Friday, 27 November 2015

All of the Above, by James Dawson

New girl Toria Grand has been dragged away from her home and her friends to a festering seaside dump thanks to her dad's new job. Starting a new school on the first day of sixth form, she just want to get in, get on and get out, preferably to uni and away from Brompton on Sea. Resigned to stares and whispers, attempting to be innocuous, not saying anything weird and not coming across as Needy McDesperate, Toria soon finds herself adopted into a misfit bunch of the strange and the odd- Brompton's most colourful characters that dare to have some personality.

The narrative follows Toria through an incredibly eventful year of her life; through her first real boyfriend, her first sexual experiences, some really intense, unbreakable friendships, a tragedy that will full blown slay the reader and some impossibly tough decisions, much soul searching and a total identity meltdown. Some reviews have criticized this book for dealing with so many issues (anorexia, self harm, homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality, it flirts briefly with racism and alcoholism) in a way that seems unrealistic. I disagree completely. Some people's lives are straightforward, some people's more riddled with issues and hiccups and questions that aren't easily answered. I don't believe for a moment that James Dawson set out to write this book with a tick-list of issues to get through.

I really identified with Toria, even though I am supposed to be a proper grown up now. Everything from wondering why an established group of friends are hanging around with you...and are you actually friends or do they just tolerate you and are you actually accepted as part of the group obsessing and second guessing. Everything from being murdered from the feet up by a new pair of Docs to an annual re-read of Harry Potter- I get this girl. This is 17 year old me. Only without the green hair and weird pink pompom jacket. Actually scrap that, it's 27 year old me.

All of the Above is funny (so SO funny) relatable and incredibly endearing. I haven't encountered such a lovable and eclectic cast of characters for years. I loved them all; The Luna Lovegood-esque Daisy with her bushbaby eyes and funny cartoons; the fib-filled Beasley who will one day be handsome but right now has to deal with liking boys; pretentious his-and-hers hipsters Alice and Alex (admittedly the thinnest on the ground character wise); filthy mouthed fuscia haired Polly and her magnetic personality and beautiful boy-band dream boat Nico. Almost every single character felt real enough to have been part of my own school-days weirdo crew. AOTA reminded me of that moment when, as a teen you realise that all the grief you get from the popular kids and the hard gobby kids isn't because you're inherently weird, it's because you don't conform to their standards of ordinary and that's threatening to people that want to blend in and move with the herd. It's a while before you realise that you wouldn't have it any other way. It's so liberating and this book captures that so, so perfectly.

I absolutely loved this book. It will ruin you emotionally in all the best and worst ways and the whole entire spectrum of feels are in there. I loved how Toria's story is full of conflict and confusion but so fluid and natural at the same time. I love the idea that anybody, anywhere can fall in love with somebody of the same gender, much to their own surprise, as easily as the opposite that they've always gone for. It's very Willow Rosenberg (she says something about not liking women, just a woman in particular") I love that one of the characters points out that it's not about boys or girls or biology or who's got what, it's just hot people that are hot for different reasons. It's much better than the social norm, in many ways.

I have no doubt at all that the voice in JD's head is and has always been a teenage girl, because there is literally no other explanation for his uncanny ability to get inside the heads of teenage girls. I love the dialogue in his books- for one it's hilarious, but it's so incredibly authentic and natural, which is next to impossible to pull off. See also: Non Pratt for exceptional teen dialogue. He writes the conflict and the angst, and the being annoyed at yourself for being such a conflicted angsty cliché . The feeling of knowing that 6th form is coming to an end and you're staring over the edge of the unknown precipice into adulthood and it's probably the scariest, most unknowable mystery what's down there.

I like that it's so much more than a girl meets boy story. It's more than a new girl in school story. It's more than a coming of age story, or a "my friend died young" story or a story about finding out who you really are. I love that there's no ending, because when is there? Things change, they don't necessarily end. Most of all I loved Toria and how well she handled everything that adolescence threw at her. She followed her heart (how naff does that sound) and ended up happier and a better, more secure person for it. She was willing to shut her eyes and go for it and I admire that in a person.

TL:DR it's an amazing, funny, tragic story about teens and the things they have to deal with and my love and admiration for James Dawson knows no bounds.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

The Colour of Magic, by Terry Pratchett

This is the first Terry Pratchett I have read- following his death earlier this year and due to the fact that I've had and meant to read a copy of this for ages, I suggested it as a book club read for November. Sorry guys.

Not only is it my first Pratchett, it is most certainly my last. I DNFd it folks. I very rarely DNF. I forced my poor, loyal eyes through about 220 pages, but I just could no go on. I got to the Dragon Wyrmberg bit but, after what I considered to be a valiant effort, it had to stop because it was making me hate books and hate reading and wanted to do literally anything else.

The Colour of Magic then. From what I could gather, it's about a magical world on the move, a disc held up by four elephants on a turtle swimming through space. Whatever floats your turtle. On this world is an undereducated wizard called Rincewind who finds himself, for reasons lengthy and dull, the guardian and custodian of an inept tourist from some wealthy mythical part of the Disc, called Twoflower. Twoflower and Rincewind tour what is for one a rugged and exciting once in a lifetime holiday destination, and for the other a mundane but deadly landscape. Along the way they get into a series of tousles and scrapes with trolls, dragons, tree elves and other assorted magical creatures. There's a part where all events that transpire might be decided by The Gods playing a tabletop board game. I think that's what was happening. The plot is incredibly episodic- our characters are captured/held up/threatened by a troll/dragon rider/barbarian/cranky God and they flee/escape/fight them accordingly and on to the next scuffle. Rinse and repeat.

It goes without saying that I did not like this book. At all. I'm not a *prolific* reader of the fantasy genre, but what I have read I've really enjoyed. From what I understand, The Colour of Magic is billed as a humorous parody of the Fantasy genre that pokes fun at its conventions and tropes. However, I found this book to be everything that I was pleasantly surprised to find that fantasy wasn't. Does that make sense? It was full of nonsense terms and ridiculous, underdeveloped characters, dithering trolls and brainless brawny heroes, bumbling wizards and diva dragon queens in skimpy loincloths...none of the fantasy novels I've ever read have been like that. I gather it's supposed to be a parody of fantasy writers such as Tolkein and Le Guin, but it came across as distinctly mean spirited and bitter. Tolkien's Middle Earth is a limitless expanse of wonder and imagination, his characters awe-inspiring and memorable. Yes there are a lot of them, but they all have functions and personalities and an essential group dynamic...I felt really defensive of Tolkien reading this and got kind of angry at how TP was mocking a genre that offers so many books that are so much better than his. Not just better stories, but better writing, better pace, better craft generally. I will say one thing though- I did like Death and hoped he would pop up more often, as his bemusement and stoic perseverance was one of the oly element of the book that I enjoyed.

Good parody is a loving homage, an acknowledgement of the traditions and conventions of a genre. It's funny. It works as a text in its own right. Hot Fuzz and Shawn of the Dead are brilliant homages to their genres. Scream. The Cabin in the Woods. They all show understanding and love of the genres they're sending up, an inside out knowledge and expert examination of convention and the audience's expectations. The Colour of Magic is to Fantasy what Scary Movie is to horror films. It becomes the very thing it thinks it's lampooning- in this case bad, generic fantasy.

I won't be returning to the Discworld. I had looked forward to reading this and had taken it for granted that I'd love it, so it was quite a weird feeling to have managed my expectations so badly. The Discword novels have such a fun fanbase that are both vocal and incredibly loyal and I'm sad that I have to hold my hands up to them and shrug. Not only do I not get it, I actively dislike the object of their fandom.

Monday, 16 November 2015

The Mist, by Stephen King

Following a particularly violent summer storm the small lakeside community of Bridgton, Maine is bracing itself for more unusual weather. Commercial artist David Drayton, one of the town's longest standing residents decides to head into town to stock up on emergency supplies for what he assumes is an approaching weather front. He can see the mist rolling in from the other side of the lake and wants to be prepared. He leaves his wife at home picking her way through the wrecked plot and the damaged house, taking his son Billy and his cantankerous neighbour Brent Norton with him as a gesture of neighbourliness after a previous property dispute.

To begin with it's emergency protocol as usual. Canned goods and orderly queues, bottled water and patience. While David and Billy are in the supermarket queue the mist rolls in, but it seems unnaturally thick, otherworldly in its slow pace, its swallowing up of sounds and straight lines, and it reduces visibility to 0%. When a town resident comes bursting into the market, bleeding and screaming about monsters in the mist it doesn't take long for order to descend into chaos. David, stranded with a few tourists and out-of-towners and a handful of familiar faces, one or two army personnel and the supermarket staff suddenly has a situation on his hands and a supermarket full of scared and desperate people.

While the idea of gigantic, flesh eating colossuses from other dimensions seems far-fetched, it’s really not the point of the story, just a scenario that lets the story unfold. The characters themselves struggle to believe what’s happening to them, finding it ridiculous, impossible, even insulting that anybody could possibly suggest that this is anything other than bad weather. The main theme of the story is human behaviour, how fear, desperation and isolation can bring out unexpected character traits and turn previously rational, ordinary people into bloodthirsty monsters. Narrator David is astonished to see Ollie Weeks, the unassuming and thoroughly ordinary market assistant-manager revel himself to have a level head, a good aim and a hidden heroic streak. Mrs Carmody on the other hand, the town kook becomes a hell-fire and brimstone preacher, predicting death and carnage and the end of days. Although that's a less surprising transformation. What’s really interesting is how people change in a pressurised, enclosed environment, faced with certain death or each other. It's fascinating how quickly the pack mentality emerges and how easily people slip into us Vs them discourse.

I really enjoyed The Mist and am definitely going to read some of the other stories in Skeleton Key, though this is by far the longest in the collection. I’m always amazed at how well Stephen King can craft his narrators. They’re textbook every-men, but we get into their heads immediately with only the sparsest but most specific details. David Drayton reminded me a bit of Clayton Riddel from Cell; father and husband (arguably not a perfect example of either but doing his best) thrust into a position of leadership by supernatural forces beyond his control. He’s a very ordinary man trying to survive even though he has no idea what’s going on and people seem to want answers from him of all people.

It’s hard to talk about the book without at least briefly mentioning the film. Unusually, I saw the film first which I really enjoyed, and was retrospectively impressed all over again by how closely it follows the book. Aside from a few small details it’s pretty much page for page, scene for scene right up until the end, which famously differs greatly. With the film the viewer gets two sadists for the price of one with Frank Darabont crushing your tiny ray of hope and then kicking you in the teeth for good measure. Both endings work really well, it's hard to choose one over the other. What are identical stories branch off into two totally different endings that induce completely different feelings in the audience.

I can't stop being impressed by Stephen King and beat myself up every time for avoiding him for so long. The Mist, for such a short book, is really atmospheric, incredibly tense and filled with memorable characters. It’s a survival story, and just like any other flavour of apocalypse, it’s about the human instinct for self-preservation and the unfortunate mental competition between survival and insanity that seems to determine whether or not a person can survive the end of the world. I would very much recommend this as an excellent way in for new SK readers- though brief it has all of his classic elements.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle was Shirley Jackson’s last novel before her death in 1965 and is primarily concerned with the themes of ‘otherness’, mental deterioration and isolation, both geographically and socially. In common with The Haunting of Hill House, a stately but decrepit and far-too-big house plays a major part in the story, in this case the Blackwood manor house, a lonely and isolated pile in acres of woodland, far away from the snooping eyes of the hateful villagers. Like its inhabitants the house deteriorates and suffers greatly, but it’s still standing at the end.

The story is told from the perspective of 18 year old Mary-Katherine Blackwood, Merricat for short, who lives with her older sister Constance and her disabled uncle Julian who has no recollection of the poisoning that incapacitated and nearly killed him. Twice a week Merricat braves the stares and the whispers of the local village, venturing out just long enough to buy groceries, swap library books and drink a cup of coffee, just to show the villagers that she is not afraid of them. She has a very blunt, unusually candid manner of speaking, but it’s clear from the beginning that she harbours secrets. She’s incredibly paranoid and full of fear and a specifically spiteful form of hatred for everybody but her sister Constance and her cat Jonas.

I don't normally quote from books, but look at this for an opening line;
My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all, I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in our family is dead.
― Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle

Jackson does a pitch perfect job of adding paper thin layer upon layer of unease, steadily building tension and a slowly prickling sense of agitation. It’s very hard to pin down what it is that creates such unease (apart from masterful writing, obviously) but the reader understands from page one that the narrator is a very unusual and very psychologically damaged woman. There are no ghosts or monsters, no haunted house and no phantoms; all the fear in this book comes from the unknowable shady corners of the human mind.

Soon enough we learn that six years prior to the events of the novel a collection of murders occurred in Blackwood House. All other members of the family, immediate and extended, were fatally poisoned at the dining table. Investigators found the source of the poison in the sugar sprinkled on blackberries served at dinner. Merricat survived, being sent to bed with no supper as punishment. Constance, the chef on this occasion and the only one who took no sugar on her berries was the obvious suspect, but a lack of evidence sees her acquitted. The murders become notorious, and the three surviving Blackwoods become village curiosities; reclusive, inescapably odd and invisible.
The sisters’ (and Uncle’s) quiet, and ultimately quite happy life is disturbed when a cousin appears at the house, ostensibly there to reconnect with his family after the  disowning of the surviving Blackwood sisters, his intent and motivation is fairly obvious very quickly. His appearance disturbs the tranquil and established routines, routine so scared it’s almost ritual and sets in motion a deadly chain of events that will change life forever at Blackwood house.

This is such a skinny book it can be read in an evening- it’s gripping and absorbing, and it’s really hard to say what element makes it so unnerving. The sense otherliness is all I can attribute it to. Merricat and Constance are not like normal  people and when they keep to themselves they are happy. I loved the psychological element of this novel, the way that small town gang mentality and persecution is explored and the pains that Constance goes to to keep her evidently mentally ill sister comfortable, safe and content. The sisters (and the cat) want for nobody else, they seek out nobody else, and as long as it stays just the three of them, they will be fine.

As far as the plot goes, it’s a very simple plot. But it’s not the plot that makes it. It’s the writing style that is so arresting. When the ‘twist’ (if it can be called that) is revealed, the reader has suspected it for some time. It’s the casual way that it’s presented that makes it notable, not the revelation itself.

Very much recommend. I read it on Halloween thinking incorrectly that it was a ghost story. While there’s nothing supernatural about it, the moody isolation is certainly atmospheric and it’s definite worth a read for its interesting characters and its creepy sensations.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Stonebird, by Mike Revell

A powerful and uplifting début from Mike Revell, Stonebird is a somewhat magical but mostly real-life story narrated by 11 year old Liam. Uprooted from his home and dragged across the country to be near to his ill and fading grandmother, Liam's mum is not coping well with her mother's dementia and the strain drives her to alcohol. Liam finds dealing with his drunk mum tough to handle, and his older sister is of little help. Suddenly rebellious, she's out at all hours with a new boyfriend, breaking rules and ignoring instructions from their mum and seems pretty indifferent to anything going on around her. When Liam starts his new school, he is immediately targeted by bullies. Things aren't going well for him.

Walking his dog one afternoon, Liam comes across an eerie stone gargoyle in an abandoned church. Awed by its size and its ugly but impressive bulk, it reminds him of a gargoyle he read about in his gran's old diary from when she lived in Pre-War Paris- originally adorning Norte Dame cathedral, she christened him Stonebird and believed he offered her protection. Inspired by the connection, he uses this gargoyle as the basis for some stories in class, prompted by his new and lovely teacher. Continuing to find out more about his grandma's younger years, back before she was ill, back before she's even had children, Liam learns about the person stolen from him by dementia, convinced that a devil is inside his gran eating away at everything that ever made her the person she once was.

When Liam starts to see some connection between the Stonebid stories he tells in class and subsequent events, he begins to think that Stonebird might be the answer to all his prayers- getting rid of his tormentors, making his gran better and healing his mum. Liam is about to learn the age old lesson of being careful what he wishes for, and he is going to experience first hand what powerful magic stories can hold.

I liked Liam as a character- he was brave and determined, even if he was a bit naïve (and very understanding of Mark, his main bully). He's an incredibly thoughtful boy who tries so hard to make his mum happy, and he worries so much about her depression and her sad eyes. He accepts quite maturely that not all stories can have a happy ending, but that happiness is always out there somewhere- and that a person can always help to bring other people happiness even when they can't find it for themselves. While the book itself has some quite dark themes, ultimately it's uplifting and is more about the strength of family and positivity. There is no one way of dealing with grief or depression, no magic cure to make everything better, but Stonebird shows that even then, even when things are absolutely awful, people manage and they are stronger than they think.

I had expected more of a magical tale of a boy and his friendship with a sentient, mobile statue, but the narrative is much more real life than that. Liam struggles with seeing his family fall apart, the various mental illnesses and coping strategies, and he sees the devastation and hurt that dementia brings, something that all too many readers will be able to relate to. It's a much darker book than I had anticipated. Liam learns that while the world is very black and white to a child, when he is forced to grow up and mature very quickly, as he is, the line between good and evil and right and wrong is not so clear, and wishes and decisions can have unexpected, sometimes deadly consequences.

Stonebird would be a brilliant and absorbing read for any 10+ child, but it would be especially pertinent to anyone who is experiencing similar issues at home- dementia, as we are forever being told, is becoming more and more common. It would make a great year 7 class reader, enabling dialogue and discussion about dementia, bereavement, and depression. And depression' unfortunate connection with alcohol dependency. An excellent book, a gripping story and much more real life than its magical fantasy elements might originally suggest.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow, by Katherine Woodfine

To say something is textbook could come across as a bit of a dig- like it's an obvious choice or a by-the-numbers churned out formula. But that's not what I mean. This is a textbook Middle Grade adventure slice of historical fiction loveliness, something that future MG writers will read in Creative Writing modules entitled "How to Write the Perfect Middle Grade Book". It's got brilliant characters, plenty of shady goings on to secretly investigate, moustache-twirling villainy and a lively and characterful setting.

The book stars 14 year old Sophie, a kind, noble and hard working orphan that's taken a skydive down the social ladder but isn't going to let it defeat her. We also have the beautiful Lillian Rose, a boisterous and daring part time showgirl, part time model and sidekick/BFF of Sophie and lastly Billy, an absent minded but well meaning porter, secretly besotted with Sophie. They work in the soon-to-be-grandly-opened Sinclair's, a sumptuous Edwardian department store, a paradise on Earth that will revolutionise the very idea of shopping, transforming a drab chore into luxurious leisure. Think Mr Selfridge meets Ruby Redfort.

On the eve of the grand opening (no expense spared), a collection of priceless artefacts and trinkets meant for exhibition goes missing. Unjustly, suspicion falls on Sophie as she was one of the last people to see the incredibly valuable one-of-a-kind clockwork sparrow. When she is conveniently dismissed for her position in the millinery department, Sophie must join forces with her new friends and Joe, a street urchin with insider knowledge, to prove her innocence, find the sparrow, get her job back and beat the dastardly (but very discreet) crime-lord The Baron.

Despite its historical setting, there are lots of little inclusions that modern readers can relate to; the schoolyard bullying that Sophie endures from the other shopgirls, the jealousy and reverse snobbishness, the themes of friendship and teamwork, the injustice of being accused of something of which you are innocent. It's not hard to warm to the kind-hearted Sophie, who is a sort of MG Esther Greenwood- neat but impoverished, hard-working and never once bemoaning her reduced situation.

The author has got the balance of regular and archaic language just right, and the tone is just perfect. This might not bother most people, but I personally am irrationally furious when authors are inconsistent with their decision to use period language or archaic terms (the worst is when they just pepper a novel with multiple uses of some random VICTORIAN WORD, like 'tendrils' or 'complexion', and it is evidently a very difficult thing to do, but Woodfine pulls it off impeccably. The book's tone is quaint without ever being sickly, it's consistently in-keeping with the Edwardian setting but also entirely readable and absorbing. It creates a mood and evokes a time so thoroughly and so undetectably that the reader doesn't stop to think about it. It's simply perfect.

The pacing is spot on, the plot just complex enough to support the mystery and allows the reader to experience the thrill of successfully matching up clue after clue, but it's straightforward enough to not become lost or bogged down. The narrative unfolds beautifully into a happy and very satisfying ending. I think fans of Opal Plumstead and Hetty Feather will love this. There are so many awesome girls in fiction right now detecting up a storm see also: Wells & Wong, Lucy Carlyle and Poppy Pym.

I enjoyed this book immensely and really loved getting to know the characters. I'm definitely looking forward to Sophie and Lil's next caper, and I hope we get to find out more about the shop's dapper and mysterious proprietor, the mostly absent so far Mr Sinclair.

Broadway Book Club Discussion of The Half Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

About half of us in attendance managed to finish the book, some citing a grating style of prose as the reason for abandoning, some were unmotivated to continue by the lacklustre plot and characters. Those that did finish found it a bit of a chore, and hadn't enjoyed it hugely.

We thought that the setting was fascinating and loved the idea of getting a glimpse into the lives of black and mixed race Germans/Americans living in soon-to-be-Nazi Germany and how difficult life must have been, but we felt that the story itself wasn't really worth telling and we felt that it wasn't executed particularly well. Jazz is often presented as a sort of magnet for social oddballs, drawing people in from society's fringes, so thematically it married really well with between-the-Wars Berlin, which apparently attracted lots of renegade fringe artists and musicians at that time. It was commented that the writing style was quite unconvincing and Sid’s vernacular was a little slapdash- one member remarked that the prose was an odd and inconsistent mixture of literary and patois which was off-putting. We thought the author was probably an excellent historian, who painstakingly researched the era and crafted the architecture of Berlin and Paris very well, but forgot to add enough foreground. Being a good historian doesn't necessarily make a good storyteller.

As far as the characters go, I think confusion and dislike were most prevalent. Sid in particular won no fans- while I myself mostly felt sorry for him, many others found him thoroughly dislikeable, bitter and jealous. Overall we found Sid to be a generally terrible person, Chip to be a huge liar and Heiro to be a massive contradiction. The Heiro of the novel's beginning (chronologically the end) seemed to be a totally different person to the Heiro that was in the rest of the novel. In the beginning, he seems like a reckless and headstrong young kid whose stubborn desire for milk leads to him being seized by the Nazis. The Heiro in the rest of the novel is a shy, naive protégée who barely speaks two words together. It just didn’t add up. In a similar sense, many of us struggled to get the timeline in order- the jumping around from the 1930s to the 1990s was easy enough, but the order of events in the 1930s became a bit muddled and we were never sure how long certain scenes went on for (were they hiding out at the club for days? Weeks? It was hard to tell)

One member (who it has to be said, was the only person present that knew anything about Jazz) found the Jazz of the story unconvincing, particularly the way the characters cut the record, and the way the characters appeared to have no training or context, they just popped up out of nowhere. We also agreed that the presentation of the Jazz musician’s lifestyle seemed a bit stereotypical, which disconnected us further from the characters.

We discussed the appearance 2/3 of the way through of Louis Armstrong and how disjointed this felt within the narrative. We agreed it was unconvincing and incongruous for a real-life figure to pop up amongst fictional creations. We felt this might have worked better if this character was a new creation inspired by the real life Louis, rather than randomly inserting him into the narrative. In an already hazy book, this attempt at blurring the line between fiction and reality just didn't pay off.

We discussed the ending, (for those of us that got to it!) and concluded that it felt rushed, too keen to tie up the loose ends. Apart from being slightly unbelievable, it felt odd. We just couldn't believe that Chip, a generally unpleasant character didn't have an agenda for seeking out his long-thought-dead friend. We also though Hiro would have been considerably more angry at Sid’s revelation.

In conclusion. we felt that it focused too much on the love triangle and jealousy element, and kind of forgot about the musical and social elements of the story. One member described it as Hollyoaks meets Fear & Loathing in Nazi Germany, which just about sums it up! Though there were some compelling scenes (mostly fleeing Berlin and Paris) and some characters that we really liked that died or disappeared early (Paul, mostly) I think it was a resounding ‘Meh’ from most of us.