Monday, 23 December 2013

Geek Girl, by Holly Smale

Harriet Manners is many things.  Clumsy, strawberry blonde. uncoordinated, purveyor of many facts and knowledge nuggets, hardcore homework fan and socially shunned geek.  And she's just been thrown up on.  All the makings of a fashionista right there...

When an unexpected school trip to the Birmingham Clothes Show sees gawky Harriet being scouted by a top modelling agency, she must choose between her life of trigonometry, daily roastings from the school bully and avoiding her weird stalker or a life of glamour, photoshoots and fame. The only catch is she has zero interest in fashion.  And really a questionable, cartoon-based wardrobe.  Harriet would rather watch documentaries about the Bolshevik Revolution and Humpback Whales than watch any kind of fashion show.  It also means a pretty big betrayal of best mate Nat, who has been priming herself for model-dom for the last 10 years. Dream thievery at its most painful.

I kind of had mixed feelings about the book, though I really liked the characters and it read really nicely.  It's funny, it's warm, the family dynamic is good.  Being a fellow fact fan, I also appreciated the little chunks of trivia, as well as the comforting lists and plans.  Harriet is your usual fish out of water with A Lesson To Learn, a bit like Mia from the Princess Diaries- self deprecating, accident prone, no idea what she's doing and still in the process of a priority overhaul.  It's easy to relate to her as she tries to make the people that have shown faith in her proud- and everybody has wondered at some point or another what it's like to be somebody else, and here is a once in a lifetime opportunity for a total life transformation.

It's well written, the characters are real, the flaws and the unique little habits they all have are believable.  I found myself really liking the inherently sensible, dream crushing stepmother Annabel because she knows Harriet is too good, too smart and too full of promise for such a fickle, damaging industry.  She talked sense and had a lid on everything that was happening, even if at the time it seemed like she was being a heartless, joy murdering witch.  The book's heart is in the right place, but I just found that the ending left a really funny taste in the mouth.  It was promising right up to the final pages.

Throughout the book, Harriet has been on an emotional journey of discovery.  She's learned the hard way that it's what you're like, not what you look like that is important in life.  She's denounced the "freedom of expression" myth that the fashion industry has created and has decided that it's better to be yourself than to mindlessly parrot prepared phrases and wear whatever some designer throws at you. That's all well and good, and I was convinced that this was going to be an excellent "don't let sacrificing yourself be the price of success" story.  When it's revealed that it's Lion Boy Nick that decided she was the next big face and not Wilbur, Harriet is amazed. She's bowled over with joy and brimming with lust for Lion Boy.  She's not at all creeped out by a total stranger deciding that she was "The Right Girl" and flying her across the world to him, changing her entire image and throwing her into a series of events that she seems pretty uncomfortable with. A person that's been aloof, surly, borderline bored and prone to disappearing acts at inopportune moments. Why is Harriet so enamoured with him?  Well, he's really really, ridiculously good looking.  I'd convinced myself by now that Harriet had more depth and integrity than that. She's too good for such superficiality.  She's a future palaeontologist for crying out loud.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

The Humans, by Matt Haig

Being a human is a bit depressing at times. You think about the horrible things that people do to each other, the damage we do to the planet, the selfish things we do to to people that are less fortunate, less powerful, more impressionable in order to line our own pockets. Wars, assassinations, sexism, the entire Media industry, screw-overs, manipulations, divorces: the list goes on.

This book makes you remember that for all the messes that the human race have made, for every good intention that litters the way to hell and for every almighty cock-up that has ever befallen the species: we're not that bad. Actually, parts of what make us so utterly crap are actually what make us amazing and that we are just a crazy mess of brainwaves, unfathomable emotions and 
contradictions.  In the words of John Steinbeck "What good is the warmth of summer, without the cold of winter to give it sweetness"

The Humans, then. Professor Andrew Martin of Cambridge University has just worked out the pattern behind prime numbers and thus discovered the key that will unlock the secrets of the universe and pave the way for unlimited, unimaginable technological advancement, an end to pain and an end to death. The Vonnadorians, a super-advanced alien race many lightyears away, worshipers of the prime number and followers of the religion of mathematics doubt the ability of the human race to
cope with this discovery. As far as they are aware, humans are a primitive species and all they are capable of creating is war, violence and disease. They could not possibly handle such advancement. It would simply destroy them. In order to prevent such disaster, the Vonnadorians dispatch a kind of bounty hunter clone to Earth, under instruction to infiltrate the Martin household, dispatch any humans that might have heard of the mathematical breakthrough and erase any evidence that might be found.

The book opens with this bounty hunter clone overshooting his intended destination (the Professor's study) by a modest margin and accidentally emerging from his space travel on a motorway, where he is promptly hit by a car.  Not to worry though, regenerative properties appear to be standard issue.  The first step on a journey to understanding humans is appreciating the necessity of clothing.  The old Prof. Martin, luckily enough, was just the uptight workaholic type that might have some sort of psychological breakdown and end up roaming a world class university in the nude.  So that particular clotheless caper goes not unnoticed, but accepted  with understanding sympathy.

The first half of the novel is full of this bemused alien immersing himself in the weirdness of life on Earth and trying not to gag at the sight of the fleshy, disturbingly decaying lifeforms that inhabit it. Family dynamics, the concept of saying one thing and meaning another, the news (Or the War and Money show, as he thinks it should be called), dogs, football, alcohol and hangovers and the rules of marriage, when combined, represent something of a steep learning trajectory.  His wife and son notice little difference.  Infact, post naked-breakdown Andrew Martin seems to be a bit easier to live with- an improvement.  He puts his used pots in the dishwasher, he watches TV with his family and lets his son join a band.  He even tries his hand an profanity and smoking, much to his son's bafflement.  As the story goes on, the narrator starts to see what it is about the human race that makes it worth saving. He begins to question the mission he's been sent on- not the not being able to cope with the advancement, that goes without saying- but the destruction of his new family whom he has begun to feel quite attached to, despite his initial reservations.

I love the author's ability to capture the awkward misery and the glowing contentment that makes up the up-and-down marathon that is family life.  The characters themselves, their behavior and quirks and the relationships between them were so brilliantly realised, beautifully written and utterly believable, various parts of every character will resonate with every reader. I said in my thoughts about The Radleys that Haig obviously has a knack for breathing life into dysfunctional families that could otherwise end up being somewhat stereotypical and eye for brilliantly describing the mundane parts of life in ways that are alternately hilarious and a bit grim.  I felt that The Humans was all the excellent writing and characterisation of The Radleys, but with a much, much better story and more fuzzy-feeling satisfaction for your money.

I absolutely loved this book; it's warm, properly funny, infinitely quotable and I think it's going to be a future classic. I'm thrilled that so many people are going to receive it for World Book Night.  The impossible brilliance of the human race needs to be seen through fresh eyes every so often, as our own are a bit prone to seeing only the worst side of life. It makes you remember how precious and fleeting the gift of life is. Sometimes it's brutal and unfair and sometimes it doesn't look like it's worth it.  But this book makes you remember that sometimes it's just the simple things, like being able to appreciate a peanut butter sandwich and have somebody care if you get beaten up, loving someone and caring for people that make being human worth all the hassle.

Would recommend to anybody that was freaked out by The Body Snatchers, humourless mathematicians and anybody that ever feels a bit mopey about humanity.  Also, people who were fans of the terrifying "Not Now Bernard" as kids.

Friday, 13 December 2013

The Testament of Mary, by Colm Tóibín

I’m a bit late to the Booker Prize Shortlist, we all know who won, but I’m still hoping to make my way through the list anyway.  Starting with this one because it’s the shortest and I read it in an evening.

The Testament of Mary is a stream of consciousness, recounted to the reader by Mary (as in the Virgin one, mother of Jesus and that) as she looks at her life, switching between descriptions of her current situation and vivid memories of her past and culminating in the shocking and barbaric crucifixion of her beloved son on a hill in Calvary.  As with many works of fiction that tell biblical stories, it is not the familiar version of events that we are accustomed to hearing.

The novel is a flowing exploration of loss, rage, exhaustion, grief and incomprehension and the sketchy relationship between truth and faith.  It’s a swift read, but a fluid one that manages to transport the reader to back to the first century by creating a sort of silent, unknown community.  I got the impression of dusty bustle and heat, Mary traipsing back and forth through the towns and villages on her mission, though the surroundings are not explored in any great detail.  I suppose most people know them well enough, so a population of characters is all we need. 

Mary is beautifully lyrical in her lamentations, describing her love for her son who she sees as being vulnerable and exploited, in over his head and surrounded by dangerous and untrustworthy men.  She recounts her happy memories of her son’s childhood and her contentment on Sabbath days of the past.  But she’s incredibly bitter at the same time- bitter about the situation in which she now finds herself, bitter at the thought of what has become of her family and her reclusive and sullen life in the shadows.  She constantly tortures herself wondering if there is anything that she could have done or said to have changed the course of events despite knowing deep down that there is nothing that could have been done, something that I’m sure that every reader can relate to.  I really enjoyed the contrast between the two sides of Mary: she is certainly much more human, with more depth than the angelic stained-glass, weeping and praying Mary that is obviously more familiar to us.  Neither is she as sedate or as demure as the gentle mother Mary that rode to Bethlehem on the donkey- at one point she threatens two disciples at knife-point.  The ravages and the conflict of grief were depicted effortlessly and I was enthralled by the fleshing-out of one of the most famous but pretty underdeveloped characters in literature.

Throughout the book, Mary is at a loss to explain why her son, once so much a part of her, has behaved in such a way that has resulted in the most agonising and violent of deaths, ignoring the desperate warnings from herself.  Pretty much ignoring everything she’s said throughout all interactions depicted in the novel.  Jesus comes across as kind of arrogant, though it’s evident in the way that Mary speaks of him that she doesn’t think so, she sees him as lost and dangerously misguided.  The difference between what’s actual and what’s perceived is a prominent theme throughout the novel and it’s something that Mary, bastion of truth that she is, is not immune to confusing.  She seems aware throughout that she is only offering a version of events and that there are bound to be many more.

At present, Mary is elderly, living in exile and is constantly attended by two unnamed men.  They interview and interrogate her daily, demanding that she relives and recounts the days and hours leading up to the crucifixion.  They are not interested in facts or eyewitnesses accounts.  They want Mary to remember their versions of events, the version that they are writing into the Gospel.  I loved Mary’s tone of defiance and of gentle un-cooperation.  The two men were desperate to hear from her mouth the fiction that they had created, but Mary would only give them the fact, and found a rebellious pleasure in doing so.

I really enjoyed this read- it was intense and slightly overwhelming at times, but the presence and the weight that Mary’s voice, so full of anger and grief, succeeded in to carrying the narrative in a way that made it very compelling.  The pace of the book is surprisingly fast for a story that is in reality quite short.   I loved the lyrical language and the gifting of a voice to one of history’s most silently humble figures.  As a lifelong atheist, I really enjoy the idea of literature that offers alternative versions of the Bible stories that we are force-fed as schoolchildren.  I think any re-workings of myths just have that extra flavour to them that comes from playing games with what’s familiar.

If you liked this, I would also recommend the amazing The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman, which also casts a new, more Earthly eye over the life and story of Jesus, his family and contemporaries.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Rook, by Jane Rusbridge

Such a beautiful cover though...
Another Broadway Book Club choice, Rook opens on a promisingly bloodthirsty scene from the battle of Hastings- Edith Swanneck is required to identify the maimed and decapitated body of King Harold before it is even cold.  'Dual thread narratives are quite a commonly used convention', I'm thinking, 'Don't jump to any conclusions yet, it could be interesting'.

Wooshing forward to the present day, don't get too excited, that's the last you'll hear of oldentimes. The rest of the novel tells the story of Nora, a professional Cellist who has returned from travelling the World to her hometown of Bosworth, Suffolk for undisclosed reasons- presumably to face her past, come to terms with something and/or settle a score.  She interacts with assorted villagers, does some rigorous running, has a few passive aggressive arguments with her increasingly frail and progressively senile mother, Ada and adopts a near-death baby rook from a ditch.  One day a young, handsome documentary maker turns up in Bosworth with the intention of filming a documentary on the local church, supposed resting place of King Cnut's illegitimate, drowned and mysteriously unnamed daughter.

What I found most frustrating about this book was the author's distracting use of language.  The book felt like an exercise in "Evoking a Sense of Place" in a Creative Writing course.  Too much long-winded, pretentious description (lots of light, lots of evocative sounds), too many metaphors and adverbs, too much poetic lingering  on unimportant details.  Some might call that beautiful writing, but I just found it really really irritating.  I get that sometimes a place can be as much of a character as the people that populate it, I get that some novels are light on plot but carried by good writing and I get that sometimes novels are like life and sometimes life is boring.  I've got absolutely nothing against flowery prose or against thorough description, but it has to serve a purpose. It needs to endear a character, it has to repulse or reveal.  It's not enough to be just do it for the sake of it.

I also felt like there were far too many superfluous or sometimes downright confusing characters that looks like they were going to infect some life into the plot, but then simply melted away or were forgotten.  The landlord, the Italian ice cream man boyfriend of the Mother, the pregnant hippie and her Greek husband, the guy who buys the books and donates was all too much and in the end I gave up trying to remember who was who..

I'd like to say the pace picks up half way through and it becomes a tense domestic episode, but that would be a lie.  I was thoroughly disappointed with this novel, and reading it became a bit of a chore.  I really wanted to read of the Anglo-Saxon warriors, the horrific battles and the quietly forgotten aftermath that shaped the future of the part of the world that the author seems to love so much, but was left instead with a musician having an emotional breakdown in a town that had just opened a new cafe.

More Than This, by Patrick Ness

I don't recall seeing a cover that sums
up the themes and style of a book as
efficiently and as effectively as this.
It's a transition, and it's walking a line
between two worlds.
Where do I start?  Where can I possibly start in explaining to anybody what an astounding piece of writing this is?  More than that, how can I do so without giving away any of the pieces of such a beautiful, intricate puzzle?  It's 2013.  People should have stopped being surprised at the emotional depth of Young Adult literature. The public will be aware that there are unimaginable levels of sophistication to all types of fiction, all kinds of themes and a multitude of ways to handle those themes.  More Than This is an absolute beacon of warmth, humanity for ANY fiction, not just YA fiction. There are no words.  But here are some words that will attempt it.

The story starts with a death.  Somewhere, cold and alone, a boy drowns in a turbulent sea.  We know he is dead, and he knows he is dead- his spinal chord unambiguously severed.  He- Seth, as it turns out, is as surprised as anybody when he regains consciousness outside his childhood home.  Thirsty, naked, and a bit unsteady on his feet- but certainly not dead.  Waking up to a dusty, deserted, but achingly familiar World, Seth has to work out where he is- Hell? Purgatory? The Afterlife? and how he came be there so alone.

Partick Ness so so skillfully drip feeds both the characters and the reader information, slowly layering up a picture of a life that ended in such a violent death.  As Seth gathers more information from his surroundings, memories and horribly vivid dreams, his past becomes revealed and memories begin to emerge- some intensely private, some buried so deeply as to be almost impossible to recall.  As the gaps are filled in for the reader and for Seth, his theories about the World in which he finds himself change and his understanding of himself and his life is blown apart. From the reader's perspective, you find things out, you think you know where the plot is going, you're pretty bloody pleased with yourself for working it out and then...what's that? It's another insane plot twist that will flip your stomach and blow your mind.  Ness weaves in and out of the past and the present, showing that we can walk a line between two worlds quite easily, withholding key pieces of information until the most essential moment, backtracking and sidestepping and ever so slowly unraveling the scrambled mass of plot strands.

This book really captures what it is to be a teenager disappointed with one's lot in life (so far).  There's a harmless self-centered-ness, an intense anxiety (and inability to believe that the suffocating anguish of being a teenager is temporary) and the fear of the dawning realisation that this might be it.  This might be as good as it gets, and that's pretty crushing.  Most teenagers feel misunderstood and alone at some point, and Ness really brings those feelings across brilliantly.  The book forces you to ask what is it that matters in life.  Is it knowing?  Is it feeling or loving or being satisfied that everything you are is real?  Or is it just being happy, however that is achieved?  

There are more things I would like to talk about- the reason for Seth's crushing guilt, the things he has to hide, the things he longs for and his pretty terrible family life, but the elements of this novel fit together so beautifully and so thrillingly that I don't want to reveal too much.  I enjoyed the breathless pace and the importance of these discoveries as they are made so much that I'd hate to take that away from anyone.

Such a beautifully written, insanely original and tightly plotted novel.  Written with the same tenderness and profound understanding of human nature, loss and pain that is a bit of a hallmark of a Ness novel, More Than This is pretty staggering.  It's a novel of afterwards: Afterlife, aftermath, after love and after loss and after everything.  It's being at the end and being ready for it.

I'd recommend this to people that want something more than the average dystopian future narrative, and to the technologically minded.  It would also be a great read for Video Game fans and seeing as it deals with a lot of "issues" (immigration, LGBT, domestic violence, bullying, berevement) there's a lot of ways in...

Monday, 2 December 2013

Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

This novel takes place in the town of Wall, a part of the world where the Real World meets Faerie, the realm of magic.   Stardust is a book for adults set in a location that would normally host stories for children- think enchanted forests, dastardly witches, perilous mountains and wondrous folk.  No dragons, no wands and no trolls or elves, it's a refreshingly old fashioned pre-Tolkein world of wonder, general enchantment and old magic.   

Tristran, unbeknownst to himself is half human, half faerie and has never quite found his feet in the town of Wall.  He likes it well enough, but he has never really fit in.  One night, to prove his love for the aloof but incredibly beautiful Victoria Forester, he declares that he shall enter Faerie in pursuit of a fallen star that they have both seen fall from the sky. Thinking he would never dare to breach the border wall, much less succeed in returning both alive and with star, Victoria promises Trtistran a kiss and perhaps her hand in marriage should he succeed.  To the surprise of the town, Tristran sets off to retrieve the Star (a star which would turn out to be a sulky, slightly sweary blonde with a broken leg named Yvaine), going where no mortal has gone before, into the world of the magic.

Gaiman strikes an inimitable balance between traditional fairytale (both storybook and creepy original), humour, charm and fantastical action.  I can't remember the last time that I read a book that contained sword fights, unicorns, sky pirates, inter-species affairs and quite so much metamorphosis.  It's quaint. in a very British way, but also clever in its ability to populate a brand new, modern story with partially and almost-familiar characters that might or might not have wandered from the pages of a book read 30 years ago...
Tristran's a likable character, slightly befuddled and a bit dim, but we can excuse him as he is stupefied by beauty and infatuation.  He's moderately resourceful but a bit clumsy.  Yvaine, the immortal but misplaced Star is not really your average fairytale female, being a bit more willing to do her fair share of the rescuing.

The novel establishes a couple of narrative threads from the beginning: the surviving heirs of the faraway Kingdom of Stormhold- three brothers competing to the death for the chance to rule; the perilous and not always entirely consensual journey of Tristran and Yvaine, from their unguessed location back to the town of Wall; the pursuit of the Witch Queen on her goat cart, who needs the heart of a Star to regain her youth; and the meandering journey of the hermit-ish Madam Smele, evil captor and market trader. The threads of the stories are wound up brilliantly in the closing pages, which makes for a really nostalgic, satisfying read.  Good for fans of fantasy, fairytales and nostalgia and doesn't even force any Take That songs down your poor unsuspecting ears.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The Shining, by Stephen King

I'll start with a confession.  This is the first Stephen King novel that I've read.  I don't know how or why it's worked out that way, but it seems so.  Will definitely be reading more though- what a master.  I could not put this down.  I watched the film straight after and was staggered by how disappointing it was in comparison.  Despite the "Come play with us", the "All work and no play" bit and the "Here's Johnny" being inventions of Kubrick (Or Nicholson), the book just maintains the feeling of suspense so much better.  The family's relationships with each other and their understanding of the Hotel and of any Supernatural influences is managed with so much craft.

Firstly, the prose is fantastic.  Thoughts, actions, dreams and flashbacks are blended together with such skill that within about 50 pages, the reader has a profound understanding of each of the characters, what makes them function and what each of them fear.  The reader understands the motivations of Jack, for needing his family to go with him to look after the Overlook Hotel.  His shame, embarrassment and pride all play a part, but at the end of the day he is a husband and father trying to take care of his family.  They know that too, but their misgivings are made clear and their reasons are shown. Their Nothing is hidden from the reader, which just makes the tension so much higher.  You know more or less what's coming, thanks to Danny's premonitions, dreams and nightmares, but you are never sure to what extent they are accurate and more importantly when they are coming.  Neither does he.  

I loved the investment that the author makes in his characters.  Jack Torrence could easily be the textbook psychopath, but King makes him into something much more. He's a real person with his own demons, a struggling recovered alcoholic, disgraced academic, frustrated writer and custodian of a pretty nasty temper. He's flawed, he's troubled, but he loves his wife and son and that's made crystal clear.  His mental deterioration throughout this book is only partially supernatural, the signs are there from the first page that this is a man on the edge.  Wendy Torrence too is so much more engaging than the screaming, Phoebe-running doormat of Shelley Duval.  She's torn between her responsibilities to her son and to Jack, and lives in terror of becoming her mother, jealous of the father/son bond between the two of them. 

A lot of the time, I find child characters annoying.  They are often a bit of a liability or just badly written, but Danny is so mature and has such a good grasp on the world that he's practically a small adult.  He's resourceful, undeniably weird, sensitive in an uncloying way and just wants to keep a lid on all the crazy that's kicking off.  But without making a fuss.

Secondly, the way that the author combines the psychological and the paranormal is flawless.  Danny's powers are made evident, though his parents seem semi-aware they don't understand the extent of his abilities, his ability to feel their emotions and to understand their thoughts.  Neither does Danny, really.  Though they play a big part in the plot and in the characterisation of himself and his family, his psychic powers seem more than merely a plot device.  Danny's "Shining" acts as a sort of catalyst and power source for the Overlook Hotel, allowing the shadows and the smoky wisps to become solid, rational and able to inflict harm.  It's hard to tell what's real and what seems real through the power of suggestion, which is something that the reader and the characters struggle through together.

I can't honestly say that this book is terrifying, but it's so soooo compulsive.  As Jack pours his interest and his attention into the Hotel, the building sort of steals it, and pours some of its malevolent self into him.   Seeing the change in the character and the onset of madness is really compelling and makes for a pretty breathless read.    Loved it.  Went out and immediately brought Cujo, The Green Mile, The Stand and Under the Dome.  Just to make sure that Stephen King is as good an author as his squillions of dollars suggest that he is.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

HHhH, by Laurent Binet

Another Broadway Book Club choice, HHhH I can only describe as uniquely annoying. I can't even decide what my overall feelings about it were, they swung from admiration to hatred so frequently.

HHhH (eventually) tells the story of Operation Anthropoid, a daring assassination attempt on the life of super-Nazi extraordinaire Reinhard Heydrich in Prague during World War II. The part that has a narrative follows the history of Operation Anthropoid, picking up a few historical strand from elsewhere as it rolls along, and looks at the lives, histories and circumstances of heroic parachutists and would be assassins Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubis.  Binet is also careful to pay proper tribute to all the Czech and Slovak civilians that risked their own necks and the necks of their families in the name of resistance and paid the price.

I felt like I learned a lot from this book- did I ever mention how bad my history was? I didn't know Russia was even *in* WW2 until I played Call of Duty: World at War. Not my strong suit. The diplomatic and social history of the now non-existent Czechoslovakia is really interesting, as is the history and the career of one of the only men who can claim to be more evil than Hitler. Apparently it was Heydrich that masterminded and executed "The Final Solution" towards the end of the War. His several nicknames (The Blond Beast, The Hangman, The Butcher of Prague) don't really do justice to the absolute walking ball of evil that was Heydrich.

But what of the annoyance? Well. Throughout the entire novel, Binet bemoans the fact that all historical novels are riddled with painful inaccuracies, speculation and embellishment. And so they may be. But it's not of particular importance to the people that read them. Binet seems torn throughout- he is obviously an indisputable expert, borderline obsessive about the story of this particular mission. Should he have just written a factual book about Operation Anthropoid? I think he should have...I think he would have been happier with that, maybe he would have felt that he was doing a greater service to his heroes.

HHhH is insanely thoroughly researched, you have to give him that. But to constantly berate the concept of fiction, to make your hatred of literature (both with and without a capital L) known repeatedly throughout- I think, just antagonises the reader. I like fiction. That's why I'm reading whatever this book is. A non-fiction novel? I dunno. Just don't make out that your story, or your information, or whatever it is is too noble, too worthy or just far too important to stoop to the murky depths of fiction.

Half of the book is the story of the assassination mission. This is very good- expertly told, informative, full of heroism and suspense. 25% is Binet moaning about fiction, the inaccuracy, the embellishment, the speculation, the unworthy authors that have smeared his precious fact. 25% is a biography of the book. It's like Binet is a character in a book who's currently writing a book about Heydrich's assassination. He talks about his trips to Prague, to museums, to cafes. He talks about his girlfriend, his friends, his father.

It's unique, it's unusual.  Binet's obviously a gifted storyteller, which is what makes his attacks on the concept of fiction so annoying.  Is he being ironic?  Is he saying that nobody can ever know for sure what happened in the annals of history, but he knows more than most, and though he hates embellishment he's going to embellish anyway and then moan about it and we'll never know where the history ends and the fiction begins?   I honestly can't tell if I liked it or not, but it was certainly interesting.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness

The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first book in nominated-for-just-about-everything-ever-between-them Chaos Walking trilogy. It starts in the ''New World" town of Prentisstown where Todd Hewitt is the last boy in town. Since the war, Prentisstown has no women left and when a boy turns 13 something happens to him which means he becomes a man. It must also be mentioned that in Prentisstown, everyone can hear the thoughts and memories of everybody else- the 'Noise' that spills out of every man in inescapable waves. Even animals have noise, from the most private to the most inane, there's no getting away from it.

Out collecting apples with his intellectually challenged dog Manchee, life changes dramatically for Todd a month before he becomes a man. Todd discovers an impossible silence, a gap in the noise, in the swamp outside Prentisstown. Returning home that afternoon, he finds that his guardians, Ben and Cillian have his bags pre-packed, no proper answers and a lot of meaningful looks and hurried goodbyes for him. Running from sudden gunshots towards the swamp, Todd is about to find out for himself that though the life he has led has been hard and miserable, it is not the truth. He and Manchee are forced from home for reasons unknown, with only a rucksack and a book he can't read to begin a journey across a world that until that morning, Todd had thought was absolutely empty of any other settlement. Blindly making his way to where he's guessing he's supposed to go, Todd meets a lot of people- one that stays through thick and thin, some that help, some that heal and some that hurt. He faces prejudice, impossible decisions, tests of strength and faith, but his resilience, bravery and constant need to do the right thing keep Todd and his companions running from their enemies.

Like all the best Young and not so Young Adult novels, The Knife of Never Letting Go touches on some of the most universal elements of humanity. Themes of love and loss, family, loyalty, doing the right thing, sacrifice, death, bravery and most things in between. It's fast paced, engaging and has some brilliant characterisation. Ness knows exactly what balance of made-up dialect, phonetic speech, grumpiness and personality idiosyncrasies to use to create a believable character that comes across as both ordinary and remarkable at the same time. I loved the handwritten fonts that revealed who's noise was being heard at the time- the mixed up jumble of fonts in loads of different sizes reveals to the reader how angry up upset a Prentisstown resident is and shows how oppressive and overwhelming it must be to hear that all the time.

I had to read a book club title straight after TKONLG, but all the way through I was desperate to put it down and start on the sequel, The Ask and the Answer. The first book ends on such a cliffhanger that it's impossible to wait. Todd is not the only person with questions that he needs answers to.

Throughout A Monster Calls, also by Partick Ness, I was constantly impressed by the emotion and the warmth in Ness' prose. This book is the same- it's the idea of hope dragging a person through the worst experiences in the world, even when it looks like there isn't any end to the misery. He's soooo good at creating characters that the reader empathises with- despite being inexperienced, beaten up, ruthlessly pursued and emotionally ruined, Todd still shows so much strength of character, and I think that is, in part, what makes the pages of this book turn so quickly.

The Bodysnatchers, by Jack Finney

This is a re-read for me, one I nominated at my book club and it won the vote! Yaaaay.

I really enjoyed re-reading this- one of the easiest, creepiest and most swiftly-paced Science Fiction books I can think of.  I can't say as there was anything profound and important that could only be discovered on a second read...but that's sort of the beauty of the style of this book- it's so easy and quick to read and the pages just fly past.

If Philip Marlowe is a hard boiled Private Detective and Walter Neff is a hard boiled criminal/insurance salesman, then Dr. Miles Bernell is very much the hard boiled GP. Born, raised and Doctoring in the small Californian town that his father practised in before him, Miles knows every soul in Santa Mira, knows their business, their jobs, their characters. He knows every hill and path through the valleys and every field on the edge of town. When he starts getting patients visiting his surgery telling him that their relatives aren't really their relatives, he doesn't know what to make of it. First it's just one. Then it's half a dozen. All convinced that despite looking, acting and remembering to the last detail like they always have done, they're just different.  When Miles and his neighbours discover something impossible and undeniably horrific in the basement, something that looks like a dead body but has never been alive, never been completed or had the finishing touches put on it, they know they've got a potentially species threatening disaster on their hands. It's just a case of finding out how far it's invaded so far...

It has to be said, this book could be considered a tad dated in areas when it comes to gender roles- the women fix a lot of coffee, cook sausages, go into shock quite a lot. The men smoke cigars, make decisions and speed around in cars...Miles is certainly the gung-ho saviour dreamboat that was apparently so ubiquitous in the 1950s. His one-time sweetheart, the recently re-appeared future squeeze Becky has to constantly remind Miles that women can do more than stand clutching their faces frozen in horror at the sight of anything, which she proves later on. I'm not convinced this book would be published today, it's not gory enough, it's ending might be seen as a bit of a cop out and the horror of being turned to dust in your sleep just seems too subtle.

The story of the space spores drifting to Earth and perfectly replicating humans, turning the originals to dust in their sleep is always thought to be a metaphor for communism or free will or something...the idea of the doppelganger is nothing new, but this novel combines the uncanniness of the doppelganger with deadly organisation skills- a recipe for the end of humanity. Whatever it is, it's chilling, slick, in places quite funny, and generally a really enjoyable entertaining and highly original Science Fiction novel. Soooo some of the characters' actions and decisions are questionable... yeeees some of the science might be a bit made up...I knooooow the ending is a bit too convenient...It's a fun, hammy, B-Movie fan's dream come true and I love it.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

1984, at Nottingham Playhouse

I read this book over 10 years ago, so I can't recall if it's a faithful or literal adaptation of the novel, but faithful or not this new play, a collaboration between Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company and Headlong certainly captures the stiflingly oppressive atmosphere of one of the English Language's most important books.  I remember there being more roaming in the Ghettos and Ulcers in the book but that's probably best left out...

Using a combination of high-frequency noises, static, floodlights and really innovative live projection equipment, the production makes it feel less like you are watching a play of 1984 and more like you are in it. The lights and noises are uncomfortably intense and disorientating and do an incredible job of showing Comrade 6079, Winston Smith's mental state and his confusion- it becomes impossible to know what's real, what's new and what's repeated, what's memory, what's imagined and what's just plain old lies.

This  adaptation focuses not on the gigantic eyes of Big Brother, surveillance personified, gazing down on the individual but on the tiny and insignificant eyes of the minority of one, gazing up.  Looking hard at Big Brother, being baffled and full of silent rage.  It's not about the watchers, it's about the watched.  Or the possibly watched, or the threat of being watched.  Personally I don't know what's so special about Winston. I don't know why the Party are so interested in him and why they become so intent on his destruction.  He's one man.  Yes, he believes himself to be a part of the Brotherhood, the organisation dedicated to destroying the Party that may or may not exist, but he knows he will never meet any other members. There's no way that his rebellious fire could possibly burn any body else.  He associates with few people, none of whom he likes, and he's hardly a leader of men.

For the unfamiliar, the world of 1984 is one of paranoia, propaganda and fear. 'Newspeak', the only language in the world with a shrinking vocabulary, is being rolled out by The Party, its intention is to eliminate rebellion and anarchy. If you have no terms in which to describe these behaviours and to discuss the acts themselves, anarchy and rebellion will cease to exist. To even think in terms of non-conformism is punishable by death, or more commonly, disappearance. That's Winston's job. To modify historical records, newspapers, documents, photographs, all physical evidence of existence to match the preferred history of the Party. If you are ever wiped from existence, it will be Winston or one of his colleagues that presses delete.

Not to give too much away, Winston's own personal act of rebellion is to fall in love, something which is forbidden. It's dangerous and it's life threatening and it's the beginning of a series of events that will lead to betrayal. double agency and to the most famous room in literature.

Excellent, intense performances, particularly from Mark Arends who progresses from bored malcontent to ruined mess and some of the most creative production I've seen. The nightmarish sequences in the Ministry of Love and the destruction of the last piece of unobserved haven in the world are done so, so effectively it's impossible to explain. The Henry James-esque contextualisation bookending the narrative were excellent, if that's an addition made by the director it was a stroke of absolute genius- people do have a tendency to over analyse the historical words of the miserable and this was acknowledged so stylishly.

Go see it, then you'll know what I mean. At Nottingham playhouse from Friday 13-Saturday 28 September -

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel

I was very prepared to like this book. Having already proven to myself that I do not thoroughly hate historical fiction by going mad for The Marlowe Papers, I was expecting remarkable things from Winner of ALL THE PRIZES Ms Mantel.

Set in the reign of Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Blacksmith's Son and former runaway, has abandoned his beloved but disgraced Cardinal Wolsey and earned himself a place in the King's court.  He's good at talking people into and out of things.  He gains and loses assorted familiy members. It's backstabby, it's got some women in it. They storm around in dresses and look at tapestries. The king likes to have his own way...some people get put in prison for being Lutherans...

Oh god how I raged at this book. It starts off well enough, in the beginning I quite liked ragamuffin sailor escapee young Thomas Cromwell. The first of many Thomases...Tomi, if you will. He's promising, ruthlessly building himself out of the role of 'blacksmith's son', to cloth merchant, to landed douchebag to second most powerful man in the land. As with many books, I don't know if it's my history that lets me down...I'm not reading it to learn history though, so I don't care if this isn't accurate or this couldn't have happened, I'm reading it to go on some sort of courtly rampage with some of history's most outrageous characters.

I think it's the characters I felt most let down by in this novel, actually. I found Henry VIII to be sort of sad and easily manipulated, Anne Boleyn to be a spoiled diva and Thomas Cromwell to be the king of all suckups. Katherine of Aragon was some sort of mournful martyr and I really couldn't work out why everyone hated Wolsey so much. Or Thomas More. Maybe this is historically accurate. Maybe the characters not being as you expect was what Mantel was going for. I just didn't care about what happened to any of them, really. Apart from Jane Seymour. She seemed nice* 
*yes I am aware she gets the chop, historically.

The style of writing was the source of most of my rage. In fairness, it was probably ok. I finished the book at least, so something must've kept me going, although I really can't work out what. Refusing to follow my own advice and give up on books I'm not enjoying once more. Mantel's use of language and turn of phrase is occasionally genius- she is very good at creating beautiful moments that sort of last for an instant and then are gone. Many of the meetings between Thomas Cromwell and Mary Boleyn felt like that, I felt that was a story strand that was going somewhere. However, her reluctance to use proper dialogue signposts was infuriating. Some authors choose to not use speech marks and paragraphing to be cinematic, or to disorientate the characters and/or reader, but I really can't see why Mantel chose to not use speech marks or indication as to who was speaking.  Or thinking.  Or mixing their speech with thought. I didn't care enough about what was going on to try to work it out. Which brings me in a roundabout way on to: "He, Cromwell, went for a walk.". "He, Cromwell, entered the room". WHY?! Why keep doing this?!!? Why set such signposts in a scene that involves one man, and then omit them entirely from multi-men scenes?? Argh!!

It was very much a novel of ups and downs. Paragraphs of brilliance ruined by odd editorial choices, lacklustre characterisation and poor signposting. I am my own worst enemy when it comes to not knowing when to give up. But you can't really moan about a book unless you've read it.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Zombies and Forces in Motion, by Mark Weakland

Another brilliant series from the Graphic Library Collection- I can't recommend these enough.

This series uses various monsters and phenomena to explain scientific theories, the full list is pretty impressive;
  • Aliens and Energy
  • Bigfoot and Adaptation
  • Frankenstein's Monster and Scientific Methods
  • Ghosts and Atoms
  • Mummies and Sound
  • Vampires and Cells
  • Vampires and Light
  • Werewolves and States of Matter
  • Zombies and Electricity
  • Zombies and Forces and Motion
Note they have correctly gone for "Frankenstein's Monster" instead of Frankenstein.  19th Century lit pet peeve right there.

There is no excuse for not revising when it's explained like this!  Hopefully I'll be able to buy the rest of the series this year, because these really are brilliant.  This particular edition uses a zombie attack to demonstrate the effect of various forces and how they might be utilised on the undead.  Having a thorough knowledge of the function and application of the forces of gravity, the first law of motion and resistance are going to be nothing but helpful in the event of a zombie invasion. 

Dangle them off planes, shoot them out of cannons, slide them around in the back of a pick-up truck. As long as you're remembering why and how these poor Zombies are being flung around in such hilarious ways, then it's all good.

It's like if Bill Nye the Science Guy got put in charge of directing an episode of the Walking Dead. Awesome, right?

Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Boycott

It's always a bit of an impossibility to find good Accelerated Reader (a reading programme commonly used in schools to improve reading) stuff that is non Fiction and is accassible and actually engaging.  I absolutely love this Graphic Library collection- there's a history collection, an Archaeology one and a science one, more of that later.  They're easy to read, the artwork is excellent and they capture important and sometimes complex theories and historical incidents in a way that's understandable and accurate. 

Personally, I'm not so up on history- of any kind.  British, military, US, Sporting, Ancient, Kings & Queens...definately not my forte.  If I haven't studied literature from that period, there's a very good chance I've not even thought about it since reading the "Weetabix book of History" where the history of the world is explained by sentient Weetabixes dressed in historical costumes.

1950/60s America though, I have a working knowledge of (Thanks mostly to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird, Colour Purple etc).  I just think the Civil Rights Movement is facinating.  The bravery, solidarity and dignity of absolutely everyone involved in the movement is amazing.  In 27 pages this book manages to characterise Rosa Parks and Marthin Luther King Jr thoroughly, signpost some of the crucial events in the Civil Rights movement and tell some of the lesser known incidents too.

I think sometimes it's easy to forget that such law-backed discrimination actually existed so recently, and then you look at what's going off in Switzerland and suddenly it doesn't seem so crazy.  I just hope that there will always be people like Rosa around to make people see how stupid laws can sometimes be and that they've got the guts that she did.

Really, really good book, would recommend that every school library has the full set of the Histories series and the Science series.   See also Graphic Biographies' book on Harriet Tubman

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Blindness, by Jose Saramago

This book has been on my TR list for a while- and after two separate recommendations at the Book Club that I go to, I ordered it there and then, sat in the lounge at Broadway Cinema. So glad I did, easily one of the best books I have read in recent years- powerful, some might say far fetched, but I would say absolutely believable, well characterised whilst remaining quite mysterious too. It's a well plotted and very poetically written novel that looks at how humanity reacts to adversity, disaster, incarceration, injustice and how valuable companionship and resilience is in difficult times.

Blindness is set in an unnamed but sunny and densely populated city, presumably some time in the 1990s. One day, whilst sitting in his car at a red light, a man goes blind. A good Samaritan escorts him home, stealing his car on an impulse. The thief goes blind, standing at the side of the road beside his stolen car. The doctor that examines the first man can find no reason for his sudden blindness and during his research that evening, the Doctor goes blind. As do all the patients that he has seen that day. And the policeman who attended to the car thief. Blindness is spreading, eye to eye, like a contagion- however inexplicable that may be. The story is told by an all-seeing narrator, seeing enough for the whole city, and told mostly from the perspective of the Doctor's wife. She has miraculously retained her sight, but must hide it or become a slave to the hordes of blind people.

Firstly, a comment on the style.  Though I found it to be effective, it's not a writing style that is going to win over the unconvinced or the fussy. Saramago takes a very McCarthy-ist approach to punctuation and to dialogue signposts. If you're a fan of the conventional "Bla bla bla," Said character X, I'd advise against this novel. Saramago has, I think, made a deliberate attempt to anonymise the characters in this book- it's hard to work out who's talking and to whom (as it would be if both parties were blind). None of the characters are named, as the blind point out throughout- what's the point of a name when there's no face to attach to it? I loved the nicknames that the author chose to identify the characters: the Doctor, the Doctor's wife, the first blind man, the thief, the girl with dark glasses, the old man with the eye patch, the boy with the squint, even "the dog of tears" which was a personal favourite of mine. I loved how descriptive the 'names' were and how people can end up being defined by the slightest characteristic or habit. It's surprising what sticks when it's just memory that's working.

What I love the most about Catastrophe/End of the World novels is the collapse of society and the depiction of what emerges out of the collapse. Blindness does an excellent job of showing the sheer panic that inevitably descends on governments, individuals and societies when faced with disaster or danger in the beginning, followed by the absolute abandonment of Human Rights, democracy and any sort of ethical consideration in producing a solution and the social car crash that results. In this book, the initial blind are rounded up and Quarantined in an unused mental hospital, provided with supplies and guarded day and night by the army. As more and more blind arrive in truckloads at the asylum, along with those that have had contact with the blind, power struggles emerge- no space, no food- democracies become dictatorships, deadly conflicts break out and the blind fight amongst themselves for dignity and survival- some of the asylum chapters are absolutely horrific and show the most animalistic side of human nature. But it proves that if a person is treated like an animal, they will become one. The book shows how quickly civilisation and civility can break down when it's pretty evident that nobody is watching. Once the narrative dramatically shifts to the outside world, it's interesting to see how the characters that have been confined react and adapt to a blind world, where they're no longer part of the feared infected but part of the blind mass.

Blindness is such a brilliant book; thought provoking, tragic, funny in places and uplifting in a weird way. Like the narrator points out, all children play at being blind but it is completely impossible to imagine how blind people function independently on a daily basis. It's such a scary way for society to come to an end, to be suddenly blind and having to exist in small herds of strangers, sleeping in shops because you were not at home when you went blind, depending on memory to move around and never being able to locate your loved ones or your now useless belongings. Absolutely brilliant, I'm sure I'll remember it for a long time.

If you've enjoyed catastrophic-rebuilding-civilisation books such as The Day of the Triffids, the Death of Grass or Fugue for a Darkening Island then this is an absolutely brilliant addition to that bunch.

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

A Monster Calls, by Patrick Ness, Illustrated by Jim Kay

The deserving winner of the double award last year (the CILIP Carnegie and the Kate Greenaway) A Monster Calls is a beautifully tragic fairytale about the worst thing in the world.  It's about loss and strength and coming to terms with tragedy, being allowed to make bad decisions and dealing with life's trials in your own time and in you own way.

Conor lives in the house that he has always lived in with his mother, who is suffering from quite advanced Cancer. This is made clear quite early on. She has tried lots of different treatments but so far none have been very effective. Conor's dad lives in America with his new wife and new baby and the only other family mentioned is Conor's formidable and very un-Granny-ish Grandmother.

One night Conor is visited by a monster, but it's not the monster that he's been expecting- the one that haunts him at night in his recurring nightmare.  This monster that's appeared in the garden (who spends most of his time being an ancient Yew Tree) thinks he can help him with his stories, but Conor's not so sure.  There's not really anything that can help him with what he's going through- bullying, loneliness, his mother's horrible illness, the sympathetic looks, his dad's apparent disinterest in him...

A beautiful story that emphasises the fact that sometimes it's harder than anything else in the world to tell yourself the truth.  It's easier to bury your head in the sand and hum than it is to face up to reality.  Conor, learning this lesson at a horribly young age, needs to accept what's happening to his family before he can even start to understand and get over it- he's a bottler and the monster needs to teach him not to be.

The illustrations in this novel are incredible and add a huge amount to the story- more inky shades of black and grey than anybody knew existed and  textures that add so much menace and atmosphere to the story.  They communicate so well the simultaneous vagueness and the pointless detail that people remember about rooms and locations in which they have horrible news broken to them.  The reader can understand the anger and the fear that is beginning to drown Conor through the changing tone of the artwork.  I can't even begin to imagine how much labour went into the artwork- absolutely stunning.

I think it's fairly well established what an excellent book this is- it is absolutely impossible to dislike it. It's affecting, sensitive without being sentimental and it's incredibly realistic- the ending is devastating and is absolutely brutal in its realism,.  Whether you believe that the Monster is real or is part of Conor's dazed and dreamlike existence, his message cannot be disputed- there's only so long you can lie to yourself. 

You can hear author Partick Ness talking about A Monster Calls on this Podcast from the Guardian.

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

The Radleys, by Matt Haig

There are several versions of the cover of this novel- this one appears to be the only one that makes no references to Vampires.  Normally the cover wouldn't be that big of a deal to me, but I feel like I should point out that the other covers have bats, bleeding necks and the like, but this cover focuses more on the suburban setting, rather than the Vampiric tendencies of the characters. To be honest, if it was the bats/neck cover that I'd seen in a shop I wouldn't have ever bought it. Unless it's Neil Gaiman, vampires and bats are a no, I'm afraid.

Well. The Radleys. It's an interesting take on the recent vampire boom- a family of Abstaining Vampires attempt to blend into an idyllic British village by ignoring their every instinct and doing their best to blend in with the neighbours as much as possible. Mum and Dad (Helen and Peter) have been fighting every day for 20 years to suppress their instincts by having normal jobs, cooking Sunday dinners, making chit chat, attending book group meetings, hosting dinner parties and mowing the lawn. Teenagers Clara and Rowan- pasty, sickly, meek- don't know what they are. They don't like sunlight and they scare animals, but they don't think anything of it.

Haig's writing is at its strongest when he's describing the humdrum mundaneness of life. The routines, the crushing expectations, the keeping up appearances. One part at the beginning really stood out to me- describing the village as a giant costume shop that people must either leave as soon as they can, or buy a costume and pretend to like it for the rest of their lives. He has a real talent for exposing the unseen tragedy in everyday life and for really getting under the skin of his characters- I thought Peter, the upstanding village doctor was done especially well. The way that he struggles to keep his desires under control is brilliantly written and the constant, crushing strain that's placed on his marriage is developed well. The author obviously understands the absurdity of people and their bizarre relationships with each other very well.

However, as skilfully as the novel is written, I'm afraid the story itself was somewhat predictable and a little unappealing. Whilst Haig withheld the fact that the Radleys were vampires the story seemed promising- the mystery and unease that is built up around the house and its inhabitants was very intriguing and very competently written. Once the hedonistic uncle was introduced to the suburban equation and we find out that the family are vampires and everyone decides how they feel about it, it kind of went down hill and got a tad soap-ish. Although as a picture of absurd suburbia that might have been completely intentional, I really don't know.

In summary, I think it's fair to say that as a novel, I did not enjoy this a great deal, but I can't really work out why. I found the plot to be predictable and a concept that was intriguing when it was a mystery, but fell a bit flat when revealed- but that can't be the only reason. I don't think it's written badly though, which is unusual. In fact quite the opposite- the author writes in a way that is easy to relate to and instantly evokes real life, even in the most surreal of scenarios. The characters are well developed; I just found that I didn't really care about any of them. I always think that good writing can conceal a weak plot and no amount of bad writing can do even the world's best plot justice- so even by obeying my own rule I should probably have liked this more. It's by no means a bad novel, in fact it's probably quite a good one, it just isn't the sort of thing that I enjoy reading. That probably doesn't make the best 'review' really, but there's no other way of saying it- A good novel that I see the merits of, but didn't enjoy. I'd recommend it to someone who's a fan of the vampire genre, someone who wants an unusual summer read, to people who like happy endings and dramatic family narratives.

Really looking forward to reading The Humans though.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy

There are two things that nobody can deny about Cormac McCarthy.

1) His novels are not known for their breakneck pace.

2) He is capable of creating the most incredible sense of place.

NCFOM conforms to both of these universally acknowledged facts. The sense of place is so strong you're practically pouring sand out of your own shoes. It's a very sensory novel- the metallic blood, the dry, acrid desert heat, the smell of a dingy motel rooms and the constant sense of pursuit. The world belonging to McCarthy's characters has slowed down and it's only then that they can notice these details. He's the Steinbeck of the 21st century, no doubt about that.

The pace of the novel is intentionally slow- characters take time to think things through, to make the decisions that will end their lives and seem to be killing time until their own inevitable deaths- eating, pacing, driving. All along the reader and the character know what's coming. The novel's super-antagonist Chigurh is the master of glacially paced menace. There's no need to rush when you know what the inevitable conclusion of every job is going to be. He doesn't talk much, he has no loyalties. His eyes are described as Lapis blue, but apart from that he is unremarkable in appearance. However, people instantly acknowledge that he is not somebody that they want to provoke.

The plot is fairly simple- an underemployed Vietnam Veteran stumbles across a drug transaction gone wrong during an evening hunting trip in the desert. $2.5 million and a truckload of Heroine for the taking. Bodies. Bullet holes. His decision sets in motion (or continues an already existing movement, when you think about it) a chain of events that he simply cannot escape. Meanwhile another Vietnam Veteran, Sherriff Lee, is looking for one of the most evidently psychopathic serial killers, possibly a contract killer, that his relatively quiet county has ever known. The reader feels like they are plonked into the middle of a story that has been unravelling for an undisclosed amount of time, and then yanked out of it before its conclusion. But that's life I guess.

It's essentially a very traditional Western, set on the modern day California/Texas/Mexico border. The writing is compelling and unsentimental. His style is uncomfortably sparse in places but the writing feels complex- it's taken me three novels to really learn to appreciate McCarthy and his hypnotic style of prose. Incredible.

How I Live Now, by Meg Rosoff

15 year old Daisy is sent from New York to rural England to go and live with her mystery Aunt and four Cousins, who are pretty much complete strangers to her. Daisy's Dad and his horrible wife are having a new baby and they don't want the problematic Daisy in the way, with her attitude and her problems. Elsewhere, speculation about A War is rife- will there or won't there be one?

Daisy settles in to rural life quickly, considering her urban background- swimming in streams, playing with the collies, sleeping in barns and drinking All The Tea. It's all very idyllic, almost Famous Five type wholesomeness for a while. The bonds that she develops with her cousins are incredibly strong very quickly, particularly with the enigmatic Edmond, with whom she begins a brief and particularly intense affair. Daisy's aware he's a blood relative and is in her words "a bit too related", but in such turbulent times there's very few people around to disapprove. I was surprised at how not gross their technically incestuous relationship was. Reading it, Edmond felt so detached from normality, sort of otherworldly, that it's hard to imagine him being related to anyone. After a few short weeks living in glorious adult-free rustic bliss, The War breaks out, shattering Daisy's new family and changing the way that everybody lives forever.

What is most striking about this particular book is the strength of the Voice of 15 year old narrator Daisy. So many authors have tried to capture the thought and speech of teenage characters and the result often feels strangely lacking. Not here. Rosoff really has a knack for making the reader see this unusual albeit mysterious war through the eyes of teenagers. The way the characters live in partial ignorance of the war I think is accurate- they carry on as normal, knowing that This is happening somewhere far away-ish and knowing it's killing a lot of people, but it's always possible to sort of ignore something until it lands on your own doorstep and explodes into your own life. The collapse of the adult world seen through the eyes of teenagers was very believable- they're unaware of the political and social causes of The War, so the reader never finds out either.

Personally, I always love narratives that depict the crumbling of a civilisation. I love to see how long it takes for all social structures to disintegrate completely- The Death of Grass and Day of the Triffids are two of my all time favourite books for this reason. Rosoff does an excellent job of describing the panic and the fear that would certainly take hold of rural communities and the vain efforts of certain social groups to hold reality together, or deny the collapse of life as they know it. It's not The Road, this makes up only a small part of the overall narrative, but the descent into lawlessness is handled convincingly, full of suspense and trauma.

The reader can infer from Daisy's narrative that she suffers from some sort of eating disorder, presumably Anorexia, though she never refers to it explicitly. She explains to her cousin that the feeling of hunger to her represents a type of control and a way of irritating her father and the army of psychiatrists and therapists that he throws at her. It doesn't feel tacked on, like so many 'issue' driven novels, but forms an integral part of Daisy's character- it's just there and she deals with it daily. It's probably part of the reason she got sent to England, and it's certainly the reason she gets out.

Overall, a brilliant example of excellent writing for Young Adult audiences- the Voice of Daisy pitched just right for a 15 year old girl, dry humour, resignation to her predicament, spirit, stubbornness. It asks questions, it's thought provoking, there's love, loss, War, tragedy, there's enough suspense and drama to drive the plot and the sheer strength of the link that's evident between Edmond and Daisy make this novel so, so engaging. Loved it.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist

This debut novel takes place in (presumably) very near future where the famously democratic nation of Sweden has implemented a new social policy. Designed to cut down the national cost of the elderly, the ill and the socially unproductive, all childless adults aged 50 for women and 60 for men are deemed 'disposable' and are taken to a facility called the Unit. At the Unit they can enjoy the best entertainment, leisure facilities, companionship, good food, theatre and comfortable living space, but they will be required to undergo constant medical tests (some harmless, some not so much) and ultimately to sacrifice their vital organs to those deemed to be 'needed' by society.

Dorrit has just turned 50. Intelligent but unsociable, an unpublished writer and all round bohemian, she has never married, never had children and never had a career that is considered to contribute to the nation's prosperity. She leaves her beloved dog, Jock, and her ramshackle house behind and signs her body over to medical science. The unit proves to be the only place in her life that Dorrit has met truly likeminded people, mostly 'pointless' intellectuals such as herself. Amongst the childless she is no social outcast, and now she has time and need for friendship. Her tragedy is that during her first week, she meets and falls in love with another resident who, had she met him on the outside she may have led a happy life with.

To begin with, I was convinced that this book was a Swedish re-hash of Never Let Me Go but with Borgen jumpers instead of boarding schools. I changed my mind. NLMG hides the true reason for the existence of the characters and of the school they attend- we understand it's not a normal school, but can't work out why. When its organ-farm purpose is revealed to the reader, the characters discover that there are organisations, such as their old school, working to determine the ethical implications of cloning and forced organ harvesting, and asking questions about what makes a person a true person and what makes one just a walking bag of spare parts. There's none of that here. We know from the beginning what the purpose of the unit is, and so does Dorrit. Society knows. The donors know where their organs go and the recipients know where they come from. It's the assumption that it's all fine and sensible and that it's the right thing to do because it's the economically sustainable thing to do that makes this book shocking.

The residents of the unit arrive shell-shocked and confused, they have outbursts throughout their stay of grief and rage as their friends and the people that they have fallen in love with within the unit are taken forever and recycled- but for the most part, they accept their fate. I think this is what intrigued me the most about these characters- the fact that they have lived in the outside world outside of social norms, but become so passive and so resigned within the unit. Are these people- artists, writers, poets- genuinely dissatisfied with their childless lives? Do they crave companionship and security? Are they really that conventional at heart? Do they really buy into the state's idea of the reuse of 'disposable' human tissue? Dorrit, faced with an unusual amount of options, decides her own fate in a very obvious way but the reasons for her choice are never confirmed in any real sense. The reader has a lot to consider when deciding what motivates the behaviour of the characters that they read about, which is a brave move on the part of the author.

I honestly did enjoy this book a lot, despite expecting not to. It's haunting, original and well written in a stylishly sparse way. I genuinely liked Dorrit and her friends; I felt the injustice of their social position acutely and hated the cruelty of the two-tier social system. Books like this prove that behind every supposed fictional Utopia there's some hidden (or in this case unhidden) horror that's necessary to keep the important people comfortable.

I look forward to discussing it at our meeting!

Slow Storm, by Danica Novgorodoff

My second graphic novel write up, and it's definitely an impressive one. I was struck by how fleeting the story is and how it managed (with very few words) to create an atmosphere of eerie suspense, exhibiting the struggles and the social and emotional displacement of both of the characters.

The narrative is not so much a whole story in the conventional sense, but a series of moments in time. Ursula, a small town fire-fighter has made a few bad decisions and is struggling to understand her place in life. The slow storm of the title, oppressive and constant throughout the narrative, starts a barn fire on a Kentucky horse farm, causing her life to cross paths with that of an illegal Mexican immigrant for the briefest of spells. The storm changes their lives in different ways, that we can see, but the pair go their separate ways before the consequences can become clear to the reader.

The most immediately striking thing about this graphic novel is its artwork. Brooding but subtle, Novgorodoff uses beautifully tonal watercolour washes and inky blackness to really make the reader understand the intricacies and the personality of a familiar landscape. She captures the movement and the grace of a location that is evidently very familiar and incredibly precious to her. Slow Storm is a very human novel that creates a sense of place effortlessly, both Ursula and Rafi are tied to their respective home territories in similar ways- both share spiritual connections to their homes and the landscape that they were raised in, but home is a source of pain for them both.

Homesickness and horses, saint and storms, displacement and disappointment are all brought together into a story that is both dramatic and mundane at the same time.  Though the events of the narrative are small individually, it's impossible to shake the idea that the handful of hours that Rafi and Ursula spent together will affect them for the rest of their lives.

Look at that artwork.  It's not fussy or overly stylised- it's simple and clean but it demands attention. 

Friday, 7 June 2013

The Marlowe Papers, by Ros Barber

  Set in Tudor England, The Marlowe Papers asks the question: What if the notorious Christopher Marlowe wasn't killed by a stabwound to the eye in a tavern brawl? What if his 'death' was staged like one of his plays and Marlowe was smuggled overseas to live in exile? What if he continued to write for the theatre, publishing his plays under the Pseudonym William Shakespeare?
I'm so confused. I was always fairly confident that I hated historical fiction, but then I read this and now I don't know who I am anymore!

Not only is it thriller-paced, with treachery and betrayal, slander and gossip, brawling and boozing and espionage, it's also IN VERSE. It's two books really- an intricately plotted novel and a feat of poetry. There appears to be absolutely no narrative reason for the book to be in verse, it would stand up admirably without it, but the fact that Barber has braved the Iambic to bring blank verse to the 21st Century is mind-blowing. After reading it, I'm thoroughly convinced that Marlowe would have written, thought and spoken in blank verse, and anything else would seem wrong. I read it fluently, as if it were prose, but there were rhymes and rhythms that just would not be ignored. This book is a language lover's dream come true- you can feel the craft and the labour that's gone into every line, and it is much appreciated. I honestly expected to find the structure hard going, but it proved to be smooth and fluid- dialogue was natural and easy to understand and Elizabethan England came alive not through description, but through the peripheral bustle of London and the atmosphere of the black cloud hanging over it, the political upheaval that Marlowe works through.

The narrator Christopher 'Kit' Marlowe looks back on his life from middle age and wonders how a man with such promise has in death become such an infamous symbol of atheism and malevolent wickedness. He recounts tales of his arrogant youth, believing that he could write with absolute freedom and dodge the consequences, his Cambridge scholarship, prison spells, lazy loose-tongued evenings spent 'blaspheming' in taverns that may come to haunt him later, his exile, espionage and odd jobs that he performs over the years. Throughout the whole novel, the themes of identity, suppression and expression are consistently explored.  Marlowe has no true identity, constantly living under other names and in the company of enemies, but the one thing that sustains him throughout is his writing.  Though it is writing that he is bound to attribute to somebody else, it’s clear that he’d die without his words.  Marlowe’s voice in this novel is staggering- his thoughts and dreams, his actions, his reflections and speech are an absolute joy to read and are so beautifully written.  Melancholy and bitter in places, tender and passionate in others, he tells the story of his life and loves and losses in a way that’s absolutely captivating.

I love how it drew together all of the unanswered questions of the Shakespeare authorship debate-Shakespeare’s probable illiteracy, his modest background, the fact that few London records refer to him by name...the 'real' Shakespeare, a Stratford merchant, rears his little bald head now again throughout, paid by Marlowe to be the face of the operation. A dead playwright can't publish under his own name...The fiction is woven so seamlessly with the fact that I for one am absolutely convinced that this could've happened.  After all, history is always changing.  Look at Richard III…

I honestly can’t recommend this novel enough, it’s an extraordinary piece of writing.  It’s undoubtedly a challenge, but the rewards are huge, both narratively and linguistically.  For a debut novel it’s unparalleled.  It’s bound to become a modern classic.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

The Painted Bridge, by Wendy Wallace

Another month, another Book Club book. Again, this is something that having seen it in a shop or a library, I would never ever have picked up. I read the hardback version, with the caged bird cover. It's pretty standard fare for a book about imprisonment and would have in no way enticed me to read it under normal circumstances.

The book is set in the mid 1800s and opens with an experimental Doctor slash photographer attempting to use this snazzy new medium for diagnostic purposes. Dr. St Clair believes that the camera lens may be able to distinguish mania or insanity in troubled women more easily than the Doctoral eye. Querios Abse, Lake House owner and manager allows him to use his patients for his photographic research. The photographs brighten the somewhat gloomy interior and one must look medically progressive in the mental health field in order to impress the magistrates.

Meanwhile, a wholesome, rural sailor's daughter type arrives at the grand country house with her new husband. He is very much cut from the uptight minister cloth (whiskers, top-hat, frown) the couple do not seem incredibly comfortable with each other. We quickly learn that though Lake House terms itself a "country retreat" for well-off ladies of a nervous or hysterical disposition, it is in fact a private asylum. Anna, the unfortunate wife, finds herself committed to the asylum for her missionary exploits rescuing Welsh sailors from a recent shipwreck- something she felt compelled to do, being from a naval family. Rev. Victor Palmer unceremoniously dumps her into the care of Querios Abse, who is only too happy to oblige. His asylum is experiencing certain financial difficulties lately. Anna remains convinced for a while that there has been some sort of mistake and that husband Reverend Palmer will return to collect her. Or failing that, her sister. She resolves to distance herself from the insane women that she suddenly finds herself forced to live with because she is not one of them.

Personally, I was bored rather quickly by this novel- there wasn't really enough to get your teeth sunk into. The plot is fairly transparent from the beginning (and very well-trodden by Victorian authors too), most of the characters are flimsy and uninspiring (one matron has to be cruel and villainous, one has to be helpful and kind), most of the other patients felt like interchangeable bit-players. I felt that this book spent too much time trying to make us feel outrage and sympathy for Anna and not enough time establishing an atmosphere or a supporting cast. Some characters appeared to be set up to rise to importance later in the plot, but turned out to have no discernable purpose at all. I found it very difficult to care what happened to any of them, to be honest. Even the presumably horrific 'treatments' that Anna is forced to endure didn't stir up any empathy. Perhaps an implication of torture would have been more effective than merely whizzing through the descriptions of the procedures. Anna barely reacted to them, in thought or in behaviour. Though the book didn't offend me in any actual sense, I certainly wouldn't recommend it.

Our discussion of this novel raised some interesting points about the history of mental illness, the stigma which has always been attached to it and the (perhaps not as advanced as we would like to believe) contemporary means of diagnosis and treatment used today. We also compared the abandonment and the neglect of the women in the novel to modern care homes for the elderly. Whilst this was an interesting discussion, it wasn't something that the book made me think of.

I read quite a lot of Victorian literature and very little historical fiction. I think these things are related. For a start, I couldn't help but feel like this novel borrowed a little too heavily from one chapter of The Woman in White. Lady Glyde (previously Laura Fairlie) finds her identity switched with Anne Catherick and she is committed to an asylum by her dastardly husband under Anne's name. The asylum owners are led to believe that 'Anne' is suffering from a crippling delusion that she is Lady Glyde. Lady Glyde's untimely death is announced publically- though it is the body of the real Anne that lies in her grave. Laura, Lady Glyde is powerless to prove her identity and her sanity. What's done in a couple of pages by Collins is stretched out to novel length here.

I think people are aware, generally, that many women had a fairly tough time in Victorian England. No votes, no property, few employment prospects, very little influence or status. Healthcare and hygiene were rudimental at best- we get it. Personally I'd rather hear about it through the fiction of actual Victorians, but that's just me.

On a related note- if you liked The Painted Bride, I would recommend the Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins, featuring the non-victim, mustache-faced single-and-doesn't-care Marian Halcombe- my favourite fictional woman of theVictorian Era. Even if you didn't enjoy it- I'd Recommend tWOW anyway. Also, if you want an incredible examination of mental institutions, ostracism and 'the insane' please, please read One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey. Kesey crafts a thoroughly hellish asylum with one of the sickest and most sadistic matrons ever committed to paper. His supporting characters are brilliant- three dimensional and each with their own untold story. His protagonist is one of the best- flawed, yes, both a coward and a hero. He jumps out of the pages and demands that you pay attention to him. READ IT NOW!