Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Broadway Book Club Discussion of Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

Well our June discussion of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel was a great meeting- everybody in attendance loved the book and we had quite a long discussion about what the end of the world might look like and how we'd react to it. Some of us estimated we'd last about 3 days TOPS, others thought they'd thrive in a post apocalypse landscape. We've seen enough documentaries about survivalists and their bunkers and tinned food! We talked about the things we take for granted that would be gone in an instant, should a disaster like this ever occur. There's a whole chapter of the book that just lists things that are gone- chlorinated swimming pools, aviation, air conditioning. Things we never realised we'd got so used to.
The group acknowledged that in a genre done to death (the end of the world, survivor group) Station Eleven really stands out because of the beautiful and elegant prose. It was mentioned that the apocalypse is almost incidental, that it's the setting for the novel but not the plot.. It was commented upon too that the reader never really witnesses the end, just the aftermath, which is where the real stories start. Kirsten doesn't remember the collapse, having no memories at all of the apparently terrible things that happened to her during year 1 and we don't really need to see it to know it happened. Another of the book's stand out features was the complexity and intrigue of the story. The way all the characters connect together over time and distance is so intricate and the reader is enthralled by their compulsion to carry on, their will to survive. We all really liked Clark (the Pra-ha scene in particular is amazing), who was hope personified really. He became a much better person after civilisation collapsed, and was happy again- shaving half of his hair off like he used to in his 20s when he was free from his executive but soul-destroying job. A client of his talks about her colleague as a "High Functioning Sleep walker" and that is what Clark becomes.

We had a couple of minutes talking about Arthur too and how important he was to the story, the ghost that held it all together. There were various thoughts on Arthur- some felt sorry for him, others were infuriated by his arrogance and the way he treated the people in his life. Especially Miranda, who was just so lovely and understanding! In my head he was Alec Baldwin as Jack Donnaghy, but other members envisaged Michaels Keaton and Douglas.

We discussed too the importance of art, literature and in particular, Shakespeare and how the King Lear themes of redemption and regret keep emerging throughout the book. It's such an absorbing world with a brilliant story that has a lasting impact on the reader- One member nearly had a heart attack when a replica copy of the Station Eleven comic fell out of her hardback copy- she was so immersed in the story


The next #BroadwayBookClub meeting will be on July 30th in the Lounge. July's book is We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas

Books Read in June

Jessica Cole: Model Spy Blog Tour- Thoughts on the Jessica Cole series, by Sarah Sky

Jessica Cole, Model Spy, Sarah Sky, Fashion Assassin, Catwalk Criminal, Code Red Lipstick
Schoolgirl model Jessica Cole lives with her private investigator father in London- she often (secretly) helps him out by planting bugs and indulging in a bit of part-time surveillance between modelling and school work. When her dad disappears in France on the trail of a missing nanotechnician, Jessica has no choice but to use her emergency code red protocol- putting her in touch, much to her surprise, with her dad’s ex colleagues at MI6, Nathan and Margaret. Giving her overbearing Chanel suited Grandma Matie the slip, she’s on the next Eurostar out of London.

Ostensibly off to Paris to take part in some glittering (not to mention convenient) fashion shows for Paris Couture Week, Jessica seizes the opportunity to ditch her handlers and investigate the last known movements of her dad as he hunted for missing Sam Bishop. Warned off by Nathan and Margaret but doing it anyway, Jessica’s off-the-record investigation lands her in a lot of trouble at MI6, but they realise that having an unsuspicious fashion personality on the inside might not be such a bad idea. Jessica is tasked with infiltrating the business empire of Allegra Knight, an ageing ex supermodel that plans to launch a miracle face cream for teens that is not what it seems…only this time Jessica is a legitimate MI6 operative and has the gadgets for the task.

I enjoyed the first book as a fun, fashion filled spy caper, but the quality of the narrative and the characterisation definitely get better as the series goes on- alone in Paris on an ever cooling trail is one thing, but a black ops mission as an undercover bodyguard for the daughter of a shady Russian oligarch is another thing entirely. The second book, Fashion Assassin, which I enjoyed more than the first, is set on a luxury yacht in Monaco. Jessica and Kat the brat, whom she is tasked with protecting, are modelling together at an exclusive fashion event that MI6 suspect might be a smokescreen for an arms deal of some kind. The second book reveals another side to Jessica, a sneaky, stealth operative that takes initiative, follows hunches and methodically investigates every clue, idea and lead. It seems that when MI6 give her something to do instead of stopping her from doing it, Jessica makes quite the spook…Snooping and gathering information makes for a much sturdier plot and a more thrilling finale than searching for her father (no offence papa Cole). I found the second book had a more intense pace, was more tightly plotted and had much more at stake for Jessica and her career(s). I felt like I really got to know Jessica during this second book. The spy work became the focus with the modelling as cover, rather than the modelling being an opportunity to spy, as it becomes clear to the reader where Jessica’s true priorities lie. 

I really liked how the second book emphasised the empty wealth of Kat and her billionaire father. Money is no object to them, but their relationship is patchy. Splurging thousands on clothes and jewels then throwing it away, Kat is everything that Jessica hates about the fashion industry. She contrasts hugely with Jessica, who has been blackmailed into this job due to her family’s financial situation- her dad has MS so goes long periods without working and racks up costly medical bills. Jessica really shows her integrity in this book, and her unshakeable moral compass.

The third book, Catwalk Criminal, sees Jessica framed for huge, national cyber-crimes and as a result, thrown out of MI6 pending criminal investigations, and on a slightly less severe note, thrown out of school. Undeterred as ever, she sets out to clear her name with the assistance of super-hot male model Zak. Delving into the criminal depths of the fashion industry, and unearthing some future technology that seems highly desirable to armies, Jessica’s sources and hunches lead her back to old advisories and new and unlikely suspects. This instalment also sees her double life beginning to take its toll on her personal life, as best friend Becky and boyfriend Jamie find themselves first neglected socially, then in the firing line of Jessica’s persistently slippery nemesis.

I really liked Jessica as a character, she’s feisty and independent, so you root for her whatever she’s doing, she’s resourceful and determined and she appears to have (so far) stayed quite normal, for somebody who is a burgeoning celebrity, a secret agent and a daughter of a murdered spy. I felt we as readers get to know her better though when she is paired with another character. Kat and Zak revealed Jessica’s character really well I thought- we get to see her own her ideas and defend her (correct) hunches. She gets to prove that she’s not just  a flukey agent or a pretty face- she gets to make mistakes and learn from them, as well as take responsibility for other people. The series turns on its head the idea that all people working in the fashion industry are shallow mercenaries that would stab you in the back before casually applying a slick of lipgloss. Although there are definitely people out there who match that description.

Each of the three books is full of twists and turns as Jessica and her varying allies close in on their targets. Towards the end the reader reels from shocking reveals about inside jobs, double agents, betrayals and secret identities. It’s hard to say which area is most well stocked with dodgy characters and murky with treachery and deceit; the fashion industry, the criminal underworld or the intelligence service. Each instalment of the series has a complete narrative, but together they assemble pieces of a larger mystery- what happened the day 10 years ago when Jessica’s mother Lily, also a Model Spy was killed in a helicopter crash? A helicopter crash that doesn't, in light of emerging information, look as accidental as it appeared at the time. Jessica’s whole reason for joining MI6 is to get to the bottom of it and to bring those responsible to justice.

As much as I enjoyed the series so far, there was one thing that bugged me throughout. The descriptions of all the gowns, bags and accessories became a little tiresome, dropping designer name after designer name. Though I must say that these get less frequent towards the third book. For somebody profoundly uninterested in fashion, knowing something was an evening bag was good enough for me- the fact that it was cream, beaded, Victoria Beckham/Stella McCartney/Burberry creation doesn't really inflame my interest or even help me to visualise this item! I wouldn't know a Jimmy Choo from New Look £8 special and couldn't identify a Liberty scarf if it was knotted around my own neck. Fashion Fans are going to get much more out of the whirlwind of labels than I ever could!

If you’re looking for a UK equivalent to Gallagher Girls or something a bit more grown up than Ruby Redfort, then the Jessica Cole series would be well worth a look. It's not hard to imagine Jessica and Alex Rider teaming up for a mission or two either, if you're a fan of the Rider series. Readers who enjoyed the catwalk escapades of Harriet Manners in Geek Girl will like this too, only there’s the added bonus of gadgets and explosions with Jessica.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Jurassic Park, by Michael Crichton

I read this probably about 15 years ago, and what with the release of Jurassic World and the new re-issue of the book, I thought it was high time for a re-read. Disclaimer: I've always loved dinosaurs- I begged to be allowed to see the original JP in 1993, but was 5 years old. So that didn't happen. Anyway. Lots of love for dinosaurs (and also for the birds that they became, incidentally).

The premise of the book is very similar to the film. Identical, really, as far as sticking to the source material goes in film adaptations, Jurassic Park was pretty much on the money. Eccentric billionaire John Hammond, away from the prying eyes of authority and regulation and scientific ethics, develops a state-of-the-art theme park. Filled with dinosaur attractions cloned from DNA discovered in fossilised tree sap, it's the only park of its kind in the world. In order to appease his financiers and gather support from the research community for his project, he invites an assortment of experts to visit the part to cast their opinion. These are renowned but introverted palaeontologist Dr Alan Grant, his palaeobotany student Dr Ellie Sattler, sass-master Chaotician Dr Ian Malcolm, lawyer Gennaro and, unbeknown to the rest of the group, his grandchildren Tim and Lex. So far, so familiar.

It's weird reading a single book and seeing which bits were used as set pieces in various films. Raptors in the kitchen, JPI. Compy beach attack on a child, used in JPII. Pterosaur aviary attack, JPIII. Tyrannosaur Jeep buffet, JPI. Compys nibble a guy to death, JPII. All this damned source material in one book! I just love it. Thoroughly enjoyed this re-read and was virtually punching the air at certain points, humming the theme tune to myself.

As ever, the novel gives us a better and more thorough insight into the minds of the characters. Alan Grant is much more of a competent action man than the film gives him credit for and is by far the character followed the most throughout the narrative. We see him steering his child charges through Jurassic Park, torn between getting as much distance between them and the pointy teeth as possible, and hanging around to capitalise on the once in a lifetime opportunity to study the animals and prove his hypothesis right or wrong once and for all. I liked that he and Ellie aren't an item in the novel- always this need for Hollywood to romanticise even the most unromantic scenarios (ie dino rampage). The reader gets a better understanding of InGen creator John Hammond too- in the film he realises fairly early on that his park is a dangerous island of death and has no problem admitting that, eventually. Book Hammond is much more of a lunatic, in absolute denial until his dying breath about the threat that his life's work poses. Right through he's convinced a few tweaks and a bit more fence and everything will be business as usual, no matter what catastrophe is playing out in front of his eyes.

It might not be prose of the highest quality, but it's an incredibly enjoyable read, full of action, peril and toothsome creatures. Though the sections on the nature of chaos (as in the maths thing, not dino-based chaos) swooshed right over my head, I loved Ian Malcolm getting all technical with Hammond, him kind of relishing the told-you-so moments but wishing he was wrong at the same time. I love how drily sarcastic he is. What a dude. The Rex of the novel is so much more persistent and intelligent than its film relative, tracking and pursuing, not just popping up at the end to dish out justice to the raptors at the end.

It doesn't matter that 60% of the characters end up dead. I would totally go to that park.

Cruel Summer, by James Dawson

Cruel Summer starts with beautiful Janey, teetering on the edge of the coastal cliffs on prom night- tearful, humiliated. A figure approaches, she steps back away from the person she has no desire to see and plummets over the edge.

Fast forward a year, and Janey's surviving friends have organised a Spanish reunion holiday-  a week of catching up, fun and sangria in the sun. Ryan, the book's narrator sees his life as a long running TV series with him as the fabulous star, and this episode is the set-abroad ratings winner that every sitcom is partial to once in a while. He pigeon holes his friends as stock characters- Katie, the English Rose- quiet, considerate, the textbook good girl. Alisha, the hot mess- sassy party girl with newly cultivated queen Bey afro. Ben, the geek- intelligent, sensitive and good old fashioned eye candy. Greg, the rising sports star- rugged, toned, twin of Alisha and all-round macho tastic. His girlfriend Erin- outsider, med student, new to the group.

Their initial feelings at being thrown together after a year are mixed, and Dawson writes that awkward reunion vibe brilliantly. During a beach bonfire on the second night, Ryan is keen to address the elephant in the room- Janey's death. He's not so sure that it was suicide- Janey simply wan't the type and they all know it. According to his admittedly dramatic leanings, that makes one of them a murderer. When a seventh guest turns up, lobbing a grenade into the group's dynamic and threatening to out some juicy hidden secrets, the group conclude she must have evidence linking one of them to Janey's death. The next morning this unwelcome guest is found dead in the pool, her head caved in. Ryan's hypothesis is correct. One of them is a murder.

The rest of the book is a tense, suspicion drenched whirlwind, as the friends gradually piece together what happened on the night of the Prom, the reader's suspicions shifting from one to the other- their own suspicions flung around freely. It's fascinating to watch the characters fray under pressure, as the secrets and revelations cause them to gradually fall apart. The characters themselves are incredibly strong and the reader immediately feels like they know and understand them, despite the secrets they harbour. I loved the dynamics of the cast- that reunion vibe, when everybody has kind of moved on and isn't sure if they have anything in common with their old friends anymore- that first real, long term test of a friendship, seeing if it is one of the ones that will last time and distance. That came across really beautifully. It's interesting because it's an aspect that will perhaps resonate more with adult readers than the young adults at which it's targeted.

I loved Ryan's style- being an aspiring actor he knows how to spin a story and he makes for such an engaging narrator, letting the reader in on all his assumptions and thoughts. He's funny and easy to relate to, and it broke my heart a little bit how happy he was to be in the company of people that knew him- people that he doesn't need to put on a show for or impress. It must be hard to feel judged all the time, as a drama school student is- a welcome break from an exhausting life.

I really liked Alisha too, despite Ryan's implicit opinion that she's not really protagonist material- her insecurity at being the only one left behind in the hometown, repeating year 13 was subtly woven into her character. She's keen to throw off her rehab reputation and start again as a photographer. I loved how full of hope and optimism she was- much more genuine. We all have those mates who went off to Uni and came back with a new accent and a whole new character- Alisha is afraid that this has happened to her friends while she's been left behind and that makes her a really interesting character. Hard as nails on the outside, but actually really vulnerable and insecure.

The book is incredibly tense, it's the finger-pointing whodunnit of And Then There Were None, meets the horror-genre expert knowingness of Scream or something. Showing my age a bit there. I thought Ryan's TV obsession framed the narrative really well- how he was always one step ahead of the story because he knows the ways in which stories pan out. It was a really clever and very effective technique that made this a truly memorable novel. I could go on for longer about how breath-holding-ly gripping this story is and how much I enjoyed it, and how impressive it is when everything is revealed with a dramatic flourish, but I don't want to spoil it. Cruel Summer will keep you guessing right up to the last page, and the violence and sadness with which you are torn from these wonderful characters will emotionally wound you as a reader forever.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Nobody Saw No One, by Steve Tasane

I was at YALC when somebody asked Patrick Ness if he thought there would ever be a kid's book written about Operation Yewtree- the institutionalised child sexual abuse investigation launched by the Met in 2012 that has dredged up handful after handful of disgraced past and present personalities from every sector of public life. Patrick's reply was "Good luck pitching that to your publisher". He obviously didn't mean 'that book shouldn't happen' or 'nobody would read that' or 'that would be a terrible book' but, rightly, he was unsure of if a publisher would feel comfortable unleashing such a potentially disturbing book onto the young reading public. Or if any of the young people that it was unleashed upon would read it. Never one to shy away from tackling difficult subjects head on, I'm sure he's thrilled to have been proven incorrect on this one. Steve Tasane has written that book, it has been published by Walker Books, and it is, most importantly, really, really good.

Nobody Saw No One is a modern retelling of Oliver Twist, replacing the workhouse with a negligent and corrupt care home, Fagin's den with a dodgy branch of Cash Converters and though the 'family' of broken boys are prone to the odd picked pocket or five fingered discount, they specialise primarily in internet scams and identity theft. Bill Skyes becomes the psychopathic Jackson Banks and his killer dog 'Obnob and Nancy is updated to Grace- a motherly and caring young woman that suffers abuse and misuse by JB.

The story is told through the eyes of two narrators, both runaways from Tenderness House Secure Care Home, a place that is anything bust secure and where bad things happen. Streetwise and cocky, Citizen Digit is a master thief and skilled in the art of disappearance. He has a shall we say unique dialect- think if Russell Brand wrote Urban Dictionary and lobbed in an extra helping of Spoonerisms. After spotting moon-eyed, baby faced Alfi Spar on the streets of London and recognising him from Tenderness, Digit takes him back to Cash Converters to join the gang of thieves, assuming his angelic looks would be useful for Virus, their unofficial guardian and manager. Alfi Spar is so named because he was found in a shop doorway as a baby and has been in care ever since. Unlucky, but honest and turfed from Foster to Foster through no fault of his own- Digit's life of crime is a shocking revelation to him.

I really liked the relationship depicted between the two lads- some of their story overlaps, so we get to hear both boys' thoughts on the same events. Digit feels a mixture of sympathy and frustration for Alfi- he's so pathetic he wants to help him, but knows deep down that it's risking everything he *is* in order to do it. Digit's anonymity is his superpower and Alfi knows his real name, knew him pre-persona when he was a care home inmate just like any of the others. Similarly, Alfi admires and respects Digit, but he doesn't trust him at all. He questions Digit's loyalty constantly, unsure if he will flake on his responsibilities, on exposing their abusers, on him.

Though sexual abuse is central to the story, there are no observed, explicit scenes- the characters are too traumatised to talk about it, even amongst themselves, resorting instead to codes; 'Jim'llfixits' and their 'Jimmy Parties' they call the perpetrators and the nights that they visit. The reader sees the extent to which the authorities ignore the problem- either because its in their interests to turn the other cheek, or simply because they don't believe the allegations. The kids in this book are proven liars, thieves and criminally delinquent- who would believe their accusations levelled at such pillars of the community? The book makes it clear, obviously, that these evil 'Jim'llfixits' are abhorrent in every way, but it also levels blame at those that see these things and know what's happening but do nothing about it.

This book really highlights the plight of those individuals that fall through the gaps of society. The invisible care leavers that walk out of the system at the age of 16 and the state considers them mature, secure and capable enough to fend for themselves in the outside world, whatever they've been through. It shows how easy it is to discredit the opinions, concerns or problems of people that have no voice, no back up from friends or family- it shows how easy it is for care leavers to become lost and sink. Care and crime isn't a foregone conclusion, but 23% of the adult prison population has been in care and nearly 40% of prisoners under 21 were in the care system as kids 1. How does this still happen?

Ultimately, this is a book about bravery and strength and about standing up for right and good against the odds. It's also about the emotional security that a home and a family provides, and the strength that that fortifies a person with. I loved the brotherhood that developed between Alfi and Digit, and Grace, to a certain extent- another let down care leaver that's been through everything that they have and more, just a few years earlier.

All in all, it's a riveting book that casts light on a set of very topical issues, some of which are issues that people are often reluctant to talk about. It handles the horrific abuse suffered at Tenderness sensitively and skilfully, and the reader can't help but root desperately for Alfi and Digit as they attempt to make their voices heard. It's pacey, frequently very funny and though the uber-urban dialect gets a bit distracting in places where you try to work out what the hell Digit is on about, it's genuinely gripping.

SourceThe Who Cares Trust

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Smile, by Raina Telgemeier

Does anybody capture the anguish of being a teenage girl as perfectly as RT? I don't think so- the frenemies, unimaginably annoying younger siblings, the desperate attempts to seem grown up, to seem cool, burgeoning boy issues, school-yard politics...The surprise attacks that the 13 year old body launches- sudden boobs, sudden hips, sudden spots; everything at once, and at the time when you feel like the ugliest, freakiest, weirdest little specimen to ever don a backpack and attempt to survive state school.

Smile, like Sisters  is very much an autobiography. Book Raina (like real life 1980s Raina) needs braces to correct her overbite- monstrous headgear on top of everything else weighing on the middle-school mind. After the traumatic trip to the orthodontist "let's make a mould of your mouth by filling it with this disgusting pink guk" (been there), Raina has an accident on her way home from a Girl Scouts meeting, knocking out her front two teeth. Impossibly self-conscious anyway, she dreads to think what her friends will say about her teeth. This fall is the beginning of 5 years of tooth related trauma that will see her up to the end of High School.
Best visual representation on anaesthetic ever?
Not the best book for the tooth-squeamish. Thinking about some of the procedures (reattaching, root-canalling, removing and rearranging) made me feel a bit sick. Teeth (the loss, damage, otherwise defacing) of teeth is the thing that makes me shiver more than anything else in the world. Other than that, anybody who has even been a teenage human will be able to relate to this in some way. Even if you managed to escape braces and have never knocked out teeth. Smile does a really good job of illustrating just how toxic female friendships can be, especially at school, and especially friendships that seem to have gone on for too long to ever feel like you can break it off. Raina's friends that she moved up to High School with are catty and unsupportive and take every opportunity to laugh at those they see as weaker than themselves. It's all about insecurity. Making others feel worse to drown out the noise of your own inferiority complex.
Who hasn't had a friend that they secretly wanted to punch in the mouth?
I love the message of this book; it's okay to feel marginalised and to worry about what people think of you, because without that, you'd never get to that moment where you realise it doesn't matter and your 'friends' are idiots and you're just going to be yourself because you're brilliant. You have to go through the fear and the self consciousness and the feeling inferior because that's how you learn that You. Are. Awesome. And yes, being a teen is hard; it's excruciating and unfair and it seems like these embarrassing injustices will never end. But it's the time that you begin to form your personality properly. You start to see what you're genuinely good at, who makes you happy, what makes you special. Which makes it all worth it.
That thing where you stand up for yourself and continue to be awesome for the rest of time.
I love Raina's work- it's so honest, so charming and so full of character, and so distinctive. The graphic novel world has celebrated a brilliant new talent comprehensively enough, but it's also gained a proper classic, role model character at the same time. Love it, would recommend to anyone and everyone, whether they like Graphic Novels or not.

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Misery, by Stephen King

I think everybody knows the story of Misery- either via book or by film as it has entered the collective unconscious in that way that some stories do. Though things might be revealed in a slightly different order, summarily;

Paul Sheldon, scriber of popular but unfulfilling historical romance book series Misery is chuffed with his latest manuscript, a gritty crime affair entitled Fast Cars. A serious novel, an important novel, full of literary techniques and impressive narrative devices. Elated, he quaffs several bottles of champagne and sets off to drive to LA on a whim, rather than flying to New York as planned. Underestimating his drunkenness, he crashes into a snow bank somewhere in snowy and mountainous Colorado and wrecks his car.

An unfathomable amount of time pater Paul wakes from a hazy, drug induced delirium to realise that rather than being safe on a hospital ward he is in fact in somebody's spare room, legs shattered, injected full of painkillers and god knows what else. Pulled from the wreckage by a stout and matronly Annie Wilkes, she nurses Paul back to health in a strictly unofficial capacity using sinister skills from an obviously now dissolved nursing career, an illicit stash of experimental sample medication and stockpiled food.

It doesn't take long for Paul to conclude that he is the helpless captive of an incredibly disturbed and almost certainly insane woman- a highly volatile and explosive character tethered to reality by the most frayed of threads. Annie declares herself to be Paul's 'Number One Fan', and is eagerly anticipating reading the newest Misery book, unaware that Paul has killed off his long-suffering but beloved heroine. Wild with a psychotically real grief, Annie commands Paul to bring Misery back from the dead- procuring an archaic typewriter and descending further and further into madness while she waits for her book.

Theirs is a complicated relationship, a battle of wills between an intellectually dim but formidable cat and a wily mouse with little to lose. Yes he may lose his life- but his pain, frustration and impotence are so intense that he doesn't really care either way. It was fascinating to watch the power-plays that each character launched, the hands played and the cards kept concealed. Paul's counter attacks are small in comparison to Annie's rage-induced rampages, but they keep him sane; the comfort of fighting back is greater than the satisfaction of inflicting pain for Paul. At least for a while. Paul's mental deterioration was gripping too; the second voice that emerges, critical, mocking, daring Paul to do thing to incur Annie's wrath or avoid it. His daydreams, feverish spells of creative productivity, nightmares and memories round him out as a character- filling in the period that led to his current predicament.

It's amazing how a book about a psychotic hostage situation ends up being about so may things; the intensity of addiction, the frustration of the creative process, the value of art and literature, the nature of dependence, the integrity of art and literature, the inherent instinct of survival. How much mental and physical pain a person is able to withstand and manage not to die.

I was amazed at how tense a novel could be that contained only two characters and was set almost entirely in one room. I've said it before and I'll say it again- I have no idea why I avoided Stephen King for so long. His prose is spellbinding. It's complicated, funny, it's unpredictable and so, so ridiculously tense. He is simply the master of suspense.

Saturday, 6 June 2015

The Ladies of the House, by Molly McGrann

This novel begins with plain, middle aged Maria Gillies reading a newspaper article on her way on holiday- three concurrent but separate deaths in an old, neglected house in Mayfair. She's convinced that she's responsible for these deaths, despite having never met any of deceased. The Ladies of the House seems from the beginning to be a murder mystery, rather than the lush and scandalous drama that it is.

The bulk of the story follows the lives of several individuals from the post war era to the present connected in some way to the deceased Arthur Gillies. An ugly but uncommonly charismatic man, Arthur made his money (unbeknown to his timid Italian wife and plain, meek daughter) in brothels; bringing beautiful country and small-town girls to postwar London and turning them into high-class call girls. The book is narrated at times by two such girls; Rita and Annetta, now old and in declining health as they live in the Mayfair house that was so long their workplace. Through flashbacks we find out about their lives in the post war years, their customers and their struggles and comforts. Though his double life is revealed and his legacy explored, Arthur is mostly absent though his lasting influence on the women around him is evident.

The reader spends most of the novel with Rita, now an aged but companionable lady, still advertising in the personals. Though taken care of for life by the estate of Arthur Gillies, she enjoys a bit of work on the side- the independence and fun it provides for her. Rita hasn't exactly led a respectable life, but she's comfortable and happy. Sharp as ever, we learn of her past, her mistakes and successes as she made her own luck in life, paying her dues in the clubs of Soho before securing herself and Annetta on the payroll of Sal, the beautiful madame that took them in all those years ago. Despite the austere climate of Blitzed out London and the sordid nature of their existence, there is a strong, almost palpable bond between matriarch Sal and Rita and Annetta. Sal and her girls develop independence, self-worth, even a certain amount of celebrity through their shrewdly ran business. They live a far more lavish and comfortable life than the factory girls and the War widows. Even after Sal's death, Rita and Annetta stay on with Joseph, Sal's son by her lover and business partner Arthur. After spending his childhood being communally raised by a herd of women, he spends his middle age eating biscuits and riding the buses.

Annetta suffers from advanced dementia now, so her modern presence is slight. Foggy and weak, she escapes frequently, much to Rita's frustration. It's through her memories and flashbacks that we find out about the horrors and loves of her past, her taking under the wing by Rita and her life as a call-girl. Though frail nowadays, Annetta never had the wit or sharpness of Rita. What she demonstrates though is an incredibly strong spirit and mental fortitude; a complete refusal to be beaten. It makes her dementia all the more tragic, though it does reinforce themes of ageing, decay and isolation that run through the book.

The book gives the reader enough choice pieces of information to lead them in the right direction; it suggests, rather than gives away. I was impressed by the pace of this book and the gentle but increasingly gripping style. The plot meanders at first, but as the reader is drawn into the lives of these Ladies of the House, the characters get under the skin. I loved the tone too; the combination of humour and grimness, light and dark really worked well. It gave weight to the themes of poverty and entrapment, but also showed strength and resilience in its characters as they reacted and thrived within the circumstances they had. There's a faded glamour to the novel that is quite irresistible- the details of post Blitz London are rendered with an acute eye for detail and the characters that inhabit it- the girls especially come alive at once. The women are characterised by wiliness, allure and keen minds for business, while the men are simple, hopeless creatures with more money than sense.

The narrative never judges the women- it makes the reader think really; is working in a brothel any worse than working behind the counter at Woolworth's? Checking coats in a nightclub? Any worse than being a housemaid or a cook? Most jobs have unpleasant elements to them, so how is prostitution any different, assuming an individual has chosen to join and remain in the sex industry. The ex call-girls seem to have lived happier, fuller and more fulfilling lives than the forgotten, traditional wife Flavia and the legitimate but ignored Maria. Personally I don't believe this book merely bemoans the lack of options available to women of the post war generation. It acknowledges the differences between all women, and applauds the different tactics that strong women employ to survive. In many ways lasting 40 neglected years in a loveless marriage takes as much guts as plying the trade for 40 years. It celebrates the backbone and the resilience of postwar women and the choices they had to make to survive.

An excellent, surprisingly tender book that lingers in the memory. Written with excellent characterisation and setting, The Ladies of the House is a unique novel, a very personal snapshot of a generation of women.

Monday, 1 June 2015

Magonia, by Maria Dahvana Headley

To begin with, this book seems to tread fairly familiar territory. The main narrator, Aza Ray, has defied all medical odds by surviving to be almost 16. A professional ill-person, she's been in and out of hospital constantly all of her life. Living with a rare respiratory problem, so rare that the medical world has named it after her, Aza is constantly breathless, vaguely blue tinted and starts every day knowing she could expire at any moment. She struggles to speak, to breathe, to walk. It doesn't appear to bother her much morale or personality wise- she's just getting on with being a teenager and playing the 'Dying girl in class' role as dramatically as she can manage. Even from the first page, the reader has to admire her attitude.

Firstly, I loved the character and the voice of Aza. She's witheringly sarcastic, sharp as anything and impressively clever. She's taking dying in her stride. Her best (only?) friend Jason is appealingly weird too- spouting facts and snippets of trivia, inventing things, creating ciphers...the two of them are completely on the same wavelength and it's obvious from the beginning that they're meant for each other, even if one is a ticking time bomb of fatal mystery lung ailment.

Aza freaks out one day during class when she claims to have seen floating ships in the sky, calling her name. When she's calm, she writes it off as hallucinations, new meds- but isn't convinced by her own story. She's not the only one to have seen ships in the sky and Jason isn't the first to make the connection between these sightings and abnormal weather patterns. This was one of my favourite aspects of the book- the mythology, weather and magic mix. Jason really delves into the mythology of sky-objects and freak weather (raining frogs etc) and does his research really thoroughly. He falls down a Wikipedia manhole well and truly, as each discovery leads to a new question or a new answer- all adding up to something more than a hallucination.

The novel shifts its horizons suddenly and shockingly when Aza dies on her way to the hospital after an episode- surrounded by her family and a distraught Jason, she slips out of the world and into another. The book then develops into something that's a fantasy whirlwind of mystical bird-people, sky pirates and hidden worlds. The ship communities, with their unyielding laws, intimidating, corrupt captains and ruthless lifestyles are reminiscent of Philip Reeve's Predator Cities, with the Daemons of His Dark Materials (re-imagined as canwrs, internalised bird harmonisers and companions) and with the whole Gaiman-ish question of "What if other worlds were hiding from us in plain sight, and we're just not looking in the right places?". It's Neil Gaiman-esque fantasy for The Fault in Our Stars generation really. Though some elements feel familiar, they add up to a very original concept and a really believable world that has its own struggles and politics. There's something quite 'Return to Oz' about it. The reader gets the impression that Aza has been called home at kind of a bad time. I also really liked that the Magonians' use singing as a sort of life-force. I don't really get it, being a certified non-musical-human, but it's a new one. Like a musical Chi.

I really, really liked the characters in this novel. They all had their little quirks and personalities, and even if they didn't feature for a huge chunks of time in the narrative, it felt like they continued existing away from the action. They were real, and completely tied up in the story. I was moved by Aza's relationship with her family too- she knew her illness took its toll on them but she always tried to stay strong for them. The book conjured a real life family, with it own complications- the idea that mothers can be partially absent through work, but still fiercely loved. That sisters are your best friend and source of most of your earthly frustration, and that Aza's father is an absolute hero to her. So many YA books have their protagonists risking their lives for their significant other- it's nice here that the author remembers that family is worth fighting for too and she's determined to get back to them. Aza's family were so supportive and unflappable- the scenes of them, and Jason, at her funeral were properly heartbreaking.

I loved the book's eco message about climate change and the destructive, pollutant-riddled lifestyles that we've pursued on Earth. It reminds us that there are bound to be consequences of our industry and appliances. There is a bit of a tendency in much Sci-Fi to set up a non human species in opposition to humans based on their unsustainable habits or generally destructive nature, but you can't deny that we, as a species, have a bit of a problem with that. However, the Magorians' use of slaves can hardly go without disapproval. No society has it totally worked out, obviously.

I hope it's the beginning of a series. This novel was a very personal journey of self-discovery and identity for Aza- she got a lot of her questions about herself answered, but now she needs to find out which world she really belongs in and what her presence there means. Whichever world she's meant for- what's her role? Why that world and not the other? I'm very much looking forward to an all out war between the Magonians and the Drowners, which, even now, feels almost inevitable.