Monday, 22 February 2016

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

Spanning 7 decades and 3 generations of the Whitshank family, A Spool of Blue Thread is a sprawling tale of social climbing, family, the desire for something that somebody else has and belonging. Providing the location for the majority of the story and becoming almost a character in its own right it The Whitshank House. With a sweeping porch running the whole way round, the house is an impressive Baltimore home built by Junior Whitshank by his own two hands, lovingly maintained by his son Red throughout his life, and with homing-pigeon power to call the (not exactly scattered) members of the family home to roost. The house is truly the heart of the Whitshank family. its building and eventual acquisition passed on from generation to generation as family legend.

Much time is spent examining the relationships between spouses, siblings, parents and children and the bonds and resentments that define such relationships. There's a lot of things that go unsaid, and many whispered discussions and secrets. A lot of the story is built around Abby, a hippyish hands-on mother of four, a wife, a daughter-in-law. We see her whole life, out of sequence, but still, from her modest background, her courtship with Red's friend and then Red himself, her relationship with the original Mrs Whitshank and then onwards through life...When we first meet Abby she is in her 40s, stressing over a brief phonecall from Denny, the flighty and commitment-phobic prodigal son. She is fierce and assertive and vital. But we see her begin to deteriorate, her memory and her mind start to decay. Families, as a concept go on, even though they lose members all the time.

The book's other characters include Stem, a kind of modern day foundling adopted into the fold who grows into a dependable and protective man, his evangelical and well-meaning wife Nora, sisters Jeannie and Amanda, a joiner and lawyer respectively and various assorted husbands, children and dogs. The prior generation of Whitshanks feature too, Linnie and Junior, who seemed for all the world a happy and successful family, prospering from the opportunities that post-depression America had to offer. Naturally they had secrets and forgotten stories of their own- a scandal and an estrangement and all sorts of secrets that weren't well known enough to become legend.

I liked the sort of hazy, oppressive summer heat vibe that this book gives out, its drifting narrative that lazily winds its way through 3 generations and leaves some enigmatic blank spaces for the fourth. I like the suggestion that families are infinitely complicated, complex and different, and what seems normal to one family might seem absurd to another. The family in focus, the Whitshanks, consider themselves to have excellent taste, to always be the ones who reach out to those in need, reassuringly old fashioned. In reality they're fairly ordinary; they're wallowing in secrets and resentment and bitten-back harsh words that they could never actually say. They love each other unquestionably, but they don't seem to always like each other all the time. So normal.

I really enjoyed reading this, much more than I expected- I'd expected a domestic tale of romance, hardships and triumphs. Which I guess it was in places, but with so much more depth and nuance. I really enjoyed and understood its themes of family and legacy and the inevitable passage of time. I liked too how the recurring element of never being satisfied, of always wanting what a friend or neighbour kept rearing its head to just keep happiness at bay. I liked how even the most apparently perfect, wholesome families, with their wrap-around porches and their annual beach holidays have their secrets and their scandals, and that sometimes they're lost to history and forgotten...but it doesn't mean that it never happened. I really liked how the passage of time sort of roughs off the edges and redefines what's passed. It was a thought provoking book that dealt with undiagnosed mental issues in Denny, with his anxiety and his self hatred, with dementia and elopement and the anguish and loss of ageing, but it wasn't wholly about any of these issues. It's just about the random pot-luck of life and the assorted events and issues that arise in any and every family. 

I was reminded in many places of  We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (the social mobility, the three generation narrative, the dementia, the prodigal son with his detachment and relationship issues) but also the family that's normal until you dig too deep and lives in a beautiful house seemed to come from the same hazy summer memory stock as E. Lockhart's We Were Liars, and the family legend until it becomes fact reminded me of the first couple of chapters of Donna Tartt's The Little Friend. This was my first attempt at an Ann Tyler novel, and I'm certainly not averse to trying one of her other 19 works now I've enjoyed this so much.

Friday, 19 February 2016

The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness

Narratives are full of heroes saving the day, of beautiful teenagers that sacrifice themselves for the good of the World, only to find some sort of deadly-peril-loophole and live to fight another day. World intact. Films, TV shows, books; they're all about the righteous, the brave, the heroic young things with the fate of the World at their feet. Not this one. Though that is going on, somewhere (in the brilliantly tongue-in-cheek chapter previews, a beautiful-but-doesn't-see-it Indie kid named Satchel fights for the souls of Earth and the hearts of Finns 1 and 2, Dylan and an alien Prince) this book follows the more ordinary kids. The ones who want to graduate high school before it gets blown up and go to prom and not die. The kids who worry about their own futures and their families and are vaguely aware of the paranormal weirdness that goes on from time to time but aren't really involved. If you're in your 20s (edit: or 30s!) it's this; it's the story that belongs to all those anonymous kids that Buffy Summers went to school with. The ones in their funny 90s jeans and too-big, too-bright t shirts that carry folders around the corridors, hang out near the lockers, vaguely wonder why Buffy and her crew spend so much time at the library but never pass any classes and why do they always look so worried and go running off into the woods at the drop of a hat. Also remember that time a snake ate the principal?

Narrated by Mikey, a senior year student with some debilitating OCD issues and tendencies, he recounts the events of his last few weeks at school with his sister Mel (recovering anorexic), Henna (beautiful Finnish-African-American, totally in love with her) and Mikey's BFF Jared, who's a lovely, caring gay footballer player and 1/4 God. So it's a pretty mixed bag, character wise. It's very much emphasised throughout that everybody has their things that they need to deal with; pushy parents, alcoholism, mental health issues, illness, religion- and for an individual floored by circumstances, coping with the every day can be just as daunting and impossible as actually saving the world. I loved these characters and desperately wanted them to be happy. Despite the somewhat odd things happening off in the background somewhere, I loved how ordinary they were, how they worry about keeping in touch and who get to find out secrets first. Their friendship was so completely believable and the reader really understands the intensity of teen cliques, the dependency of each person on the support and presence of one another. At its heart it's a story about life changing friendship and being able to love people, flaws and all.

As far as plot goes, there isn't really an epic narrative...well there is, there's a potential apocalypse of blue light and body-stealing aliens developing off-stage, but Ness doesn't follow that story; we know it already. What we follow is a bunch of teens coming to terms with the end of school, the end of their group and the start of something new and scary and unknown. It's the end of life as it's always been. That's a tough time for any teen, even without anxiety issues and eating disorders and all of the insane things that parents get up to to make things even tougher, like running for State Senate. I loved the empathy that was so apparent amongst the characters, how sensitive they were to each other's moods and needs, but definitely okay with pointing out who's being a diva and who needs to get over themselves on this occasion. So definitely completely realistic and true to life and just so, so relatable.

It's no secret that I'm a huge Patrick Ness fan. The way he can weave the reader's emotions into whatever fabric he wants is remarkable. His characters are always believable; flawed, empathetic, heartbreaking in the way they struggle through the difficulties they face. Not always in a "put-upon hero" way, but also in an "I'm doing my best with what I've got, leave me alone" kind of way too. His characters are survivors, even when they feel crap and are at their wit's end and have a bit of a cry. There is so much for readers of all ages and experiences to take from his characters and his stories; everyone can find somebody who is a bit like them in a Patrick Ness book. How valuable and incredible is that?

It's a novel very different (plot wise) to anything Ness has done before, but many of his themes of loss and strength and coming to terms with internal demons are all present and correct. It's an ingenious concept, that you don't need to be The Chosen One to have a story worth telling and to have a meaningful, important life. It's also very funny, and you will think "OMG YES THIS, EXACTLY THIS" so often that you will begin to annoy yourself. If you enjoyed this book, I'd also recommend All of The Above, by Juno Dawson for another mismatched bunch of BFFs trying to live life as best they can, baggage and all. I'd certainly recommend Buffy the Vampire Slayer, seasons 1-7 also, because it's amazing and just ignore the rubber monster costumes.

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Manifest Destiny: Volume 1- Flora and Fauna

I picked this up at London Comic con last summer because Westerns and frontier stories are my secret love and I sincerely hope one day to be either Laura Ingalls Wilder or John Marston, ride a horse as my primary means of transportation and tote a Winchester repeater. Either way, I was drawn to this comic series by its Western Expansion vibes having never actually heard of it before.

The series follows the 1804 adventures of Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark, who I didn't realise at the time of reading were real people, and whom it now occurs to me are the guys that Fitzwilliam talks about in The Revenant. So you live and learn. Anyway, Lewis and Clark, as I believe they are known to actual history, are assigned by President Thomas Jefferson the task of blazing a trail across the West, from St. Louis to the coast. En route they are to: establish a trade route, familiarise themselves with the new land, note landmarks and terrain, establish links with the natives and document the flora and fauna that they encounter.  Smoothing out the territory for the safe and rapid expansion of The United States of America. Your basic to-do list for building a country. Apparently this is all quite true- I don't know, I'm from England, all we ever did in history lessons was Nazis and Henry VIII.

However, Manifest Destiny is history with its horror adventure hat on. Tensions amongst the men on board the mission is rising. Lewis and Clark discuss the disturbing lack of obstacles they have encountered thus far. America is eerily quiet. Some of the more unsavoury men on board the expedition ship can't help but notice that the crew is comprised almost entirely of men without family and convicts...a coincidence? Or is this mission more dangerous than they have been led to believe? This question is answered fairly early, when the group is attacked by some sort of creature that has the body, legs and head of a Bison and the torso and forearms of a man. Obviously the President was not quite as crazy as he might sound. The introduction of some sort of living fauna disease later in the story brings a whole new organic cousin to the Zombie family and makes for some surprisingly beautiful artwork.

One of the most appealing things about this series for me was the characters. Lewis is a keen, boyish scholarly type, sketching and recording and generally being interested in everything like a kid in a sweet shop. Clark is more sturdy and military and just wants to shoot things. I really liked the banter between them both and am looking forward to the development of this rugged, historical bromance. There's a gross convict and possible mutineer/deserter with a gloriously weak chin called Jensen that I'm looking forward to witnessing his comeuppance. Of particular note also d a gloriously badass Native American teen called Sacagawea whose backstory I must know instantly. I sense she will be quite crucial, as the expedition has been ordered to rendezvous with her and her unborn child seems to be of great interest to Lewis & Clark. The baby's apparent father, all-round slimeball Toussaint Charbonneau seems to have negotiated its sale.

Manifest Destiny is off to a brilliant start. I'm always up for some pre-America as you know it stories, but I think this series has a genuinely broad appeal. The combination of excellent protagonists, some dastardly crims, some sort of (pregnant) teen warrior killing machine, contagious plant diseases, tension, danger, monsters all wrapped up in a thrilling adventure story is pretty exciting. the art style is beautiful, and some of the "Unspoilt America" spreads are breathtaking. Even the infected plant victims are strangely arresting- green doesn't feel like gore. If more history was like this perhaps we could finally get over Henry VIII. I've already bought volume 2, which is apparently Amphibia and Insectia so brace yourself for some spectacularly gross giant insects. 

The Butcher's Hook, by Janet Ellis

The Butcher's Hook tells the story of 19 year old Anne Jaccobs, the eldest and until recently only daughter in a wealthy Georgian family. Having recently lost a beloved infant brother to fever, Anne is an odd, solitary young woman, morbid and content with her own company. Her ailing mother is confined with a new, sickly baby (a sister that Anne finds it so desperately hard to care about) and her callous, pompous father is at the stage where he is so wearied and inconvenienced by Anne's existence, he's willing to marry her off to creepy old men in a pretty mercenary fashion. Anne shares with the reader certain secrets that explain her aversion to older men...could these secrets also explain Anne's later-in-the-novel actions?Unwilling to be sold off quietly, Anne strikes up an acquaintance which quickly becomes a passionate affair with Fub, the butcher's dark eyed apprentice.

Consumed with desire for Fub, Anne will go to surprising lengths to satisfy her addiction to her boy. He becomes her world, her whole reason for existing. To begin with he seems quite sweet, a rough but delicious type that dotes on Anne and their snatched hours together...she seems naïve and quite reckless, but for once she is happy. Her world experiences something of a seismic shift. She loses all sense of reality and prospective, losing herself in her passionate fantasies of Fub and their breathless, clandestine meetings. The first half of the story is a fairly recognisable tale of a young woman being steered into a horrendous marriage to a genuinely creepy character, one that seems to openly gloat in his ensnaring of her against her will. Love or social position: so far, so familiar. What sets The Butcher's Hook apart from more regular domestic tales of marriage and misery in the 18th century is the unexpected trajectory of Anne's character.

Throughout the second half of the story both central characters undergo some surprising and very skilfully managed transformations that leave the reader's head spinning. I really couldn't tell where the narrative was heading. The evolution of the characters was one of the elements of the novel that I was most impressed with- how the reader's perceptions of Anne and Fub change. I couldn't be sure if Fub's character actually become more duplicitous, whether his more unsavoury character traits overtook his charm, or whether Anne's changing feelings towards him affects our view of him too; either way, it was subtly and expertly achieved. I loved how infatuation and obsession is depicted as something that be one minute thoroughly enthralling, then can disappear without warning like a candle being pinched.

I really felt like I saw the world through Anne's nihilistic eyes; she's a dark, damaged and unforgettable young woman. Ellis does a remarkable job of building our sympathy for the character; unguided, alone, apparently unloved. She's invisible within her family and objectified, abused and confused by those she trusts. We see her fight against her familial and social obligations for a chance to make her own decisions. Ellis carries the reader along on Anne's errands, her lover's escapades and schemes and on her later deeds. Anne's narration is precise and unflinching, what she is doing seems to make so much sense, seems so obviously simple to her, that it almost rubs off on the reader. I kept catching myself almost agreeing with her logic, which was quite disturbing. I was completely absorbed into Anne's mindset.

I was incredibly impressed with Ellis' prose- beautiful in places and shocking in others, she displays a real grasp of  language and knows the shocking power of a well-placed, incongruous simile or a wicked thought. A couple of times I had to re-read a line just to check I'd seen the right thing...her intricate and complicated characters are spellbinding and she has the readers eating out of her hand-the way that the our opinions and perceptions are played with and bent into and out of shape is brilliant. I loved how the novel was able to surprise me and kept me guessing not only about the plot but about the characters. Though I'd describe the novel as sensational and slightly unlikely, it was an enjoyable, twisted journey nonetheless, a gripping whirlwind of passion, debauchery and moral vacancy which I'd thoroughly recommend.

Monday, 8 February 2016

Rush Oh! by Shirley Barrett

Set in Twofold Bay, New South Wales during the whaling season of 1908, Rush Oh! is the written memories and reflections of a now middle aged Mary Davidson, daughter of George 'Fearless' Davidson, the third generation whaler widely considered to be one of the toughest and most legendary men on the East coast. He's weathered and battered and not particularly vocal, like many seamen, but he's respected across the region and looked after by Mary, the eldest daughter.

This is old school whaling, a battle between man and leviathan, of hand-thrown harpoons and lances, hand to flipper combat. There's much description of foamy red waves and thrashing flukes, the whales seem impossible adversaries. A competent artist, Mary depicts a gory and dramatic whaling scene at the Eden's Art College fair, only to be outperformed by a dull, ladylike watercolour of a pair of cows in a field. I loved the pen and ink drawings that accompanied the text- so full of character and drama. I also loved Mary's quiet but firm refusal to conform and to be ladylike. Having grown up motherless she feels untutored in the ways of ladies and kind of gives up trying to be appealing and demure. I liked that about her.

Mary talks us through a year she is not keen to forget- one that saw a handsome stranger appear at her father's house. John Beck is an unlikely candidate for whaling; unusually clean and with all his teeth. She quite quickly becomes smitten with him, and she recounts faithfully their turbulent almost relationship. 1908 also saw a shaky whale season, a ball, the first man lost to the sea and a few other assorted surprises.

As well as the whaling, never actually seen up close and merely retold from eyewitness accounts, Mary talks about her family, her unsuccessful attempts at romance, and the experience of living in an isolated location with only two boat-loads of rough whalers to cook and clean for. She is dutiful, but put upon and in constant despair of her beautiful but flighty sister Louisa and her drippy younger sisters. We hear too of the pod of Killer whales, Tom and his associates, who assist Fearless Davidson and his men in exhausting and finally dispatching the whales that provide his livelihood- their payment the downed beast's tongue. Mary gives them all such personality and identity, she describes them like old friends.

A strange combination of emigrant resilience, of the domestic mundane and the violence and brutality of the hunt, this is an unusual read that does an excellent job of conjuring the time and place. I found myself quite drawn into the foamy, blubbery world of Barrett's creation. Though Rush Oh! perhaps isn't what I would usually go for, I found the novel to be really charming and funny, and I loved Mary's apologetic sense of humour. Though she laments that she is not particularly witty, but her narrative is funny nonetheless. She seems constantly worried that the reader will misunderstand, assuring them that she does not mean some ridiculous scenario, which of course the reader cannot help then imagining.

All Involved, by Ryan Gattis

A hypnotic, sprawling narrative of crime and opportunity, revenge, violence, race and loyalty, set in the chaotic streets of  LA's Southlands. It's April 1992 and the city authorities have just acquitted four police officers of using 'excessive violence' against the black taxi driver, Rodney King. The novel follows the aftermath of the ruling; a city plagued by deadly gang violence at the best of times, LA has descended into riots, drugs and flames, a free-for-all for violence and a golden opportunity to settle old scores.

All Involved begins with a sudden and sickening act of seemingly random violence. A boy, Ernesto- not affiliated with any gang, not 'involved', is walking home through Lynwood, South Central Los Angeles after putting in 12 hours at a taco truck. Ernesto is saving up for some wheels and hopefully, eventually, a route out of LA. Elsewhere, the city unravels; 24 hour news shows Los Angeles pulling itself to pieces via riots, arson, murder and one of the biggest and most violent incidents of civil unrest in America's history.

I loved this book- I loved how immediate and visceral the action is. I love how one event, miles away in a courtroom somewhere has a knock on effect, and that results in Ernesto's killing. An eye for an eye mentality sees Ernesto avenged, leading to more and more bloodshed- and on and on. Scores are settled, opportunities are seized. A chance to claim something back, to smash and grab. With the city's law enforcement well and truly scattered to the wind, it's gangster open season.

Gattis tells seventeen interconnected first-person narratives over the six days of the riots, each individual narrating their account of a few moments or a day of the riots. I loved how characters known to the reader would pop up in other characters' narratives as unknowns, sometimes threats, sometimes mysteries, sometimes just in passing. I loved that nobody had a full picture of what was happening, but the reader has the closest thing. I liked how the repercussions of actions and events flowed outwards, impacting on characters and affecting their decisions and behaviour. It wasn't so much a ripple, but a web of interconnecting stories, a neighbourhood full of individuals connected by shared (but unknown) fates. Most of these voices are gang affiliates, some, such as Gloria the nurse and Anthony the fireman are baffled emergency service professionals, desperately trying to bale out their sinking city with a paper cup.

Despite what's now a historical setting (doesn't that make you feel old?) the novel remains thoroughly relevant in both the US, evoking current campaigns such as #BlackLivesMatter and in the UK. It was not long ago that Mark Duggan's death resulted in London riots (albeit on a smaller, less deadly and much less assault-rifle bearing scale). The book closely scrutinises America's culture of Immigration and integration, or lack thereof, its violent underclass of marginalised, impoverished masses with nothing to lose, its culture of violence and obsession with guns. All Involved is such a thought provoking book- well crafted, gripping and filled with fascinating characters. I found myself sympathising with gang members, for their lack of choices and their losses, for their short childhoods and even shorter adulthoods. Gattis is a skillfull writer and a brilliant world-builder, and I very much recommend this unusual book. Particularly good for fans of TV's Southlands.

Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Goodreads 2016 Challenge

I guess I'm kind of doing this the wrong way around- it's not informing my reading massively, but I'm sort of ticking them off as I go along and finding a category that each book fits into. 1Q84 was quite a tricky one- number in the title, translated from another language, over 500 pages...could've gone in many categories!

I guess I'm kind of doing this the wrong way around- it's not informing my reading massively, but I'm sort of ticking them off as I go along and finding a category that each book fits into. 1Q84 was quite a tricky one- number in the title, translated from another language, over 500 pages...could've gone in many categories!

A book with more than 500 pages- The Dead Zone, by Stephen King
A classic romance
A book that became a movie- The Revenant, by Michael Punke
A book published this year- The Noise of Time, by Julian Barnes

A book with a number in the title- Fire Colour One, by Jenny Valentine
A book written by someone under 30- The Girls, by Emma Cline
A book with non-human characters- Rush, Oh! By Shirley Barrett
A funny book- Am I Normal Yet? By Holly Bourne
A book by a female author- The Butcher's Hook, by Janet Ellis
A mystery or thriller- The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge
A book with a one word title- Lorali, by Laura Dockrill
A book with short stories- The Ghosts Of Heaven, by Marcus Sedgwick
A book set in a different country- In a Land of Paper Gods, by Rebecca McKenzie
A non-fiction book- The World of Cycling According to G. by Geraint Thomas
A popular author’s first book
A book from an author you love that you haven’t read yet
A book a friend recommended
A Pulitzer Prize winning novel- Middlesex, byJeffrey Eugenides
A book based on a true story- All Involved, by Ryan Gattis
A book at the bottom of your TBR list
A book your mom loves
A book that scares you
A book more than a 100 years old- The 39 Steps, by John Buchan (100 last year)
A book based entirely on its cover
A book you were supposed to read in school and didn't
A memoir- Yes Please, by Amy Poehler
A book with antonyms in the title- The Quiet American by Graham Greene (SEEWHATIDIDTHERE)
A book you can finish in a day- We Are All Made of Molecules, by Susin Nielsen
A book set somewhere you've always wanted to go
A book published the year you were born
A book with bad reviews
A trilogy
A book from your childhood
A book with a love triangle- The Sin Eater's Daughter, by Mel Salisbury
A book set in the future- The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet, Becky Chambers
A book set in high school- The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness
A book with a colour in the title- A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler
A book that made you cry
A graphic novel- Killing and Dying by Adrien Tomine
A book by an author you've never read before- There Will Be Lies, Nick Lake
A book you own but never read
A book that takes place in your home town- lol good luck with that one
A book that was originally written in another language- 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami
A book set during Christmas- The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, Agatha Christie
A book by an author who has your same initials
A play
A banned book
A book based on a TV show- The Great Dragon Bake Off, by Nicola Byrne
A book you started but never finished- Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
A book with magic