Friday, 28 September 2018

You Only Live Once, by Jess Vallance

I loved this book! It was just what I needed to get out of my reading slump. Seriously funny, the exciting beginnings of a cute F/F romance that feels like any other teen YA romance, a likable protagonist with Lessons to Learn that does a bunch of dumb things and becomes a better person.

Gracie Dart is one of the best characters I have encountered in YA for ages. She was a model student at a bit of a crossroads in her life. She had always assumed she'd ace her A Levels, go to one of the good Unis and do something like Business, intern in London, get a good job and charge around with a coffee cup and go for loud After Work Drinks on Fridays. Her best friend Till wants to be a plumber based on an eyewateringly impressive emergency plumber bill she once had to pay. They are really different as characters, but it's a friendship that works and I loved how in sync the two were.

After a dramatic near death experience, Gracie decides that her summer of revision, highlighting and cramming was a waste of precious life and resolves to be less boring, less predictable and less afraid. She is going to Say Yes to stuff, Live A Life and Have Experiences. Because YOLO. Also, she can put it all on Instagram. Because, as the kids day, Pics or it Didn't Happen.

The book is basically about the lessons that Gracie has to learn about loyalty, responsibility, real life vs instagram, balancing friends, being decent to family and just being honest about how you feel and what you want. Just general life balance. Stuff that's still hard in your 30s and that you probably never really learn entirely tbh.

Highlights included: Nan in Paris. Amazing. Hilarious. A real example of the true Gracie just doing something nice for someone else and finding it a meaningful experience.
The excruciating gig and subsequent cute.
Gracie's flustered and unnecessary Coming Out to her super supportive and already onboard with G being gay parents.
Gracie's first proper talk with her brother in ages. It's not so much that it's funny, just really a really sweet moment.

The cover says it's for fans of Geek Girl, which is a sensible play, but YOLO feels much more modern and savvy than Geek Girl, and Gracie is a much more relatable character, in my old lady opinion. I think more readers will relate to feeling frustrated with your own perceived lameness and striving to be more interesting and more outgoing than accidentally becoming a model.

Loved it. Will definitely be on the lookout for the next one. Also, if you don't follow Jess Vallance on Twitter and Instagram, you are missing out on additional hilarity. Although if this book teaches us anything, it's that that is not a 100% accurate reflection of a person's life.

Wednesday, 22 August 2018

The Water Cure, by Sophie Mackintosh

Imagine a world very close to our own: where women are not safe in their bodies, where desperate measures are required to raise a daughter. This is the story of Grace, Lia, and Sky kept apart from the world for their own good and taught the terrible things that every woman must learn about love. And it is the story of the men who come to find them - three strangers washed up by the sea, their gazes hungry and insistent, trailing desire and destruction in their wake.
 Hypnotic and compulsive, The Water Cure is a fever dream, a blazing vision of suffering, sisterhood, and transformation.

I think my main problem with this book is that I expected something very different based on that intentionally vague synopsis. It's not that it's a deliberately misleading summary, it's that my expectations were just sent in a different direction and I think that affected, rightly or wrongly, the way I feel about the book.

So the book begins exceptionally well with the disappearance and assumed death of Grace, Lia and Sky's father, King, the only man any of them have ever been around. He left for the mainland to gather supplies and hasn't come back. The family, three daughters and their mother, live in isolation on an island, in a crumbling house, safe from the toxic mainland and the predatory men that populate it. Women used to come to the island to be cured, to be cleansed of their experiences using a variety of home-developed treatments. They don't come any more. There have been no strangers on the island in a long time.

I loved the hazy, ethereal, endless summer vibe of the prose. The languid language, the vagueness. As the reader, your suspicions are heightened fairly early on, purely by how dreamy and unreal everything seems. I was not sure if these narrators were unreliable, or if they really believed they were speaking their truth. The narrative switches between two of the sisters but to be honest, it's very difficult to notice any difference in who's speaking. Perhaps this is the dual narrator format not working out, perhaps they have been fed the same opinions and values to the extent that they are largely indistinguishable. The novel seems to settle into Lia as the main narrator after a while. The sisters have been encouraged to give and withhold love as a means of control and I guess as a type of psychological torture. Everything the sisters partake in seems to be considered a Therapy...lots of importance is placed on water and salt. I wondered if they were the survivors of some sort of apocalypse or the leftover members of some kind of cult. The answer is much less interesting.

I know deception is a main theme of the novel (along with survival, sisterhood, truth etc) but as things started to become a bit clearer, the whole thing sort of fell apart for me. I had been suspicious of the lack of world building, and was disappointed with the direction the story went in. As soon as the (male) strangers turn up, you can pretty accurately predict what happens next. Any remaining interest in the story and its conclusion dries up as the narrative limps towards its end. I know there will be readers that love this, and that will argue that everything is done deliberately to highlight the ridiculousness of certain types of feminism, for extreme worldviews lacking in nuance , the infinite corruptibility of humans and the many ways in which the naïve will be taken advantage of and molded into a new shape. It just didn't really do anything for me at all. I struggled to find much to hold on to in the narrative, even after more information came to light I still found it hard to feel much of anything for any of these characters. In a book as detached and as Othering as the Water Cure, perhaps that is the take away experience that was intended. However, it leaves me not particularly inclined to reread, to recommend or even to think about once that last page is over with.

The writing really was excellent- claustrophobic, oppressive, languid and threatening, but I just really did not think much at all to the story, which, ultimately is about a man and his wife abusing their daughters away from the eyes of society.

Monday, 30 July 2018

Sabrina by Nick Drnaso

I read graphic novels reasonably frequently, so the quality, impressiveness and sheer triumph of this novel is not a surprise. It is among the most affecting, most chilling and most prescient stories I have ever read in any medium.

This could be our Winner.

Sabrina is largely physically absent from the narrative- an ordinary woman that goes missing, very close to her home just after page 2. We don't see this abduction happen, only its aftermath. This is a narrative of aftermath- of consequences and cause and effect disguised as a straightforward mystery.

How does the world (or America, in this case) respond to horror or tragedy? The Kennedy Assassination? 9/11?Columbine? Sandy Hook? There really are too many school shootings to choose from. The way the masses handle tragedy and violence, the way hysteria breeds conspiracy in the welcoming arms of internet forums and talk radio is at the root of this book. What happens when we aren't bothered about truth, only agenda? What happens when being in agreement is more important than being right? What happens when fact checking just doesn't matter?

The novel mostly follows Calvin, a US airman doing a soulless US security related desk-job at a fortress-like unit in Colorado. He agrees to take in an old childhood pal for a few weeks, a change of scenery. Teddy's girlfriend, Sabrina, has disappeared, presumed dead, and Teddy is wracked with grief, comatose some days. Unsure how to best care for his reconnected friend, Calvin falls back on pizza and beer and resolves to be as supportive as he is able. Teddy sometimes talks to Sabrina's sister, Sandra on the phone as she struggles with the lack of answers, not knowing what happened to her sister. When a videotape surfaces of the murder being committed, things speed up.  Violence too extreme to be so random. An unscrupulous media. A story too unsatisfying and too scary to be true. An apparently senseless tragedy is distorted and rewritten, when Infowars-esque "fringe thinkers" and conspiracy theorists begin to interpret and dissect events to fit their own narratives. Death threats. Accusations. Hoaxes. Sabrina never existed, it's a government cover-up, etc. An increasingly frustrated Calvin, Sandra and Teddy (who is slipping further and further into the mad paranoia of the internet) are tied up in these online wannabe journalists own rejection of the truth in their frenzied, anonymous search for more meaningful answers.

It's a fascinating book about the weaponisation of misinformation and the radicalisation of society's marginalized, lonely people that find assurance and community on these forums. The people who exploit and feed this fear, the places these theories and fantasies manage to penetrate. In a world so full of tragedy, sadness and random acts of violence, the temptation of that Rabbit Hole of conspiracy seems too much. These people seem to be offering answers, rationale, comfort. They promise the Truth.

The artwork is functional, but nothing more. It gives the story the stark, urgent storyboard quality that works so brilliantly. It contains the paranoia, the insular nature of the story's themes. It is not a story of soft edges and beautiful colours. It leaves you hollowed out. Painfully aware of what can lurk inside people that you see every day. Reminds you that you can never really know a person. That we are all capable of falling victim to these predatory spreaders of paranoia and misinformation. That it's not just career conspiracy theorists, it swallows ordinary people into the black hole of misery and fear.

It is essential reading. I hope this book is a way in to the world of Graphic Fiction for new readers because there are some truly era-defining stories being told in that medium.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Trashed by Derf Backderf

A brilliant "ode to the crap job of all crap jobs". Trashed, both funny and informative, documents the technically fictional but actually derived mostly from real life experiences of JB the garbageman, a stand in for author Derf Backderf. JB is a twentysometyhing college dropout resorting to an hourly paid gig on the back of his Ohio village's municipal garbage truck. An unglamorous job at the best of times, JB documents every filthy trashcan, every flattened roadkill and every interaction with the village's more 'characterful' residents. We see to the ladsy, banterous exchanges of the Village's facilities offices and its employees- an odd bunch of assorted jocks, racists and high IQ-low functioning brain types.

It's an eye opening book, reminding the reader that what we throw away might be out of sight and out of mind, but it is still *going* somewhere. Every disposable nappy ever used still exists out in the world. Every toothbrush that every person has ever used is lying in landfill somewhere, or on the sea bed. There's a lot of interesting nuggets about the history of waste disposal, current and former landfill practices and the scale of our current rubbish habit.

It's quite a bitter-sweet book really- engrossing the reader in the day to day lives of the trash team and their small town lives. To see the changing of the seasons and the unchanging quantities of furniture, packaging and other broken bits of property left out for disposal. At the same time it's quite grim in how aware they are of what their futures look like, the bleak generation Y future of deserted high streets, $30,000 degrees with no employment prospects and the thriving small towns of their youth dumped at the curb piece by piece and hurled off to be hidden somewhere people aren't going to complain about the mess.

An unusual story of a small town barely ticking over, about coming down to reality with a bump after adolescence has dissipated to adulthood, about the lifestyle choices we make and the habits we form as a society. It's about our unsustainable habits and our uncertain future.

The Lost World, by Michael Crichton

Enjoyable nonsense- adventure, dinosaurs, improbable happenings and lots of rocky descriptions of frantic action. The book does offer lots of musings on animal behaviour and isolated populations and how an ecosystem built out of creatures raised in total isolation, with no prior generation is in no way a functional thing or in any way indicative of a species' true behaviour. Makes you think about animal society, how something are taught and how some things are instinctively known and what happens when that gets changed.

Also, this is the best combination of dinosaurs. Parasaurolophus, Pachycephalosaurus and Maiasaura all get some page time, the bridesmaid dinosaurs that nobody ever remembers. It's not all about the toothy ones, the long necked ones or the frilly ones. The raptors in TLW are lawless thugs and the Rexes are adorable momma and papa rex and they are the best parents to their little fluff rexes.

Lots of Ian Malcolm Having Clever Thoughts, lots of irritating, cowardly rich kid Levine with all the expensive kit, badass-in-the-field Jungle Jane and animal behaviourist Sarah Harding, not of Girls Aloud fame, two not-annoying smart kid characters, Arby and Kelly that are very endearing and two Q type inventors/engineers Dr Thorne and assistant genius Eddie, building all sorts of equipment for this badly advised trip to Islar Sorna, Site B. The secret hatchery island of BioTech industries, the forgotten island where the dinos went free range that nobody is allowed to talk about. Villainy is bought to you in the form of egg-stealing Dodgson, right hand man King and shifty talking-head TV scientist Baselton.

Perhaps not as good as the first book, but certainly better than the film that got squeezed out of this novel.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Elizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim


I had never heard of this book until I saw a picture on Twitter of the handful of new Penguin English Library editions that had been published this month. I bought it based on 2 things 1- that gorgeous cover and 2- that it was about a woman and how much she loved her garden. For like 3 years I have been a casual gardener, but this year I have really *really* got into it to the point now that I have way more plants and flowers than what can realistically fit in my tiny ex-pit-terrace house and it is looking amazing and I love it.

Elizabeth and her German Garden takes the format of a year's diary of an eccentric aristocrat living in Germany as she wrestles with the estate's neglected grounds in an attempt to tame and mold the thorny wilderness into the garden of her dreams. The garden is her escape from her three unlikely children, surprisingly introduced out of the blue, and her tempestuous husband nicknamed The Man of Wrath. Elizabeth does not appear to enjoy a happy marriage and though she seems fond of her kids (April Baby, May Baby and June Baby) it does appear that she only had them because it never really was an option not to. The book documents her struggles with her household staff (not so much struggling *with* them, as struggling to care about them at all), her interactions with friends and her general attitudes to life and society of the time, particularly the role of women. It's funny, satirical, but makes excellent points about the expectations of women by men and society, their expected behaviour, function and apparently abundant intellectual limitations.

This skinny little book is exactly what I hoped it would be. It's billed as autobiographical fiction, but I can't imagine there is an enormous amount of fiction in there. I felt like I just completely understood Elizabeth, I felt I had found A Me in a previous life, a real kindred spirit. As she's lovingly describing her plans and designs for the garden, for the various flowerbeds and landscaping, I could honestly see it all unfurling in my head- the pansies carpeting the rose beds, the shady corner with the fir tree, the spring bulb bed with muscari and hyacinth, tulips and crocus. I loved how philosophical Elizabeth was about trial and error, about learning from her mistakes.

Aside from the lush, soothing garden talk, I adored Elizabeth herself. She was such a smart, demanding woman. I loved how uncompromising she was, how she refused to be ordinary, much to her husband's frustration. I assume he allowed her 'idiosyncrasies' due to the isolated, rural nature of their location...or perhaps her idiosyncrasies is why they moved to the middle of nowhere in the first place. I found myself constantly nodding along with Elizabeth and her musings. A few choice quotes that I think we can all agree make Elizabeth One Of Us:
"If you have to have neighbours at all, it is at least a mercy that there should be only one; for with people dropping in at all hours and wanting to talk to you, how are you to get on with your life, I should like to know, and read your books, and dream your dreams to your satisfaction?"
"It is much easier and often more pleasant to be a warning than an example"
"The people round here are persuaded that I am, to put it as kindly as possible, exceptionally eccentric, for news has traveled that I spend the days out of doors with a book, and that no mortal eye has ever see, me sew or cook"
I think this is going to be an annual re-read for me, perhaps at the beginning of Spring to get me in the garden mood. How can you not love a 19th century woman that decides to pretty much ditch her husband and her kids and live a reclusive, blossom and bee filled existence of drinking tea and reading books in the garden? She is my hero.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

Driving Short Distances, by Joff Winterhart

I read this in about an hour and thoroughly enjoyed the sort of tragicomedy mundanity.

The artwork is a sketchy, watercoloury mixture of plain white spaces, browns and blues, with a whimsical eye for detail and the absurd. There was one spread of Reception Area bingo that had me belly laughing.

Sam is a 27 year old former art student, back home at his mum’s after several failed attempts at higher education and something of a breakdown.  An introverted, stretchy, somewhat mournful character, he struggles to commit to anything, leaving a series of unfinished projects and shelved ideas in his wake. Out of the blue, he has been offered a job with his absent father’s alleged second cousin, who approached his mum unprompted in a carpark and made an offer. An unspecific role, it seems, that involves a lot of sitting around in the car, listening to stories of the good old days and visiting a lot of industrial estates. Distribution. Clipboards. Filters. Just the sort of mindless, uninteresting occupation that Sam needs to ground him to reality right now.

Enter Keith Nutt, a character so recognisable and so absurdly tragic. Round of belly and hairy of nostril, Keith sees himself as a pillar of the local small business community. Filled with wisdom and advice, he pours his stories into the silent Sam, mildly boastful tales of his old boss and mentor, his bi-monthly carvery dinners with the boys, his spaniel, his influence in the town. Sam soaks them all up. Not a great deal happens. There are some amazing supporting characters, like Hazel-Claire in the bakery and the town ‘character’.

Sam and Keith seem to become fond of one another in their silent, closed-off ways. Keith gets someone to pass on his perceived legacy to, Sam gets a quiet, reflective space to rebuild his sense of self. Is it a story of the generation gap? Of older men struggling to maintain their places in society? Or about the younger generation failing to live up to the promises made through their academic careers? Is it about men, and the way they do (and do not) communicate? Sam describes his humdrum town as “A town of fathers, grandfathers, godfathers, uncles, councillors, garage-owners, newsagents, estate agents, possible freemasons, key janglers and coinshakers, tyre kickers, military memorabiliasts, card carriers and wearer of very strong aftershave”. Is it about depression? Masculinity? Or all the little ways we manage to disappoint ourselves?

I loved the slow burn of this novel, its commitment to the quiet desperation of its characters, the way they slowly altered throughout. It’s a strange transaction that takes place between these very different men. One is socially awkward and thoroughly self-conscious- the other filled with a misplaced confidence and a cast iron moral code. Their time together seems short and on the surface, unsuccessful. But both characters seem to be in better places by the end of the book, so is it a happy story? I don’t know.

It’s shrewdly observed, funny and touching and heartbreaking at the same time. It’s a quiet work of genius, a portrait of an odd couple from a boring old town that hints at all the ridiculous, small ways we manage to become absolutely ridiculous specimens of humanity. A possible masterpiece of contradictory, recognisable brilliance.