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.