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TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 29 September 2017
Scout Finch and her older brother, Jem, together with their friend Dill, become fascinated by the story of the neighbour they have never seen, Boo Radley. After getting into trouble in his youth, Boo's father has kept him in the family home all this time and, although he's now a man, Boo still stays hidden from the world. Unsurprisingly all kinds of rumours and legends surround him, and the children develop an almost obsessive desire to see this mysterious figure. Meantime Scout's father has reluctantly taken on the task of defending Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a young white woman. Many in the town think he should have refused to take the case, but Atticus Finch believes that all men have the right to equal justice under the law. Over the couple of years covered by the book, Scout will learn much about the prejudices and cruelties and kindnesses of the people in her small town of Maycomb, Alabama.

As with so many of the classics, I first read this long ago when the world and I were young, round about the late '70s, I'd imagine. Of course back then it wasn't really a classic yet – it had only been published less than twenty years earlier in 1960. Oddly, my major memories of it have always centred on the Boo Radley storyline rather than the Tom Robinson one, so at that time, had I been asked, I don't think I'd have mentioned race specifically as the major theme of the book. I'd have said it was about how society demonises difference, how justice can be distorted by prejudice, and how poverty brutalises us. Over the years, as its status has grown, and as racism has become a subject much more to the fore over here than it was back in those more innocent-seeming days, I've accepted rather unthinkingly that this clearly is one of its major themes and felt for a long time that I should re-read it rather than relying on my frequent watches of the film (which I also think says more about Boo than race).

Re-reading it now with all the current arguments around race in America in the forefront of my mind, it's hard to see Lee's portrayal as being as enlightened and forward-thinking as I'm sure it seemed back when the book was published. To modern eyes, her black characters seem to be very much a product of white wish-fulfilment. They are 'good' because they are respectful and subservient; they are intellectually inferior, not just through lack of educational opportunities but through 'laziness' and lack of ambition; and they are entirely passive, relying on a white knight to defend them, and not only in the legal sense of that word. Even Calpurnia, the Finches' maid, though more educated than most black people in the town through her family's long association with white folk (as servants obviously), comes across rather as the stock black character of older American fiction, whose main function is to show how kind (or sometimes how cruel) their white masters can be if they choose. Calpurnia knows her place and accepts it gratefully, though it's a lowly one. It is of course a sympathetic depiction of the black characters, but one that jars a little now. There is no challenging of the innate superiority of whiteness here – merely an encouragement to treat 'good' black people better.

Even Atticus, generally held up as the pinnacle of just men, clearly doesn't think of black people as in any way equal. He believes they have constitutional rights under the law, but that's pretty much as far as he goes. There was an outcry a couple of years ago when Lee's second book (which I haven't read) came out and appeared to show Atticus as racist – while I wouldn't go anywhere close to saying that about him in this book, I didn't feel he could really be seen as fighting for equality either. I have previously criticised that other American novel always hailed as an icon of anti-racism, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, for portraying black people more as pets to be treated kindly than humans to be treated equally. I fear this book left me with the same kind of taste, though a less bitter one.

Other aspects of the book have stood up better to the passage of time, I feel. The writing is wonderful, particularly Lee's use of various levels of dialect to differentiate class and social status. Although I have reservations about the black characters, the white characters ring wholly true, as does the town of Maycomb which becomes a character in its own right. Boo's story is still a great commentary on society's wariness of “difference”, although I found the ending a little too neat – the point made a little too pointedly, perhaps – on this re-reading. This time around I was more moved by the rape storyline than Boo's, though more because of Mayella than Tom.

Mayella's story (the alleged rape victim) is devastating in its portrayal of the powerlessness of women denied education and opportunity, and the trial scene must surely be one of the most powerful pieces of writing in the English language. Trying to avoid spoilers means I have to be a little vague here, but Lee does a marvellous job of showing both accuser and accused as victims of the white patriarchy. The callous treatment of Mayella both at the time of the rape and during the trial, (yes, even by Atticus), and the way she is then left in the power of the father who has been shown as a violent bully, if not worse, made me wonder who was actually lower down the social order – the black man or the white woman. Of course, Lee makes clear that poverty plays a major role here; one of the major strengths of the book is the comparison Lee draws between black and dirt-poor white people in terms of how they are treated by society, and of the subsequent resentment of the white people – Mayella's father is more offended that Tom should have dared to feel sorry for Mayella than that he might have raped her. It's a searing depiction of the sense of what we now call "white entitlement" that remains at the root of much of the race-related division in American society today.

So, although I found Lee's portrayal of the black characters more than a little problematic, I think it's fair to say that the major themes of the book - the inequalities inherent in the justice system, prejudice against difference, white poverty, the powerlessness of under-educated women – all still have much relevance to the race debates going on today, and to contemporary American society as a whole. Judged in its totality therefore, the book fully merits its place as a classic.
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on 27 March 2016
This may seem a strange book to choose to review, after all it was published in 1960, but with the recent passing of the author, Harper Lee, I thought it might be time to take a look at To Kill A Mockingbird.

Firstly, even though I was always an avid reader, when To Kill A Mockingbird was published it managed to pass me by. It wasn’t being read by my peers and any stir that the film had created was already dwindling by the time I reached the age group to which the book seemed to be appealing. Secondly, it is a book that seems to be better known these days for the film version than for its own merit, which is a shame. The 1962 film depiction, while creditable, is very narrow in its take on the story, focusing on the trial of Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman. I’ll return to that later. Finally, of course, there are whole generations of people who will not have read the book (or seen the film) as it tends to be contemporary books that are read, while older works are mainly gathering dust on library shelves.

The plot covers many aspects of life in Alabama in the mid 1930s, as seen through the eyes of the protagonist Scout, or Jean Louise Finch to call her by her real name. The nickname is never explained. At the start of the story Scout is 6 years old, two years younger than Harper Lee would have been at this time. She is joined in her adventures by her older brother Jem (Jeremy) and a neighbour’s visiting nephew Dill (Charles Baker Harris). The book is not only a depiction of who two races see each other, it is also how different groups within the white race view each other and an early issue raised is about white poverty during the Depression.

It later emerged that Dill was loosely based on Harper Lee’s real life neighbour Truman Capote, another novelist also recently deceased.

Scout’s father is lawyer Atticus Finch who is also a member of the State Legislature and a much respected member of the community – at least at the start of the book. In real life Harper Lee grew up in Alabama and her father was a lawyer who became caught up in a rape case similar to that featured in the book. Harper Lee may also have been influenced by the trials, in Alabama, of the Scottsboro Boys, concerning the rape of two white women by nine black teenagers. The trials took place in 1931 the original trials are now generally regarded as significant miscarriages of justice.

We join Scout at the start of her schooling where we discover that she is a precocious child, already able to read and write. Some might describe her as old beyond her years. The story then takes us through three years of her life, including the period of the trial and its aftermath.

The use of Scout as the narrator is a very useful tool. As a child she is automatically considered to be naïve, which allows her to ask questions that no adult would think to ask, or maybe dare to ask. This is useful for the reader as the answers usually come from Atticus so we get to know him very well. They are more often avoided if asked of the other adult characters. We can feel Scout’s confusion as she is told by her first grade teacher not to read at home because she’s been taught to read “the wrong way”, which is one of the first narrow minded adult issues she has to deal with.

During the first half of the book black people are barely mentioned. Calpurnia, the Finch’s cook/housekeeper, is black but is very much a part of the Finch family, carrying much of the burden of Scout and Jem’s upbringing to that point. Scout’s mother died when she was quite young and was almost unknown to Scout. Apart from that we hear nothing much about the black community of Maycomb County, as though they are invisible. This is entirely intentional, of course. Black people and white people just didn’t mix. Scout lives in a white neighbourhood, so almost the only black people she ever sees are domestic servants such as Calpurnia and those such as Zeebo, the garbage truck driver, who has to come into the area as part of his duties. She never encounters the majority of the black community who work on the land.

Most of the first part of the story is about the three children and their adventures which, despite the passage of time, are not really any different from those that I enjoyed as a child and which many children still enjoy. In one sub-plot they are much taken by the mysterious figure of their reclusive neighbour, Boo Radley, and spend much of their time devising ways to tempt him from his house.

Later the story turns to the trial of Tom Robinson and we discover some things that the film doesn’t make clear. The first is that Atticus didn’t willingly take on Tom’s defence. He is appointed to it by the County Court judge. The judge’s choice is deliberate of course, he wants Tom to have the best defence possible and Atticus is the man who will deliver that, but we are left with the interesting question: “Would Atticus have taken the case of his own accord?”

The reason I ask this is because the film makes Atticus appear very liberal, almost a man of the future. I think the book shows us a different man. He was liberal by the standards of many of his peers, there is no doubt of that but would he, for example, have voted for John F Kennedy or Barak Obama? I’m not convinced. He believed in justice for all and the equality of all men before the law, but that is not the same as being liberal.

The film also omits some characters who have a considerable influence on Scout, those of Aunt Alexandra and Miss Dubose, for example. I can see the need for the Director of the film to be selective in what sections of the plot are included and which left out, but those decisions are what makes the book superior to the film. I actually rented the film to watch so that I could make those sorts of comparisons for this review.

In the run up to the trial the town is abuzz with gossip and divided in its attitude towards Atticus. Most people recognise that Atticus is just doing his job, but others regard his behaviour as showing favour to black people over white, which was unthinkable. Scout is regularly taunted at school over this matter and is not slow to take up arms in her father’s defence (be prepared for many uses of the “N” word).

This is where the story becomes so contentious, because white attitudes towards black people were just starting to be challenged openly in 1960 when the book was published. Rosa Parks took her famous bus ride in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 and the book was published only 5 years before the civil rights marches protesting about black people not being allowed to register to vote in Alabama, despite it being their legal right to do so.

It is of course impossible for Tom Robinson to get a fair trial from an all-white jury in Alabama in the 1930s, so Tom is duly convicted despite there being more than a little doubt over the evidence presented by the two key prosecution witnesses, Bob Ewell and his daughter Mayella, the supposed victim of the rape. Indeed it is key to later events that the pair are shown up to be liars, but that isn’t enough to sway the jury. Indeed Tom is more than a little lucky not to have been lynched before the matter even got to trial.

It could be argued convincingly that it is still hard for a black person to get a fair trial in Alabama, even 80 years after the events depicted in this book, which makes the book as relevant today as it was then.

However, the period in which this book is set is crucial to the way it is told. The last surviving Alabama veteran of the Confederate Army still lived in the town. The parents of most of the characters and some of the older characters, such as Miss Dubose, will have grown up in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, which left two communities struggling to makes sense of what had happened to their way of life. This will have doubtless had a profound effect on the way the white community viewed the black, while the black community discovered that being free was not the same as being equal.

So, is this book still relevant in 2016? I would say it is.

Why have I only given this book four stars? After all, it was seen as one of the great works of the 20th century. Well, it is somewhat dated. I think that if Harper Lee were writing it today (if she were still alive to do so) she would take a whole new approach to get her message across. It is also a matter of expectations. We shouldn’t try to judge the past on the basis of our values in the present. As Atticus Finch himself says, if we want to know a person we have to put on his shoes and walk around in them for a while. If we wish to judge the present then we have a whole lot of new evidence available on which to base our opinions.

Do I recommend the book? Of course I do. My only regret is that I didn’t read it much earlier in my life.
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on 14 December 2017
The book is about Atticus Finch, who appears as an unconventional hero and role model due to his morality rather than his physical capabilities. The theme of morals is apparent throughout the whole novel, especially in relation to religion and perception of sin. Take Mrs Dubose, a recovering morphine addict: she vows that she'll die beholden to nothing and nobody. She's pursuing her own dream of being a free human being because she knows deep down that it's right.

To Kill a Mockingbird focuses on that gut instinct of right and wrong, and distinguishes it from just following the law. Even the titular quote: "Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit 'em, but remember it's a sin to kill a mockingbird" is in itself an allegory for this message. Being in itself a generic message, the idea of 'doing what's right' obviously has a different meaning depending on when and where you're reading the book. If you take 1960, when the book was written, America was in a state of ethical development as social inequality was - very - gradually being overcome. Women's rights and black rights movements were beginning to emerge and some campaigned through violence. Would Atticus Finch condone this?
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on 25 September 2016
This classic book is one on my most favourite books list. I first was introduced to it like many people now and before me at English literature lesson at school and I immediately feel in love with Scout, Jem and Atticus. I was 14 at the time and this book was the bridge (like Jem) where the child and young adult meet. I was transported to a past time where racial prejudice was part of day to day and like these children I was bewildered by how adults thought and behaved.
I am a reader who likes to come back to visit a book and over the years I have come to sit with Scout and Boo Radley. Each time I open the book and re-read the story I discover something new in the chapters, sometimes it is because of my maturity, what I have gained in experience in knowledge and an adult world has given me more insight into the world of the Finch family and how society was in that era and how it still is in today's world, sometimes it is because I am now a parent and can see Atticus's struggles to be a single parent and teach his children to understand how they needed to be true to themselves and not follow society like sheep.
When Harper Lee's new book was released and it came apparent that this book made Atticus into a racist man, I made the choice not to read it. The Atticus who I hero worshipped and respected could not represent Tom Robinson and be racially bigoted it would make a mockery of the 'To Kill A Mockingbird and this new book only came out when Harper Lee had passed away so I believe she never wanted it to be published
I have just re-visited the book once again and once again I have come away with more insight. This book educates the young, helping them understand that the world they are on the verge off is ugly and prejudiced and adults will act at times in behaviours that will disgust them. Adults who read this book will look through the eyes of a child and realise that they are not born with hate and bigotry it is placed there by influence and the world in general. Older adults can make sure that the lessons learnt from this book are as valued now as they were valued in eras before them. This book tells us that we can make changes, maybe small steps as Atticus quoted in the book, when I first read this book we were told being gay was something depraved and disgusting, now gay couples can legally marry. So this book still has the lessons to be learnt through the characters of this story and I will always treasure it.

I can't wait to introduce this book to my grandchildren one day, watch them fall in love with the characters like I did, and then keep the story alive by acknowledging all hatred, prejudice and bigotry must be stopped.
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on 4 June 2018
I never read this in school so I figured that now I'm older I should give it a go.
I quite enjoyed this book. I won't bother telling you what it's about, you either already know or have read some other reviews who have gone into detail about the story.

The cover is beautiful which is an added plus.
Side note: don't bother with Go Set A Watchman. It's not good and changes the opinion of Scout's dad. Plus Harper Lee was not in the position to publish another book. She wrote it before Mockingbird. It was turned down and that's when she made Mocking bird. The draft for Watchman was found by her lawyer and the money grabber published it. Harper Lee had previously (while she was able to) said she didn't want to publish Watchman and that Mockingbird was to be her only published book.
So by all means, enjoy this book but don't buy Watchman.
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on 27 May 2018
I didn’t read many books during my younger years and as an adult I’ve read novels I enjoy so I’ve skipped the books regarded as classics. At the start of this year I decided to read many of them. 1984, Animal Farm, Brave New World, Catch 22 etc All of which so far I’ve enjoyed and can see why they have become regarded as classics. I understand it’s not just the book it’s the insight it provides or the commentary or view on a topic like Orwell’s 1984 for example. To Kill a Mocking Bird might provide an insight into 1930s America and racism around at the time but by god it’s boring! I’m half way through and literally nothing has happened. It’s not even particularly well written in my view and the American slang is annoying. Quite why this book is regarded as a classic is beyond me. I hate not finishing books but I’m afraid I just can’t endure anymore.
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on 28 November 2016
I met Scout and Jem a long time ago, in a Reader's Digest Condensed Book of my Granny's. I was about...12 maybe...and didn't understand bits of the story, but I loved the children and their father, Atticus, who has to look like Gregory Peck once you've watched the film. Not really a problem. I loved the descriptions of the heat and the way they talked.................

Then I grew up. The world changed and so did the story.

This is an amazing book that is now taught in schools. I hope the kids enjoy it and aren't scunnered with the analysis for exams. Because this book sings with its detail. Calpurnia taking Scout and Jem to her church. Mayella Ewing watering her geraniums. Atticus being called on to shoot the mad dog. The ladies fanning themselves on their front porches. The view from the Radley House...............

Of course, the BIG question is...why only the one book? When someone who writes like this could've rivalled Shakespeare. Never mind. Buy it if you can, borrow it if you can't. This one you need to read....and, if you can, think of current affairs?
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on 2 April 2016
One of my favourite books I have to confess.

I am a voracious reader, and always have been even as a nipper. Thus, this particular book came to me firstly rather more years than I care to think about to be perfectly honest! I loved the book then, and my view has certainly not changed in the interim. So much has been said about this book, it seems pointless to add to the same, so I will not. It is simply a brilliant book, and considering it was Harper Lee's first attempt, truly remarkable.

For those of you unfortunate enough not to have read this book, I can thoroughly recommend the same. The film of this book was very good indeed (one of my favourite films), but there is still nothing like actually reading the source material. A compelling story, and beautifully written.

As my couple of previous versions of this book have not stood the test of time very well, this time I plumped for the library binding version which is of course rather more expensive. However, I was delighted to see when the book arrived that it is beautifully bound and nicely small. I had not anticipated the book being quite so small to be honest, but the text itself is really not that small at all which is pretty clever considering the size of the book. And in spite of their usual cost, I still prefer hardback books as a rule as inevitably they last so much longer in a decent condition

Highest recommendation..
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on 2 March 2018
Although I get that half the charm of To Kill a Mockingbird is that your viewing unjust and mature themes through the eyes of an innocent, young child, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I was missing the main event. The story follows Jean Louise Finch, the six-year-old daughter of one of the most inspiring and courageous characters you could come across as he essentially takes on the prevailing ‘justice’ system in the courtrooms of 1930s Alabama. Imagine watching Inception but from the perspective of one of Leonardo DiCaprio’s kids and you’ll understand why I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed.
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on 28 February 2016
I suppose many of us who are fond of reading assume that we have read many books which, in fact, we have not read but learned about from discussion with others or watching a movie or play. For me, such a book is To Kill a Mocking Bird. I was sure I had read this book before but when I read it this time, it became clear to me that I knew the story but had never read the book. I have now corrected that omission.
This is a very fine novel, beautifully written and consistently atmospheric of the American Deep South in the early twentieth century. I suspect that the novel and it's author have been slightly "deified", partly because the author is American and partly because of the fact that this book - until very recently - was thought to be the only one she ever published. I was surprised to find that the court scene with Atticus only occupies around 10% of the book. The real story revolves around the issues for a single parent raising two inquisitive children in a racially prejudiced society. For me, the two most interesting characters were the mysterious and reclusive neighbour - "Boo Radley" who emerges as a real hero, and the summer time friend "Dill". Harper Lee develops these characters slowly, but she tantalisingly leaves the portraits incomplete and I found that intriguing.
The writing is very good, but in my opinion it is not quite of the highest level. To tell the story through the eyes of a 7-9 year old girl calls for a great deal of poetic license.
The characters of the book are memorable, and the story has clearly stood the test of time.
I am very glad that I have now read it.
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