they actually had no purpose in Heir of Fire.

Who actually invented this tag? It is genius. If you haven’t done it yet, consider yourself tagged.

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Top Ten Tuesday: Favourite 2016 Reads

I don’t actually give books star ratings so I have had to divert slightly from the official title for this weeks’ TTT, hosted as always by The Broke and Bookish. I’m going for the 10 best books I’ve read this year instead, because I am a rebel. I’ve also annoyingly put links to reviews for every single one, because I just really like the link button.

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Mr Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt
I wrote about this in detail here; it’s a really fascinating book about depression, based on Winston Churchill’s description of his own depressions as “the black dog.”

Wolf by Wolf by Ryan Graudin
I loved this and I’m really looking forward to the sequel. The whole X-Men/historical situation really appeals to me. I reviewed it here.

Mosquitoland by David Arnold
Technically, I read this last year, but I had to read it again to write about it and I just absolutely love it more than is healthy. In this review, I compare it to both Fight Club and Alice in Wonderland, which is a bit weird.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders
This crazy book ticked all my boxes; I loved every ounce of its weirdness. There are talking birds and mad scientists and it is ace. I reviewed it in more detail here.

The Madwoman Upstairs by Catherine Lowell
I recommend this to any Brontë fan; this story of a fictional descendant of the famous family is intelligent and hilarious, with plenty of clever Brontë commentary and parallels.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
I reread this in March after buying a new, beautiful copy and I enjoyed it so much; it’s made me want to reread all of Austen’s novels (rather than just revisiting Persuasion and Pride and Prejudice on an annual basis). I go on about it a bit more here.

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Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg
Historical novel set in New York, with a cool and hard-edged heroine? Yes please. I loved it. Review here.

The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner
This caught me by surprise; it was emotional and real, and features a character with awesome music taste (which I went on about a bit here). It’s a beautiful book and it’s set in Nashville so what’s not to like? I reviewed it for Fourth and Sycamore here.

Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton
I am a bit in love with this book; it’s exciting and entertaining and, most brilliantly, staunchly feminist (at least in my reading). I spewed out a load of enthusiastic adjectives about it here.

A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab
This is a fantasy world I would like to move into; the concept of different Londons, magic and pirates makes me pack a bag and get going. I love the darkness and humour and the characters and everything. Here’s a review if you want to read me going on about it some more.

I’d love some books recs so link me to your TTTs in the comments.

A Review of Saint Mazie by Jami Attenberg

saintmazie.jpgA mark of how much I enjoyed a book is the degree to which I bully my students into reading it. For example, a large proportion of my year 9 class have now read All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven; I forced the same class to read Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn just because I think it’s brilliant. I actually gave my own copy of The Catcher in the Rye to a year 11 girl because I knew she’d love it like I do. There is a direct correlation between how much I like a book and how officious I am in my attempts to force said book on people who have no choice but to listen to me. Since reading Jami Attenberg’s Saint Mazie last week, I have been on a relentless campaign for force my sixth formers to choose it for their coursework. Someone will submit to my will.

There are loads of reasons for this. The first of them is purely how enjoyable I found the book. There isn’t a character in it I didn’t like (except, probably, for the Captain); Mazie is an awesome creation, brimming with longing, tempered by pragmatism. She’s a character you truly root for, whilst all the time acknowledging that her destiny is to witness other people pursue their dreams, while picking up the pieces when these dreams are shattered. Although Mazie is stifled in her domestic life, she experiences freedom in her most significant relationship: the love affair she shares with New York City. I am a sucker for a novel set in New York, and this is truly a New York story; the city is essentially personified, as vibrant a presence as Mazie herself (and that’s really saying something). Mazie’s character jumps right off the page and New York jumps right alongside her.

Attenberg does several things in this book which I really liked. The first of these is the structure; Mazie’s story is dominated by her own voice, with diary excerpts serving to give the novel chronological impetus as well as a personal voice. Additionally, a range of other voices are given their say, creating a kind of oral history of the eponymous character, creating a more fully formed image of Mazie. I also appreciated the way in which major events in the history of New York and, indeed, the world, were made a part of the narrative; the Wall Street bombing of 1920, the Crash of 1929 and ensuring Depression, as well as World War I are all a part of Mazie’s life story. This didn’t feel contrived in the way that attempts to include historical events within one protagonist’s narrative often do; rather, Mazie’s peripheral involvement in and reaction to these catastrophes just enhanced my understanding of her as a character, primarily in terms of her tremendous empathy and sense of social responsibility. The limited geography of Saint Mazie is a crucial part of the storytelling too; Mazie’s life is restricted to the Five Boroughs, and, consequently, so are the reader’s vicarious travels, which effectively reinforces the limits Mazie accepts and, ultimately, seems to embrace.

As far as my reading of the book is concerned, there is so much to admire and enjoy about Saint Mazie, not least the cast of supporting characters – although “supporting” is not often the word that came to mind while reading about them. Mazie lives somewhat unconventionally, having been taken from her parents, along with her youngest sister, by her older sister, Rosie; the significance of sisters has rarely been more vividly realised on the page, from the steely protectiveness to the lingering resentments. Rosie’s husband, Louis, is another gem of a character; in a novel fill to bursting with men who claim to care for Mazie, Louis’ does so genuinely and supportively. Attenberg creates her characters beautifully, with subtlety and affection.

After reading Saint Mazie, I learned that the character is based on a real-life woman – the original Queen of the Bowery, who cared for the city’s homeless and suffering when nobody else gave a damn (this is an example of a truly memorable book – I am now trying to sound like one of the characters. I think it might happen again in a minute). If she truly was anything like Attenberg’s Mazie, she was one hell of a broad (I warned you).

Thank You for the Music(al References in Books)

If there’s one thing that rivals my love of books, it’s my love of music. While I’ve very occasionally found myself less obsessed with reading than I am these days, music has been a constant companion; whereas rereading a much-loved book requires time and effort, listening to my favourite songs again and again requires earphones and 3 and a half minutes. Music has made me as much as literature has, and so it is one of my favourite things ever when I find characters whose music taste is a feature of their personality.

Because of this,  I have become a bit obsessed with music references in books and now get very excited when I find one. It’s a way into understanding a character: a shortcut to really getting them, perhaps before their persona is otherwise fully formed.

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Exhibit A: Oreo cupcake on literary side plate. No, I do not need to get out more.

It’s been at least eight minutes since I last mentioned Simon Vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda (she says, while eating an Oreo cupcake from a Simon Vs plate), so let’s start there. Simon is lovable enough without his awesome taste in music, but the fact that, within  6 pages, he’s already listening to Tegan and Sara, just adds to his immense appeal. Obviously, Simon’s main musical obsession is Elliott Smith, and this is a perfect example of how a musical reference can help an author to show, not tell; as soon as Simon puts in his earbuds to listen to Smith, I know exactly what kind of person he is. Only awesome people love Elliott Smith. I love the way that Becky Albertalli uses this to develop the gorgeous relationship between Simon and Blue; with Blue using “the mighty Googler” to find out about Smith and learning more about Simon as a result – a fact that renders Simon “speechless.” And isn’t that just completely perfect? That moment when someone listens to an artist you love and understand why you love them so much?

 

Adding to my love of Simon Vs is the fact that Simon’s love of Elliott Smith means he and Mim from Mosquitoland by David Arnold could be friends, which makes me very happy indeed. I adore Mim, and, as with Simon, much of that love stems from the fact that her taste in music is exemplary and we could consequently be friends. Music is so important to Mim that her narrative even features analysis of her musical loves:

Even the music I listen to now has a certain tragic honesty to it. Bon Iver, Elliott Smith, Arcade Fire – artists whose music demands not to be liked, but to be believed.
And I do.
I believe them.

Mim spends so much of Mosquitoland isolated, alone and doubting herself, there’s a raw emotion in this statement which makes me want to cry a bit. And, while we’re talking about music taste reflecting the listener, Arnold’s phrasing could just as easily apply to Mim herself here: it is her “certain tragic honesty” which makes her such a goddamn amazing character. I love Mim. Have I mentioned that? And her mum is a Johnny Cash fan, so she’s awesome too.

While I’m match-making friendships between fictional characters – Simon and Mim, serpentmeet Lydia from Jeff Zentner’s The Serpent King. She displays a level of music fascism which I completely relate to and, although she can be a little much, her impeccable taste shows me exactly who she is, citing Dolly Parton, Debbie Harry, Natasha Khan, Jenny Lewis, Patti Smith, Meg White, Florence Welch, PJ Harvey, Beyonce and Stevie Nicks as her musical influences. Just read that list again and tell me Lydia doesn’t have the most flawless taste possible. Lydia also states, in no uncertain terms, that “Love Will Tear Us Apart is my favorite song on Earth,’ and you can’t argue with that. Yes, perhaps she’s a tad precocious for an 18 year old, but, man, I wish I was that cool when I was 18. Or now.

sevenwaysSadly, Matt from Seven Ways We Lie would probably be ruthlessly bullied by my supergroup of teens with good taste, as he freely admits, “I have this thing for whiny pop-rock, lots of Nickleback and Avril and latter-day Weezer, and it’s morbidly embarrassing, but it can’t be cured, not by my mom’s classic rock or Burke’s hipster Bon Iver shit.” I mean, ouch. Although I have not yet been lucky enough to read Jesse Andrews’ new book, The Haters, I have seen that here, too, poor old Bon Iver gets a bashing, described as “way too emotionally high stakes for casual listening in the sense that it makes every single part of your life feel like the part of a TV show where you are in a hospital saying goodbye for the very last time.” Mim, sort these heathens out. Also, I REALLY want to read The Haters.

So, I feel like I’ve proved that YA authors use musical references very cleverly to show us subtle aspects of their characters. This isn’t exclusive to YA; the brick that is City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg features teens with an intense love of Patti Smith, as well as a fictional band who are clearly supposed to be the New York Dolls. Further impeccable musical touchstones. And, because the rest of the book was so terrifying, I retain a particular amount of love for Patrick Bateman’s epic rants about 80s pop in American Psycho. I love Huey Lewis and the News. I’m not even sorry.

I’ve been thinking about this post for a ridiculously long time, and consequently have developed actual theories about the topic. Primarily, I think music references only work if a) the character would genuinely listen to that artist, b) the reference is relevant, and c) if the artist mentioned will stand the test of time. Becky Albertalli can sleep soundly at night knowing that Elliott Smith will be known, if not world famous, for as long as people are listening to good music. Likewise, Lydia’s choices are safe because Dolly, Debbie and Stevie have already proved their lasting appeal, and there’s basically no chance anyone will forget them.

There are times when I don’t think music references work. For example, in Sara Barnard’s Beautiful Broken Things, the main character wears a Haim t-shirt. Don’t get me wrong: I really like Haim. I question whether anyone likes Haim enough to own a Haim t-shirt, and I also wonder how relevant that choice is going to look in a couple of years’ time. Conversely, Mim wears her mum’s old Led Zeppelin t-shirt, and I’m pretty sure Led Zep aren’t going out of fashion. Radio Silence by Alice Oseman (which,  I will admit, I did not like) name-drops Skrillex and London Grammar, which are clearly relevant to the teenage characters in 2016, but surely won’t resonate a few years down the line. In my view, music references only work when they mean something to the characters, not just for the purpose of showing how cool the writer’s taste is.

So now you know the extent to which I ignore actual plot details in favour of putting post-its next to references to Arcade Fire in books, help me out. Is this something you’ve ever thought about? If you have any more music references to add to my collection, please share in the comments.

Also, this was really long. Thanks for sticking with it. You are nice. As a treat, here is a playlist.