Friday, 30 January 2015

Behind the Scenes at the Museum, by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson's first novel is a family portrait spanning four generations of one family, chronicling the mistakes, decisions and adventures of the family's women. It is told mostly from the perspective of Ruby Lennox- she proclaims her conception in 1951 with "I exist!", which is not something you encounter in many novels. Born to a middle class shopkeeping family in York, Ruby spends most of her childhood wondering if she was swapped at birth and suffering the wrath of her older sisters; the bossy, dramatic and spoiled Gillian and the fiery, intense and depressive Patricia. Her mother shows very little interest in her, her father even less.

Recurring themes of this novel include secrets hidden for generations, the untimely deaths of children, family members who disappear from the family and are never heard of again, the recurrence of unhappy marriages, the effect of World Wars on families and people who are thought to have done one thing (historically) actually turning out to have done something else entirely. Secrets are withheld from the reader as Ruby gradually reveals, through disjointed and not-in-chronological-order flashbacks that fill in the bits of her life that she seems not to remember, things she never realised she didn't know and things that she's tried to forget. The novel reminds the reader that even the unlikeliest of people can surprise you, and there's absolutely no guessing what goes on in the minds of others.

I absolutely loved this book. Itr meanders through Australia, Canada and Scotland, spans the 1800s to the 1990s and sees members of the same family subjected to the same tragedies over and over again. Though the pace of the book is quite gentle- there are no big twists or cliffhangers or plot-defining crescendos- it builds to a climax that simply sees four generations' worth of questions answered. Answered for the readers, at least. We still end up knowing more than the Lennoxes do, even collectively. There are mysteries developed throughout the narrative, little question marks that are raised and seeds of doubt and intrigue planted along the way that keep things ticking over.
It really enforces the idea that personal history is core to the adult that a person becomes. History (of York) and history (of the Lennoxes) is the backbone of the novel.

I loved Ruby- so frank and honest, melodramatic and as a result pretty hilarious. It's hard to tell how the traumatic events she's lived through have affected her, she recounts them in a way sometimes droll and sometimes light and breezy. I loved her descriptions of her family- scathing but instantly conjuring her relatives the way she saw them herself.

For a first novel, even a first novel of somebody that turned out to be as prolific and as celebrated as Kate Atkinson, it's very accomplished and pretty ambitious. Postmodern and unsentimental about having a miserable, unlamented family that are prone to removing themselves from the genepool. Despite the narrative being mixed up in terms of its chronology, the gaps that are pointed out and filled, she always maintains a sense of continuity. The reader is never lost. There are elements that surface and resurface over the generations, reminding us that life is a circle that goes on and on- the locket, the rabbit's foot. A clock, some china- bits and bobs that become symbols of the family.

Thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyable and very much recommended.

Thursday, 29 January 2015

Alone Volume 1- the Vanishing, by Gazzotti and Vehlmann

Five children wake up one summer's morning to find their city almost deserted. Chancing upon each other in the street, Ivan, Leila, Dodzi, Camille and Terry form a survivor's group, wondering if their parents, siblings and normal lives will ever return. Until then they're going to have to work things out alone.

I really, really liked this book. It is European, which I feel really ignorant for saying as I can't be more specific at this juncture (it feels French?)- and its European-ness really comes across in the art style. The characters are really quite simply drawn, but they are expressive too- it's a really accessible and easy to read style that I think is going to be immensely popular. There's a really traditional and colourful Asterix-ish, Beano-ish funnies pages of the newspaper vibe to it which is almost soothing to the eyes. The publishers (Cinebook) say that "For many English-speaking readers, knowledge of European comic books is limited to the popular characters Tintin and Asterix." Which is pretty true I think, and I'm glad that this offering has made it onto the Stan Lee Excelsior Award list, as it will hopefully bring comics and graphic novels to new audiences, and new types of comics and graphic novels to an existing readership. Everybody wins.

This story starts with a normal, bustling day in the city; people making their way home from work or school, wandering through parks and markets and generally being carefree. We see the five characters in their various home environments- all seem unhappy to varying degrees. Ivan lives in a huge house, but the reader feels like he rarely sees his (presumably) busy parents. Dodzi is in boarding school and is assaulted by the other residents- he has a mysterious past and has presumably suffered a lot throughout his short life. Terry is a spoilt toddler who seems to drift from parent to parent with no stability or boundaries and Leila is frustrated with her parents' interfering in her hobbies. Camille is the only one who seems happy, but she buries herself in expectations and academic pursuits, so happy but stressed.

When everybody disappears, there's no pattern or reason. It seems to be practically everybody; kids, babies, adults, except the five that remain. I really liked seeing how each of the kids realised and reacts to the world they find themselves in- those that emerge as leaders or thinkers or practical deed-do-ers. It's a very tense, beautiful-to-look-at end of civilisation story that is completely big-audience friendly. No zombies so far, no plagues or fatal diseases, no technological far it's just a brilliant survival-based mystery and I'm really looking forward to the next volume and hopefully finding some answers.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Moonhead and the Music Machine, by Andrew Rae

Moonhead and the Music Machine is a whimsical colourfest that tells the story of Joey Moonhead, a schoolboy with a moon for a head. He's bullied and harassed by the cool boys at school because he is different, so he shrinks to the sidelines with his friend Sockets and escapes into daydreams. When I say he escapes into daydreams, he literally loses his head; his moonhead goes soaring through the skies to tropical jungles, to the outer reaches of the universe- leaving his headless body sat in assembly or in a meeting with the principal.

When Joey decides to enter the school talent competition, he builds a music machine of his own design. It never really cooperates for Joey, but when his mysterious new acquaintance, Ghostboy has a go, the music machine creates beautiful, transformational sounds. These are beautifully represented on the page in huge, psychedelic waves of pink, yellow and blue. Basically the book follows Joey on his journey from freak boy to talk of the school, and documents all the mistakes and discoveries he makes on his ascent to schoolyard fame.

Reading this novel I grew incredibly fond of the art style very quickly- the bold colours, the cheeky circle motifs that kept showing up, the comic strip style (but not format), the gently expressive faces on the characters. I really liked the little spikes of sarcasm and anger, particularly during the school scenes. It gets a bit Revolver in places, a bit Lichtenstein in others. It's a pretty unique, pretty mixed lot with obviously diverse inspirations.

For ages I just couldn't work out what this book was trying to do- it just didn't make a lot of sense- but then I realised that Moonhead might actually be a teeming pile of metaphor wrapped up in a psychedelic tale of a schoolboy finding a talent, finding his confidence and forming a band. Initially, the detailed every-day scenes (a car-filled street, a playground with a kid with a another kid in a headlock, school pupils dangling from the doorframes...normal everyday stuff) the reader thinks, "This is all far too normal for a guy to just have a moon for a head"...but then when you start thinking of the unusual head as a metaphor for difference, and his ability to wander free from his body as a symbol of imagination and creativity...then everything sort of falls into place. Then it seems obvious and the reader feels a bit dim for not realising that earlier.

The book is really all about friendship, about having belief in oneself, about the power of music to unite and about being loyal to the people that support you. I think the music especially is effective. How do you show music in a graphic novel?! What a dilemma, pulled off without a problem though- the shapes and colours on the page perfectly explain the marverickness of whatever musical movement Joey Moonhead belongs to. I love how the illustrator shows how music unites and transforms (literally in this case- all the other pupils' weirdness becomes externalised) and how it gets across that once everybody's weirdness, uniqueness, whatever, is out in the open then everybody can be weird together, in one massive happy bunch. Music gives Joey something real-world to escape into, he keeps his head a lot more once he becomes a musician. I loved the fake LP sleeves that Joey way rifling through when he was grounded to the spare room too. 

It's pretty much just an ode to music and its renegades. Kind of like Frank but with a more Fight Club ending. It's a sweet story, easy to read in some ways, unfathomably complicated in others. Moonhead and the Music Machine is an unexpected delight and I'm so glad it's been brought to my attention. I can't wait to see what students think to it.

Tuesday, 27 January 2015

Ms. Marvel: No Normal, by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

This is probably one of the first traditional superhero narratives I've read. I read graphic novels fairly regularly, but superhero comics are definitely a new one for me, so my knowledge of the Marvel universe and its inhabitants is pretty limited. Therefore I can't pretend how to know where this fits in, what's happening elsewhere, where in the timeline this comes or anything like that, or how it compares to incarnation that have come before it. So anyway...

Ms Marvel stars 16 year old Kamala Khan, born to a Pakistani family in Jersey City. She's obsessed with the Avengers, writes fanfic and leads a pretty normal, though tragically early-curfewed life. The story begins with a tiny glimpse at the practicalities of growing up Muslim in America. The temptation of bacon, the decision to wear a veil or not. The way people might decide what it says about you, whatever decision one comes to. The differences in parental expectations of American parents and Turkish or Pakistani parents is highlighted too (Or is it different? Don't all parents want their kids to be successful and stable?). It's really interesting to see the mundane, everydayness of other lives, rather than seeing an 'issue' made out of them- a difference is suggested, but it doesn't seem a big deal. Anyway. There's a party at the waterfront and Kamala can't go because there's alcohol. But her recently veiled friend Nikia won't go because there's alcohol. Both girls know their own mind and they both have things to work out for themselves.

When a debilitating fog rolls in as Kamala walks home from her disastrous party, she passes out and has what could be described as a religious experience. The Avengers are speaking to her- imparting wisdom and speaking Urdu and arranged in a beautiful, if slightly unorthodox religious tableau complete with hulk-hand Sloths and seagulls wearing trapper hats. She wakes up from her brush with divinity with inexplicable and initially uncontrollable powers. I love this full-page panel- the swirls, the sash, the's just incredible and now I feel somewhat indoctrinated into comics.

Basically Kamala has a bit of an identity crisis early on- her polymorph powers let her become the buxom blonde superhero that she thinks people expect, the All-American figurehead that she has always seen in school. A reader could choose to perceive this as a cultural thing, but most likely it's a teen thing. Her indecision doesn't last long- Kamala is ready to show the world that brown hair, brown skin and burkini can be sufficiently super with the right attitude and the requisite amount of kick-assery. I think it is mostly about attitude. Kamala thinks a lot, even at this early stage, about what it means to do the right thing and why people might choose to intervene or not and what that says about them and their place in the world. She's brilliant and I love her.

As well as Kamala being a goofy, funny and occasionally melodramatic girl, she's also got a brilliant family. I absolutely loved the Khans- the deadpan, super sarcastic dad and her holier-than-thou brother who prays all day everyday (possibly to avoid getting a job) and the mum who simply doesn't understand what's going on in the heads of her kids. Her family, though glimpsed pretty briefly, seem dynamic and real, they seem pretty normal. They worry about the grades and the safety of their daughter, they want her to do well in life. It seems you don't need to be a massively traumatised orphan, radioactive or a millionaire to be a superhero anymore...

I loved how identifiable the story is so far, and just how modern it is. Most kids that have ever gone to school have wanted to be somebody else. They've wanted a smaller nose, less/more freckles, bigger/smaller boobs or to be taller/shorter or less clever/cleverer. Most readers too will relate to the pressure that Kamala feels she is under- the type of expectations that come with increased power or influence, the worries that she might not be up to it, might not be worthy of wielding such abilities. What teenager has never doubted their ability to successfully pull off what's expected of them?

It's pretty much a story about taking on a massive challenge despite having no idea whether you can manage it or not. It's about facing up to responsibilities and putting the time into getting something right. It's about learning to be happy with yourself and confident about the things that you can do. The artwork is immense and the characters come alive in the panels- I love how atmospheric they are. Dust, knock-out fog, school study-hall detritus, there's always something going on in the background and in the corners. I loved the neon blue lights too- sometimes it looks like the paper is actually luminous . It's not overly fussy or mega stylised, and I love the purple, orange and pinkish hues that tell the story of Kamala's night time missions. Can't wait for the next issue.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins

Girl on the Trian cover
I'm not normally a crime or thriller reader, but this book has been absolutely everywhere this January so I thought I'd see what all the fuss is about and give it a go. Radio 2 have chosen it as one of their Book Club choices and Mr Mayo is normally on the ball when it comes to spotting a future bestseller.

The premise of this book fascinated me. Rachel, the Girl on the Train, passes the same row of houses every day on her commute from Buckinghamshire to London. Stopping at a signal, her stationary train normally looks out into the gardens of the street where she once lived with her husband Tom. He lives there still with his new wife Anna and their baby. Unable to look at her old (and only real) home, she instead focuses on the one a few doors down, home to a beautiful, happy couple she names Jess and Jason in her head. She daydreams about their perfect lives, their blissful happiness and their fulfilling jobs. One Friday she catches a glimpse of something that shatters her daydream- and the following day 'Jess', real name Megan, disappears.

Rachel's memory from that Saturday night is non-existent. She knows she was there when Megan disappeared, she was on that street; there was blood (hers?), the underpass, a woman in a blue dress and a train man with red hair that keep emerging, confused and hazy in her mind. Convinced that 'Jason' (who turns out to actually be Scott) would never harm the wife she imagines he was devoted to, Rachel goes to the police, determined to give them the information that she has. They dismiss her as an unreliable witness; at best a desperate rubbernecker, at worst a drunk with a malicious revenge motive on her ex husband's new family.

The narrative is split between three women who all speak in the first person. Mostly it's Rachel; she struggles with alcohol and jealousy, is prone to drunk dialling and harassment and suffers from huge, gaping blackouts. Her lifestyle is depressing and unflinching- the stair-vomit, the urine soaked jeans and boozy oblivion makes her a fairly unusual main character. We also see from Anna's perspective- her baby bliss, her frustration at having the husband's ex hanging around all the time, the gooey isolation of new motherhood. Finally we see from Megan's angle in the months up to her disappearance and the conflicts and struggles she undergoes in her own head.

I liked how frustrating Rachel was as a character. She's self-destructive and pathetic, depressed and quite spiteful at times. But she gets better. As the book goes on, more of the more seemly characters are revealed to be less pleasant than they appear. The more Rachel finds out about Megan the less she likes her. The more the reader hears from Anna, the more she seems a smug, troublemaking little madam. Scott and Tom, the husbands, get less charming as the chapters go on. The author really does a good job of showing that relationships, people's very identities are unstable and built upon ever shifting sands. Even the most well-loved, most familiar individual in a person's life could turn out to be somebody else entirely, an absolute stranger.

Whilst this was a well paced, engaging narrative with some interesting characters and probably a good example of its genre, I can't say it made a huge impression on me. Personally I struggle to enjoy this type of book. It's not just about the emotional/physical abuse that's common in the domestic thriller genre, the gruesome deaths of women and the (often) debauched criminality of ordinary-seeming men- I can live with that. It's more about the predictability of the narrative. I guessed where this book was going about half way, I guessed pretty much exact reason for the disappearance of Megan too. Can a plot be predictable and yet still feel like it doesn't quite fit? I don't know.

Anyway- it's perhaps unfair for me to say that I don't go in for thrillers/crime and then say that I didn't hugely enjoy this book because it was one. I'm sure it's a really good thriller and that loads of people will love it. I'm glad I read it. It offers something new in its bedraggled, alcohol soaked amateur detective that actually probably hinders the less than thorough investigation, and will enjoy a massive readership I'm sure. The writing was good. I believed in (most of ) the story and the characters, and nothing stood out as being massively expositional, no annoying overuse of particular words (a pet peeve of mine), the novel kept up a good pace and really drew attention to the reality of the domestic situations of some women. I don't doubt for a moment that there aren't people out there who have realised that they've been lied to and manipulated, put in horrific danger by the people that are supposed to love them and then blamed for it. All in all, it was probably a good book, but it's not for me.

I still love the idea of life glimpsed through a moving train window though, the filling in the blanks in the lives of strangers.

Friday, 23 January 2015

A Place Called Winter, by Patrick Gale

A gentle and emotional novel set at the turn of the 20th century about an unacceptable love, friendship and hard work. A Place Called Winter combines the backdrop of the stuffy Edwardian drawing room and the rugged and windblown Canadian Prairies with the effects of the Great War and the steely determination of the European settlers to tame the Indian wildernesses of Canada's frontier.

The novel alternates, quite abruptly at times, between three time periods that show the vastly different eras in main character Harry Crane’s life. The first time the reader meets him he is an asylum patient miserably subjected to torturous water treatments- he’s selected by an experimental doctor to attend his healing residential retreat in the mountains. Then we go back to Harry’s former domestic life in London; we see his relationship with his brother, his courtship and marriage of his wife and the disgrace that shattered his comfortable domesticity. We then see his experiences on the Canadian frontier and his attempts to cultivate his land and carve out a living as a homesteader.

Harry is an intriguing character, deeply conflicted but really adaptable for somebody previously unaccustomed to change. He undergoes several transformations, wearing some personas more comfortably than others; brother, husband, father, outcast, farmer, patient. He drifts through life, benignly reacting to the incidents that befall him and, for the most part, meekly accepting his fate. For the first few chapters of the book it seems that Harry is leading a perfectly normal, if slightly reclusive life of quiet respectability. Entrusted with his father's property and income early in life, he keeps an eye out for his lively and dynamic younger brother, never quite sure who is protecting whom.

Harry's life, however, is revealed to be far from respectable- faced with a catastrophic scandal he is ejected from the comfortable family he has married into, his real reason for departure kept hidden from all but one of the family. To save those he loves from the shame of his exposure, Harry chooses to emigrate to the Canadian colonies- 160 acres of prime prairie land for the taking for the bargain price of three years' residence. Packing up his belongings, he starts a new life as a frontiersman, falling in firstly with an incredibly unsavoury character and then with two neighbouring homesteaders that bring him comfort and happiness and a uniquely convenient brand of companionship.

The way in which the pages just melted away was pretty incredible- it's a gently paced read but the character is so absorbing- the reader just wants him to be happy. I absolutely love a good frontier story- not even joking, that’s my ideal life. The author describes in loving detail the metres of fence uncoiled, the ditches dug, the stones removed and the lumber felled. It’s satisfying just reading about such hard work. Gale makes the prairies seem full of potential and satisfaction, beautiful and unspoilt, but at the same time hostile, particularly towards lone farmers, dangerously hostile in the winters and unforgiving places for women- definitely a double edged sword. There are some uncomfortable arm's length references to the Plains Indians too- there's a sense of guilty helplessness, a feeling that it's sad to evict these ancient people, but what else is a settler to do? 

Gale’s prose is at times both lyrical and utilitarian, depending on the events discussed, successfully emphasising the difference between Harry’s comfortable London early life and his self-built, comfortable but basic lumber home. Sections of the book are quite surreal and nightmarishly trippy- but the devastating pieces align in the end to tell a life's story that is hugely unconventional in many ways, but which has sort of all worked out for the best. I felt so protective of Harry- he was such a sympathetic, innocent character and I just wanted to shield him from all the terrible things that came his way in life. His stay at the woodland retreat revealed him as a hugely compassionate and tender person, regardless of the violence he might have felt driven to in the past. He deserved the happiness he found in Canada as he absolutely always did his best for others throughout the book.

If you likes Jim Crace's Harvest or Steinbeck-ish tales of wheaty struggle, then give this novel a go.

Girl Online, by Zoe Sugg

Girl Online
Hmm. I'm keen to avoid the ghost writer controversy and weird Internet-fuelled crazy that surrounds this book. So baggage aside- you can't really ignore 2014s biggest selling debut can you? Or, for that matter, one of the bestselling debuts of all time. So then, let’s judge the book not for its author's background, which I can't pretend to be well versed in, or its origins or its blog-superfan-base, but for its merits as a novel. Girl Online then. Well, for the most part, it's just bad. This book made me angry. It made me want to shut my blog down, just in case the populace starts to wonder if that's what bloggers are like.

The narrator, Penny, is a 15 year old schoolgirl from Brighton. She's clumsy and insecure. Did I mention her clumsiness? Get ready for her to talk about how clumsy she is. You won't see her being clumsy much, but she'll keep telling you. She has been the author of a blog (Girl Online) for the last year, feeling that the internet is a safe zone where she can truly be herself, speak her mind and anonymously exorcise her demons. She's one of those "Traditionally beautiful but doesn't know it therefore has low self-esteem" characters. Being 15 is tough, what with the expectations, the embarrassment, the boy stuff and the confusing mutations of former best friends into malicious uber-cows. Penny has a bit of a school-play night disaster episode that goes viral on the Internet thanks to aforementioned super-cow, probably the only example of actual clumsiness in the whole book. Following this immense embarrassment and betrayal she has escaped to New York for a few days with her parents (Wedding planners) and her trivia-filled super-dresser best friend Elliott. 

Some parts of this book I found to be beyond impossible to stomach. At one point I was convinced I had diabetes of the eyes; the cupcakes, the vanilla scented candles, the milkshakes and fairy lights. It got dangerously frothy from chapter one. Once Penny got to New York it got worse, if anything. Overused phrases include, but are not limited to; Quirky, "styling out", vintage, "Auburn curls", retro...etc etc. The author feels the need to describe everything in great, but not particularly interesting detail lest we forget how our protagonist has an eye for the eccentric. I felt quite overwhelmed by the description for most of the novel; the plushness of the hotel, the hotness of Rock-God Noah, dad's amazing breakfasts, the megacrazyawesomeness of New York, the lights, the moon…I kept waiting for something of substance, some take-home message but there really, really isn't one.

On the plus side, I liked Elliott- he was supportive and funny, but he was quite two-dimensional and I was just dying for some real development of his character. He felt like the only character that had his head in the real world. I kept wishing that the author would stop describing his ‘vintage’(vintage, vintage, vintage) outfits and talk about something that matters, something that made us understand him better. Oh and he's gay, so don't think this is going to be another clichéd "true love was right there all along" deals. Not that it's short on cliché. No the cliché comes in the shape of guitar playing, leather jacket wearing, super-sensitive, soul-mate companion of quirk, Noah. Elliott kind of got forgotten for a huge chunk of the book in favour of musical dream-boat Noah though. I finished this book convinced Penny didn't even come close to deserving a friend like Elliott, she is Narcissus in lipgloss.

There are occasional laughs and a few acceptable moments but when all's said and done it's a frothy, clunkily written (the adverbs. Oh dear GOD the adverbs…) and unbelievably shallow offering, measuring a person's worth in follows, likes, comments and shares rather than by the depth of their character or by their previous actions. Penny constantly neglects her true friends, craving instead attention from internet randomers and tousle haired Brooklyn boys. It seems to say that a person is not a whole person, is not the master of their own destiny unless they have a "cute boy" that makes them feel good, the "quirkier" the better, because that makes them seem less shallow, right? It feels thrown together- the adorkable clutz feels lifted from Mia from The Princess Diaries meets the bloggy-columnist Carrie Bradshaw and the Internet life vs real life of Rainbow Rowell's Fangirl. Then there's the predictable straight line plot, the New York fairytale that goes horribly wrong; lesson learned but it's OK in the end, seen over and over again in so many crappy romcoms I can't even count.

It really is an incredibly shallow and self indulgent novel. Penny seems to consider herself some sort of internet saviour, 'inspiring' the lost and unhappy of the world to confront their fears. Look at how good and inspiring I am, words written by little old me are having such a profound impact on people. I'm so special and insightful. Validate me. Let me photograph these things because I am into the superficial. Then I can describe them. The more I read of it the more I despaired. When it all inevitably goes wrong and her blog stardom comes back to bit her on her vanilla coated behind, I couldn't help feeling that cosmic justice had been done. Her attitude to her backlash annoyed me too- it was very much along the lines of "I have the right to put myself out there on the Internet and live my life (anonymously) right in front of you, but you don't have the right to judge it, only to suck up to me or substantiate me in some way".

I'm not going to recommend this. I'd recommend that anybody wanting to read this book reads something else. Read Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell instead- that has a brilliant protagonist that blossoms through hard work and passion for what she's good at, learns lessons about love and family and trust and finds the balance between her online and real world lives.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

The Art of Being Normal, by Lisa Williamson

The Art of Being Normal
This is a pretty unusual novel about two very different boys and their most closely guarded secrets. David Piper is just starting year 10 and dreading it. Every day he gets taller, his feet get bigger and his stubble threatens to break through at last- what would be exciting for most boys fills David with dread. All he has ever wanted is to be a girl, and girls don’t have beards and size 9 feet.  

Trapped in the wrong body, David is awkward and shy- he and his only two friends Essie and Felix have formed a trio of misfits, collectively known as the mutant, the geek and the freak. Mercilessly bullied by year 10’s most popular boy, David finds it easier to withdraw than defend himself, hoping there will be a new target tomorrow.

Then there’s Leo, a new boy starting in year 11 after a mysterious transfer from the roughest school in the city. The rumour mill has him maiming a teacher with a hacksaw and getting expelled, but David has his doubts about the likelihood of such an affair. Surly and hostile, Leo wants nothing more than to be invisible; to get as many GCSEs as possible and start a new life somewhere far away.   

In some ways this is quite a relatable story of feeling different, a sore thumb within a sea of ordinary, regular thumbs. I think many readers will relate to the idea of feeling isolated and abnormal - even if it is not for the same reasons as Leo or David. I really liked the two protagonists and I think the dual narration, with a font for each speaker worked really well. It was lovely to see their relationship growing and their trust deepening from both perspectives, and all the doubt and fear that came with entrusting secrets to another.

I liked David as a character; he was sweet and nerdishly sensible and funny, and his loneliness makes the reader sympathise massively with him. I can’t even imagine how confusing and traumatic it must be to see a stranger’s face in the mirror every day instead of the person that really exists underneath. However, I felt that Leo was definitely the most three dimensional character in the book. Maybe it was because his secret stayed under wraps for so long, maybe it was the mysterious circumstances of his departure, his jumpiness, his unresolved anger issues and his ‘problem’ family, but for me Leo was the more engaging of the narrators. He seemed much more troubled, more desperate and so much more destructive than the quietly agonising David and the reader feels every horrible blow dealt to him.

This novel breaches some fairly virgin territory in the Young Adult arena by shining a light on the topic of transgenderism in teens. Though I can obviously claim no expertise, I thought Williamson handled the subject sensitively and with candour; pointing out that David is not gay, he’s a straight girl in his head and heart. Novels like this are the very reason that people read- in order to experience life through other eyes. Williamson has definitely managed to offer a fresh and vital perspective, and done it well- If just one kid has read this book and felt less alone, or has thought twice about discriminating against LGBT peers, it’s a win.  Some readers will have never even considered gender dysphoria as even existing at all, much less considered how tough it must be to experience.

All in all, this was a really enjoyable and emotional read that really reinforces the importance of walking a mile in a person's shoes before judging them. It feels like an important book, though long overdue. The writing is nothing out of the ordinary, but the characters are memorable and relatable and the reader cannot help but root for them and hope they overcome the obstacles and unfairness that seems so sadly inevitable. On an additional note, I did do a little internal “Wooo!” when Newstead Abbey got a shout out because I live like 4 miles from it! On an additional additional note, David, some girls do have size 9 feet. Or 10 in my case.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

The Crimson Petal and the White, by Michel Faber

The Crimson Petal and the White
A stunning novel, quite simply. Normally, I'm not a fan of historical fiction. I find that in trying to punctuate a story with “authentic period detail”, or affecting an archaic turn of phrase of style of speech, much of the time an author becomes annoying and the effect is lost because the reader becomes too aware of the illusion being played out in front of them. The Crimson Petal and the White, however is so ridiculously post-modern, that you're aware of literary techniques and intentional period detail, as the reader has some jaunty narrator along for the ride pointing it out to them. He tells the reader which characters we should follow, who to avoid, and who to take a last look at, because we won’t see them again. The illusion is part of the story and embraced and the whole book becomes some sort of literary diorama that the reader swoops around, peering into houses, taverns and brothels like a doll’s house with the front removed. This alone was enough to hold my attention for the first few chapters, then the incredible prose and the twisted drama kept me going through the following 800 odd.

The novel follows a year in the lives of two very contrasting Victorian women “types”, Agnes; the Victorian ideal, the angel of the home; and Sugar, the archetypal “fallen woman” and the man that their lives revolve around (as does the world): William Rackham, Jr. It’s filled with lust, issues of class, wealth and poverty and of various falls and rises through the social hierarchy.

When we first meet William Rackham, he is a pathetic shell of a man buying a hat and cringing at the shabby disrespectability of his current, outmoded headwear. Scared of his sassy servants and living off of an increasingly meagre allowance from his cruel and unreasonable father, William is out in London spending money on prostitutes that he cannot possibly spare. After a doubly disappointing experience in a mediocre house, he goes off in search of Sugar, a girl advertised as one of the best in London. Enthralled by her unconventional beauty, intellect and wit, he resolves to knuckle down, accept responsibility for his father’s perfume business and become rich so that he can claim exclusive patronage of this rare and exquisite woman.

As his business goes from strength to strength with the canny assistance of Sugar, now his mistress, ensconced in luxurious rooms of her own, William’s life begins to fall apart, despite his increasing wealth, position and opulent lifestyle. His increasingly unstable wife Agnes is showing him up at every opportunity by claiming to see angels and by having loud and indecorous fits in public; his competitors are gaining increasing footholds in the cosmetics industry, his devout brother still won’t take his vows and the servants are becoming impossible to control. Add to that William and Agnes’ daughter Sophie, growing up lonely and strange isolated from her family in a distant corner of the house.

The star of the show, however, is Sugar. I absolutely loved her as a character, though she is impossible to properly understand. Sometimes she seems to genuinely and deeply care for William, sometimes she seems concerned only with maintaining the lifestyle he has offered her. Sometimes she seems to thoroughly loathe him. No doubt she is a manipulator and an opportunist, but she is also capable of powerful devotion and love as we see later in the novel. I found myself wondering if prostitution made an object of her, or if it started her on the road to success. Was she a degraded victim, or did she always have the upper hand? Undoubtedly Sugar fares better than the other prostitutes in the novel- but is that because she has ambitions or is it because she was simply a better, more desirable prostitute? The book made me think about luck and chance, and whether these are bestowed upon a person, or whether they make them for themselves. Sugar never came across as a victim to me. Though she has undoubtedly been abused and taken advantage of in the past, she refuses to be beaten. The reader watches her feelings evolve from rage, revenge and retribution to survival and propriety. She ends the novel as a respectable, self-sufficient woman with independent means, experience and references.

William’s wife Agnes, the doll like, pale and beautiful trophy wife is languishing at the other end of the social spectrum. The stepdaughter of a lord, she is a good catch by the second-son William, but he comes to feel that, when he is successful, he has been short changed by her delicate health, her unstable nerves and her apparent insanity, also by her apparent inability to provide him with an heir. Agnes is the other type of Victorian staple- the crazy wife that needs caring off to an asylum. Wife, prostitute, kept woman or servant. They are the four options for female roles as presented by this novel and by history.

William Rackham is characterised mostly by greed and a constant compulsion to want what he can’t have. When he is poor, he craves wealth and Sugar. When he has wealth and as much of Sugar as he could ever desire, he doesn't want it anymore. He wants family, something he neglected when he had it in pursuit of mistresses and fortunes. He’s a contradictory character, both pathetic and likable to begin with, before taking a nose dive into unforgivable tyranny.

The Crimson Petal and the White is a brilliantly crafted beauty of a novel, full of grotesques and beauties, visions and dreams and rises and falls. It never feels particularly Victorian in tone- Sugar is too worldly to feel 19th Century and the rest of the characters feel quite contemporary. Whilst the book is obviously set in the mid Victorian era, it never becomes bogged down in replicating the Victorian novel, though it does recreate Victorian London in all its squalor or luxury. I loved the constant switches in protagonist, the way the reader got to see into the deepest and most hidden corner of the characters’ brains and I the plot was incredibly pacy, without being hugely complex. The whole novel builds up to a dramatic episode at the end, but provides no conclusion, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions to a number of incidents.

Brilliant writing, brilliant characters and brilliant plotting.

Monday, 12 January 2015

The Little Friend, by Donna Tartt

The Little Friend
What with all the praise and accolades (rightly) heaped on last year’s The Goldfinch, and the almost cult classic status of her debut novel The Secret History, Donna Tartt’s second novel, The Little Friend unfortunately suffers from a book version of middle child syndrome; kind of neglected, unjustly ignored and considered unspectacular when compared to its siblings. I’m pleased to expose this (what I’ve found to be quite widespread) idea as nonsense.

Ok, so The Little Friend doesn't have the intellectual whydunnit of its predecessor, or the stylish epic scope of its follow-up, but it’s a brilliant “Southern Gothic” novel in its own right that manages to make an engaging little detective out of a semi-feral 12 year old girl. TLF got me right out of a reading funk (The Little Stranger, don’t bother) from the very first page, and the lively host of characters kept me right on track to the last chapter.

The prologue starts on an ordinary, sultry day in 1964 Mississippi. From the first line, it’s intensely ominous, even before the thunderstorm- we immediately get the sense that something tragic happened on that Mother’s Day and that guilt, blame and loss have been lurking in the Cleve household ever since. The prologue goes on to reveal the mysterious death of 9 year old golden boy and prodigal son Robin, found hanging from a tree in what’s assumed to be a murder. Only it’s a murder with absolutely no suspects or evidence at all, witnessed only by a traumatised 4 year old that has since repressed the memory to such an extent she remembers a white sheet blowing in the wind and no more.

Skipping 12 years, we meet the real protagonist Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, raised communally by a trio of bustling great aunts and a very severe Grandmother (whom Harriet is said to resemble intensely), in a crumbling house stuffed with newspapers. Harriet’s mother has never recovered from the day of the murder, spending months at a time in a dreamy depression, confined to her bed and neglecting her family and household. Likened to Jim Harkness of Treasure Island by the author, Harriet is a sort of contemporary Tom Sawyer; a wilderness exploring, grubby footed and sharp-tonged wildling, not to mention adventure story aficionado. Harriet vows to her enamoured and awe-struck friend Hely to track down her brother’s killer and avenge him, craving justice the old fashioned way. Having put in some research and questioned those that knew her brother, Harriet concludes the killer is Danny Ratliff, once a classmate of Robin’s now recently released from prison back into his notoriously good-for-nothing family. She pursues him, Hely at her side, to some unexpected and thoroughly perilous ends.

On the surface it’s quite a simple story of revenge, investigation and justice, but the whole novel seethes with a heat and an anger that seems less to do with Harriet’s thirst for vengeance for her practically sainted brother (she never really knew him being still in a cradle at the time of his murder) but with her frustration at the workings of the adult world. Fatherless, essentially motherless, deserted by her beloved housekeeper Ida Rhew, Harriet has never had stability or boundaries. Beaten in life by one circumstance or another, Harriet sees adulthood as a kind of defeat; the adults around her have no power or control so she seizes it for herself.

I absolutely loved this novel and raced through its pages. The characters are so skilfully drawn- Grandmother Edie and Harriet in particular; wily and skilled manipulators who know their own minds and won’t budge from their convictions, but resourceful and fiercely intelligent. The Ratliff’s too were brilliantly executed- pathetically impoverished, no prospects, no expectations, but despite the cruelty of the elder brother Farish, it’s hard to not feel sympathy for a family so reduced and so utterly without means of elevation. Their caring for their youngest brother with severe learning difficulties proves that they are not without feeling. I loved how Tartt can somehow make a setting feel both thoroughly familiar and understandable, but simultaneously murky with secrets and mystery. Alexandria, MI is a buzzing tapestry of small-town life, but the crumbling legacy of the old families, the neglect, the unresolved murder and the underlying trauma of that makes it seem threatening and moody at the same time. The whole novel has a sticky, feverish dream like quality to it; The endless hot summer, the gibberish nonsense spoken by dazed, drug addled or unconscious characters, the exotic danger of the snakes and guns.

All in all, it’s a worthy middle child novel, hugely different from its siblings, but that just proves the sheer range of the author. The Little Friend has introduced me to one of my favourite child protagonists since Scout Finch- I loved the fearlessness and the conflict of the innocence and independence in the character. It’s a long book, but the sheer quality of the prose sustains it brilliantly. Oh the prose. Nobody writes like Tartt. A single line can be funny, heartbreaking and violent all at once. Read it- it's not the poor relation many readers have had me believe.