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 slowburn 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.

Thursday, 10 May 2018

Needful Things, by Stephen King

The sun was out this week, so, as ever, this prompted me to drop my planned reading list like a hot potato and crack out a  Stephen King in the garden. This time is was Needful Things, the last Castle Rock story. 

What can you say about Stephen King that hasn't been said before? Yes his books are about 20% too long. Yes his metaphors are crafted with the subtly of a chainsaw. And it is a truth universally acknowledged that when King writes a dog, that dog gon' die. However, nobody understands the inherent potential for destruction, the suppressed darkness of the human animal quite like Stephen King. He knows exactly how to take ordinary, unremarkable people and pinpoint the precise thing that would drive them to murder. He knows how badly people secretly want to destroy each other, how badly they want to destroy themselves. Civilisation tries to tame it out of the populace, but there is a germ of carnage in everyone and SK knows exactly how to propagate that.

So. Needful Things is the name of a new store opening in the small town of Castle Rock- a town so small town-ish that this constitutes quite a big deal. A town so small that the Sheriff's office has about 5 members of staff whose duties involve escorting a few drunks home at the weekend and issuing parking tickets. Leland Gaunt, the shops gentlemanly proprietor seems to have *just the thing* for each and every individual that tinkles the shop's bell, that elusive last piece to finish their collection, an exact copy of a treasured item lost during adolescence, the one thing that they have always wanted- and at such a bargain price. Plus one, harmless prank to be played on another townsperson. This formula is replicated all over the town over the course of a week- a normal, ordinary person buys the one Needed Thing, they get possessive and sweaty over it, convinced their nemesis is lying in wait to steal it, just to spite them. Gaunt seems to have done his homework- he knows just how each person feels persecuted, he knows just which small town grudges are held between whom, which suspicions, resentments and hatred are being nursed around the Rock. He knows who the prank-ee will blame, he knows they will be frenzied enough to retaliate. Gaunt spends the majority of the book setting up seemingly unrelated characters to escalate simmering, petty grudges to their murderous boiling points. There are murders. There is madness. There is dynamite.

Trying to work out what the hell is unfolding in the Rock is the Almost Too Good To Be True Sheriff Alan Pangborne, who you might remember from such SK adventures as The Dark Half. He has his usual protagonist baggage (dead wife and son) and a kook that might make him annoying in another context- amateur magic, shadow puppets and lithe, almost supernaturally fast reflexes. He seems to be the fly in the ointment of Mr Gaunt, the incorruptible. Along with his girlfriend, the mysterious Polly Chalmers, debilitated by her painful arthritis, they are the investigative force of the novel. 

Needful Things has a complex web of supporting and incidental characters, and whilst I struggled to remember some of them if they didn't appear for a while, they are all real and believable, each with their own flaws, secrets, jobs and resentments, eating away at them over the years. I really felt like this community was a solid, living and ancient thing. Something with its own rules, mythology and customs. Only SK could create such an apparently strange mixture of small-town normal and big-time evil working in harmonious conjunction with one another. My favourite I think was Norris Ridgewick, eventual hero of Gerald's Game and Andy from Twin Peaks doppleganger. I loved his simple goodness and commitment to his job, and the brilliant relationship he had with Sheriff P. Norris is the sort of small town good guy, unlikely hero you hope might just step up in times of crisis.

Needful Things falls into King's best category- the Supernatural Catalyst that Retreats and Lets the Humans Unleash the Havoc. It's his strongest formula- people are weak, and once they let the darkness in, the monstrous urges of human nature will out. Whether that's Demonic hotels that unlock that nature, murderous clowns, alien interference, telekinetic abilities or forbidden resurrection knowledge, the supernatural element just provides a gateway to the horror that was inside human nature all along. In this case, an omniscient demon with a repulsive touch and colour changing eyes.

Though it is not one of his strongest novels, I really enjoyed it and read it quickly. I felt invested in what happened to a lot of the characters and genuinely shocked at how quickly the dominoes fell down towards the book's firey conclusion. As a heavy handed metaphor for addiction, it works brilliantly. It demonstrates how obsession becomes all consuming, how I loved the themes of need and want, of when something stops becoming enjoyable and becomes a horrendous burden. I liked

Friday, 4 May 2018

Wed Wabbit, by Lissa Evans


Oh my god. A future classic of the "Plunged into a magical and confusing world and given A Quest" genre. A Wizard of Oz without all the ex machina. Alice in Wonderland without the creepy context. A modern great. I bloody loved it.

Fidge, an intelligent and practical 10 year old with problems expressing her feelings, has accidentally caused an accident that has resulted in her 4 year old sister, Minnie ending up in the hospital with a broken leg. She was mad at Minnie, the irritating little sister who always gets her way, because she makes her read the The Land of Wimbley Woos book every night, she is always dropping her toys and generally being scatty, and the combined faffing powers of their mum and Minnie has meant that the sports shop was shut and now Fidge can't get her flippers for the holiday tomorrow. Fidge is not handling her Father's death, 2 years ago, very well. Her clinging onto the ideas of order and organisation are her ways of keeping him close.

Riddled with guilt and anger, Fidge is bundled off to her useless, world-phobic cousin's house, a neurotic, translucent specimen named Graham that is so afraid of his own shadow and a sudden (unlikey) violent death that he spends most of his life in one room lying down and being stressed. In her emotional state and with a sudden flare of cruelty, Fidge hurls Minnine's toys (a purple elephant, Wed Wabbit, a fake phone) and Graham's Transitional Object, a plastic carrot down the cellar stairs, along with a Pop Up edition of the Wimbly Woos. He must go and get them. This assortment of objects, combined with some electrical storm magic, is about to get weird in the most gloriously anarchic way.

Fidge wakes in a strange, colourful world- super green grass, super blue sky, loads of different coloured bin-shaped characters that seem to have very specific skills and talk in rhyming couplets. She recognises the world. But it cannot possibly be so. The world of the Wimbly Woos has been turned upside down. The colours, with their specific skills and attributes have been divided. Most are in hiding. The blues, the strong ones, have become a ruthless army in the service of an evil dictator. Sweets have been stockpiled. The King has been deposed, tyranny reigns. Also, everybody speaks in rhyming couplets, no exceptions.

After linking up with the blubbering, terrified Graham discovered danging from a tree, a random, huggy Pink, the cool, rational Dr Carrot (human sized plastic carrot) and life coach Ellie (giant purple elephant with tutu), Fidge must set about getting to the bottom of what has happened in the Land of the Wimbly Woos. First stop is the Purples, who know the history of the land. This kicks off with a prophecy, some rhyming clues and an expedition the length and breadth of the Land of the Wimbly Woos, an expedition that will teach Fidge and Graham some life changing lessons about bravery, difference and fascism.

I LOVED Ella and Dr Carrot, the adult substitutes. Ella is a purple elephant, performance artist, life coach and free spirit. Dr Carrot is stiff and practical, the example, the ballast that keeps the group grounded. Together they were such a brilliant team and so incredibly funny. I love a band of misfits, and these really were a top quality selection of oddballs and kooks, the very best kind of protagonists and helpers.

Though Minnie is absent for most of the story, she dominates it with her imagination. Everything about the Wimbly Woo's world is directly from her imagination. The punishments, the riddles- all of Minnie's construction. It is so gloriously believable as a a world devised and created by the illogical mind of a four year old.

I loved the book's message- that differences are to be celebrated and embraced and that a team can be more than the sum of its parts. I really liked Graham's evolution as a character- he learned to control his fears, to take risks, to be present rather than afraid. He was much braver and kinder as a result of Fidge and Dr Carrot's influence. Fidge too needed to learn to open up a bit more, that she cannot control everything, that too much control is actually a very damaging thing (just look at Wed Wabbit).

It's a tall order to write a book with a 10 year old protagonist, set in the mind of a 4 year old and create a story that is so universally appealing. Wed Wabbit is so skillfully crafted, so identifiable, so positive and so enjoyable as a reading experience. It's a moving story about sisters and grief and emotions, about working together and being stronger for your collective differences. It's instantly recognisable as a Quest in Magical World narrative, but this particular story is reborn with brilliantly clever use of language (rhyme, speech impediments, the smiley smiley language of picture books), some very modern characters and an intelligent brand of humour that is pretty relentless.

Kids will still be reading this in 50 years, I'd bet anything on that. An absolute belter, one of the best books I've read in a long time.

Friday, 20 April 2018

La Belle Sauvage: The Book of Dust vol 1, by Philip Pullman

I was kind of apprehensive about reading La Belle Sauvage, because His Dark Materials holds an incredibly special place in my heart and revivals, retcons and prequels are rarely good. This is not the place for that list.

I was just so happy to be going back into this world, with young Coram and Sophonax, and the chugging of tokay, and the glow of anbaric light and the Daemons and Dust... I did get the unusual feeling, however, that despite LBS occurring earlier in the timeline, the world just felt more modern than the almost-19th-century of Northern Lights? Just the way people spoke and behaved felt much more contemporary. The "otherness" of Lyra's universe has always felt very palpable, but in this book I found that whilst many elements were the same, I got a much more modern vibe from the environment. It's hard to explain. The world of LBS felt both familiar and altered at the same time.

La Belle Sauvage charts the journeys and adventures of 11 year old Malcolm Polstead of the Trout Inn, near Oxford. Friend to nuns, clearer of glasses, canoe skipper extraordinaire. Whilst exploring the riverbanks one day, Malcolm and his daemon Asta accidentally intercept a coded message hidden inside a wooden acorn- apparently a method of passing information used by secret organisation Oakley Street. This leads him into a friendship with Alethiometer-reader and scholar Dr Hannah Relf, and to her engaging him as a sort of protégé scholar-spy-book-reader and eventually into inevitable danger and adventure. Malcolm has also befriended a baby in the stewardship of the nuns, a 6 week old called Lyra who is apparently unwanted by her mother and both  inconvenient to and endangered by her father. When a deluge unlike anything ever seen before is foreseen, most people choose not to listen. Once the river rises, taking much of the surrounding towns and villages with it, Malcolm, baby Lyra and Alice, a surly nemesis of Malcolm's from the Inn are stranded in the canoe, the Belle Sauvage. Nothing remains but to get Lyra to Jordan College, to claim Scholarly Sanctuary.

I did quite like this book's darker tone. The 1984-esque informant culture of Malcolm's school, of the teachers that refuse to tow the line disappearing overnight. The oppression and the creeping fingers of religious indoctrination, guilt and a sickening sort of righteous patriotism begin to strangle society. It felt like the beginning of something, a foreboding prelude to bigger, scarier things. The parallels with today's unsettling climate of Nationalism and a slide into dangerous far-right discourse and attitudes cannot be ignored. There is one of the creepiest, most skin-crawling villains in a long time, deeper exploration of the fantastical elements of the World, including an River God, a pretty terrifying baby-snatching, Rumpelstiltskin-esque enchantress and a mysterious twilight world of opulence and ignorance, and plenty of river-based adventure.

It was an unusually speedy read for me, I was absolutely swept up in Malcolm and Alice's endeavour. I loved their changing relationship and their familiarity as heroes- Malcolm is capable and mature, intelligent and curious, dependable and honest to a fault. He is a traditional Hero in the most complimentary sense of the word. Not invincible, but he pushes his homesickness and his doubts and any trepidation about being 11 and having too much responsibility here to the back of his mind and Gets Things Done. Alice is surly and bitter, she has weathered a less comfortable upbringing than Malcolm and sees little opportunity available to her. She too is competent and loyal, she is tough and courageous, capable of looking after herself and anybody she feels protective of. Though I read the book quickly and thoroughly enjoyed it, looking back I think I would struggle to fully explain what happened in any meaningful way- criticisms of it being episodic are difficult to deflect.

I think we are all lying to ourselves if we claim this is as good as His Dark Materials, but it is nonetheless an absolute joy to be permitted to revisit Lyras world, to spend some time with the people that were instrumental to her early life, whether she will turn out to remember them or not. Also, the concept of baby daemons? Cutest thing I've ever read in my whole damn life.

Rook, by Anthony McGowan

Nicky and Kenny live with their previously single father shift-worker dad and most of the time, his girlfriend Jenny. It seems that since Jenny's arrival, life has got easier in the household, with barren years of cold rooms, dirty clothes and beans on toast hopefully gone for good. Nicky, a year 11 pupil, is the narrator- a middle of the road kid of kid. Not popular, but not the absolute bottom of the pile. Money is tight, opportunities are few and he gets a lot of hassle about his younger brother, Kenny, who has a learning disability and goes to a special school.

Out walking their dog one day, Kenny and Nicky come across a half-dead Rook- the victim of a particularly powerful sparrowhawk. They take it home to nurse back to health, like they did with a badger one time. Kenny is relentlessly, tirelessly kind, and Nicky just wants him to be happy. The rook acts as a bit of a fable-narrative. A reminder that things can look desperate sometimes, and then they can seem hopeless entirely, but sometimes situations can be misread. Nicky learns, via the allegory of the rook, to have a bit more faith in the world.

I liked Nicky as a narrator, he seemed real and was very endearing. He has a bit of a tough time throughout the book- frustrated, wrongly blamed for something. He makes some bad choices, but it's easy to see how they might have seemed sensible or necessary at the time. He is angry, often very bottled-up and fiercely protective of his family. He's basically just your average, angry, mixed up  teen, languishing under the poverty line and left for collateral, trying to keep his head above water at home and at school.

The real strength of the novella is the relationship between Nicky and Kenny. Nicky is a very honest narrator, he talks about how he'd always imagined that Kenny only really ever existed in relation to him, like if he was out of sight, he ceased to exist. There's a refreshingness about somebody so candidly talking about something that the acknowledge was wrong of them. It's an interesting journey that Nicky goes on, in how he relates to the world around him. Kenny is a wonderful character. He's funny and stubborn and brilliant, and he loves Nicky to bits.

Reading this as accessible, low ability high interesting fiction, it is excellent. It's gritty and realistic, full of themes of injustice and poverty, and a good Coming of Age story about bullying and crushes and being a bit of a loser but resolving to be the best person you can be. Another cracker from Barrington Stoke.

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The One Memory of Flora Banks, by Emily Barr


I didn't really know what to expect from this novel, and blew hot and cold whilst reading it, but came out very much on the pro side in the end. It was a cleverly constructed journey that makes very good use of the unreliable narrator trope to mess with the reader, the protagonist and the entire timeline of events.

The book is about 17 year old Flora, who has little to no short-term memory following the removal of a brain tumour as a 10 year old child. She remembers things for an hour or so, but cannot commit things to memory. She's basically human Dory and is using a very Memento-ish technique of writing herself notes and remainders (on her arms, hands, in notebooks and post-its) to keep herself up-to-date with her own life. Every day when Flora wakes up, she is 10, her best friend is Paige and they both wore pig-tails on the first day of school. Every morning Flora has to read about her operation, her anterograde amnesia her medication and the fact that she is actually 17.

Flora attends a party for Paige's boyfriend Drake (yes, Drake) who's leaving to study on Svalbard. She gets confused and leaves, making her way to the quiet of the beach. Drake follows her, and kisses her on the sand. The next day, Flora remembers. She remembers their conversation, remembers him asking her to spend the night with him, remembers their kiss and the black stone she put into her pocket as a keepsake. She has retained a memory. 

When Flora's parents are called away on an emergency to Paris, Flora is left home with Paige. Only Paige skips out on the gig because she's mad, so Flora's incredibly protective parents don't know that she's alone. Fixated on her new memory, she sets off to the Arctic to find him, convinced that he is the answer to unlocking her memory.

Once Flora gets to Svalbard with the help of a Passport she didn't know she had, a notebook full of notes and her one memory, she really begins to develop as a character. She's a lovable, spontaneous, infectious person, a person that makes friends easily, does what she thinks is right and makes up her own mind. She's endlessly resourceful and determined and brave, and funny and warm. She has to grow up 7 years every day, but she's firey and independent and pretty much unstoppable. Aided by emails from her older brother in Paris, she starts to piece together her own past and Paige's dastardly betrayal begins to look like pretty small fry in the grand scheme of things. (LOVED Paige's brother Jacob, effective having him on paper only in the story, never in person. Really emphasizes his absence)

Initially, this books tricks the reader into suspecting that it could be in danger of fulfilling so many damaging tropes about disability and mental health- that True Love Cures All, that taking medication changes you as a person and suppresses the True, Authentic You. But the novel cleverly subverts those ideas and makes for a much more robust character and a more fulfilling depiction of a young woman living with neurological injuries. It's not the boy she is chasing but the memory, it just takes some new context to know that. It's not *medication* that alters personalities, but there are some things that do.

A very unique, compelling book with a wonderful main character, the Worst Parents, Worst BFF, Worst Boyfriend and Best Brother. It asks questions about memory and identity and how much we take it for granted, how much memory builds the people that we are and the decisions that we make. Also, interesting plot point about the gas-lighting of vulnerable people and on a related note, trying to seduce a woman that believes she is 10 and hopefully won't remember tomorrow is probably the creepiest move I have seen in YA fiction all year. Just wanted to get that in.

Sophisticated, carefully crafted and brilliantly characterised. Very much recommended.

Release, by Patrick Ness


I will read anything that Patrick Ness writes and I will love it because I am predictable and he is wonderful. I love his characters, his style, his general ability to just make you understand and feel absolutely everything his characters think and feel.

Release, like Mrs Dalloway that partially inspired it, takes place in one day (also, wonderfully, with the protagonist mentally resolving to buy the flowers themselves). This is Adam’s Worst Day. A catalogue of Objectively Bad Things happen, but it is also the day that it begins to dawn on him that the golden (though not always plain sailing) time of his youth is drawing to a close and there are unknown, scary, grownup things looming on the horizon of adulthood.

I did feel bad for Adam. Heartbroken, rejected Adam. Adam, harassed by creeps. Adam that knows he’s not being completely present with the people that care for him. Adam that is examining his romantic life and his home life and is beginning to form the conclusion that maybe he just doesn’t deserve to be loved. He’s lost and in pain and vaguely aware that he is hurting people that don’t deserve it, so hating himself a bit more. It sounds a bit melodramatic, but doesn’t feel that way on the page. It just feels painful and raw and exhausting. I loved how authentic Adam felt- it was a very real sort of anguish that any reader would connect with.

I LOVED Adam and Angela, the BFFs relationship that really, this book is about. Tiny statured, pizza toting, bouncy Angela who is so completely honest and refreshing and fun. Such a good, wholesome, platonic love. I loved that they both really wish they were attracted to each other so could just get solve the “Finding a Life Mate” problem but no, it doesn’t work like that and you both have to suffer instead and trial and error your way through the relationship minefield like every other chump. This is where the Forever inspirations are a bit more evident. Angela is fairly open about her sexual experiences and how disappointing and unremarkable they were, how something so apparently culturally significant could just be a bit of an awkward but not particularly regrettable episode that is un-noteworthy in almost every way. Adam too is open about his sexual history, ranking somewhere between a Monk and Byron, his recollections are frank and kind of informative, without being traumatic or sensational. It’s some incredibly skillful writing.

I can’t not mention Linus, Adam’s current boyfriend. I wish we saw more of him. He was sweet and attentive and understanding, he got mad enough at the way he was being treated to show he has integrity, but was understanding enough to show that he is a Genuinely Nice Person and I just hope it works out for the two of them and what this book lets us see is a reasonably rocky day in what will become a solid and loving relationship. I liked that it is not at all a Coming Out Story, which there are approximately 3 million of. There’s unspoken knowledge that Adam’s parents know he’s gay- he knows they know, and he knows that they don’t approve and believe that it’s a choice and a sin. It doesn’t build up to a big, dramatic revelation. He isn’t learning to live with his sexuality or coming to terms with how people treat him because of it. He’s just kind of getting on with life in spite of the unfortunate reality of Religious parents who are very hypocritical in the way that they dish out carefully portion-controlled helpings of their love. It's Coming of Age, not Coming Out and it is much more complicated than who you are attracted to.

I will say that I could have 100% done without the super hench Faun and the trippy Meth Murder victim and her identity struggle with the Pond Queen, but I read this a couple of weeks ago and my brain has sort of revised the whole thing to just be Adam and his Bad Day which works much better for me.

It's such a well crafted book that wears its influences on its sleeve, features complex, crisis-surviving teenagers that feel real and authentic, and though it is bittersweet and painful, the reader does kind of come away from it feeling that things will get better.