Monday, 17 July 2017

Frozen Charlotte, by Alex Bell

Motivated by a sudden and unexpected tragedy born of messing around with a Ouija Board app, Sophie heads off to the moody, weather-beaten Isle of Skye to stay with the kind-of-cousins she met once and only once when she was a small child. 16 year old Cameron is a broody musical prodigy with a hand injury that prevents him from achieving greatness. 15 year old Piper is perfect- the sweetly smiling hostess who seems too good to be true. 7 year old Lilias is strange and once tried to cut her own skeleton out. Rebecca is dead and has been for 7 years. Their father, Sophie’s kind of Uncle James, is either the most gormlessly absent parent in the world, the most wilfully ignorant, or he genuinely doesn’t care what’s going on in the lives of his weird offspring.

Rebecca is the one that started it all- the spirit that Sophie tried to summon, the probable reason for the tragedy, the reason Sophie is on Skye. All Sophie knows is that her kind-of cousin died in an accident at her family’s home. So it turns out that the Skye house has a tragic and accident-prone history and that strange things have happened there for a long time. Rebecca was acting oddly before she died, and the family seem very reluctant to talk about her, or any of the similarly odd behaviour exhibited by Lilias. Intrigued, and a bit afraid, Sophie is determined to get to the bottom of the mystery surrounding Rebecca’s death, as she is convinced it connects with a death in her own life.

The novel lays its cards on the table pretty early- there is a ghost, level of malice unknown, let’s see what she wants, and there are creepy dolls that whisper to the children. Lilias claims they tell her to do bad things, even when she doesn’t want to. Each chapter begins with 4 lines from the Frozen Charlotte ballad, a poem that inspired the production of the dolls and a tune that threads the most chilling parts of the story together. The book was vaguely atmospheric, aided mostly by the wind and Dark Tom, the shrieking parrot. Personally I found the writing basic to the point that it felt robotic- I guess I wanted more emotion, more menace, more sensation. I felt like Sophie was just running a bit of commentary on what was happening, not feeling much of any of it.

I did like the psychological warfare that Cameron and Piper were engaged in- each one is determined to paint the other as the villain of the piece by dropping carefully chosen facts and suggestions out of context. Not sure of the full stories, at the mercy of the information drip fed to her, Sophie becomes less and less sure who’s telling the truth, who she can trust and which of the three cousins is the most dangerous.

Also, if you live in a house that was a school over 100 years ago, why on Earth would you keep the school’s stage in your living room? Why would the blackboards still be up? If you’ve got one kid that wandered off into the frosty night and died, why would you not keep a better eye on your remaining 3? Maybe check once in a while that they’ve not deteriorated into some sort of psychotic fog? Why don’t people trust their own eyes?

Frozen Charlotte was an easy enough read with the occasional spooky moment, but for me it lacked atmosphere and suspense. I found Sophie to be a bit of a limp protagonist and after how much I had enjoyed Fir, also in the Red Eye series, I think I had very high expectations for Frozen Charlotte that just weren’t met. Kids are always asking me for horror books, and the China Doll trope is very well known, so I don't think it will lack readers, this one just didn't do anything for me.

Friday, 7 July 2017

No Dominion, by Louise Welsh

I understand that this is the third part of a trilogy, but I haven’t read either of the first two, so I’ll be viewing it (fairly or unfairly) as a standalone. It works- I didn’t feel like I was missing a load of back story or context, plenty of post-apocalyptic novels start after the collapse of society. I usually prefer ones that do- I find the establishing of a new humanity to be much more fascinating than the flight from danger/disease/violence, whatever shape the apocalypse takes.

No Dominion is set seven years after The Sweats, a pandemic of fever which saw most of (I assume) the world wiped out. The book begins on the Island of Orkney, where survivors have carved out a functioning, democratic society. Enough for there to be freedom, enough food to eat, houses to live in and no Sweats. We begin with an Easter celebration with a drunken stand-off between a native Islander, Magnus, and a bullish thug of a man named Bjarne. They row about their adopted teen kids, who seem to be pairing off in a way that boys and girls have since the beginning of time. Shug, Magnus’ adopted son is a surly, defiant 15 year old, convinced there is more to life than the island. Willow, ward of the bullying Bjarne and his jealous wife Candice is a rebellious, confident young woman that seems to be the cause of a lot of upheaval at home. During the party, trio of newcomers arrive- there is tension, newcomers are rare, but Stevie, the president of the Orkneys arranges for them to be quarantined and to join the community.

In the days that follow, Candice turns up at the President’s office to beg them to take Willow away. She is convinced the teen has cast a spell on her husband and is trying to ensnare him. Stevie is not convinced that is *actually* what’s going on, but keep to keep peace and due to her deep distrust of Bjarne, she offers to relocate Willow. Fifteen, after all, is adult enough to take care of yourself in the post Sweats world. The following day Magnus goes to confront Bjarne about a beating inflicted upon his son. He discovers the dead bodies of Candice, Bjarne and every other animal in their household. Willow is gone. So is Shug. So are a bunch of other teens and a toddler, apparently spirited away in the night by the newcomers, who are also missing.

Stevie, her dog Pistol and Magnus set off on a crusade to Glasgow to locate their missing kids, and hopefully return them to Orkney. The Island’s children have been raised in a reasonably democratic, protective society that gives its citizens freedom- who knows what set ups they have in Glasgow and every remaining village on the way- such naive and trusting kids would not last ten minutes. It never seems to occur to the pair that their teens might not want rescuing.

There were things I liked- I always love exploring emerging power dynamics in ruined worlds, the former nobodies that grab the opportunity presented by an apocalypse to re-cast themselves as villains, tyrants and overlords. The feudal societies they create, the willingness of people to cede power for the chance to feel vaguely normal again. The trade-off of freedom for security. I thought this book handled the various sorts of society that might spring up in a post democratic world, though they were all visited quite briefly and in quite an episodic way. The religious cult, the slaver, the feudal lord-of-the-manner- I would’ve liked more time to explore these, but for our protagonists time is of the essence. Also, if there is a next book, please revisit the band of badass teen girls building the resistance in the Petrol Brothers’ territory. I was so disappointed that they waltzed out of the story so early, they had so much potential.

I liked Magnus and Stevie, they were interesting people, easy to root for. Other than vague recollections of Stevie’s London life of tubes and Tinder and Magnus remembering stand up gigs and motorways, they kept their pasts to themselves. Possibly because long-time readers will know their backstory, possibly because to survivors, the past doesn’t matter much. Such mystery kept me intrigued and maintained a good dynamic between the pair with a good amount of chemistry.

What I didn’t like.

Towards the end of the novel, Magnus and Stevie meet an old man and his child lover, a guitarist of indeterminate gender in an abandoned shopping centre. It really made me double take to see this character literally referred to as “he/she” and “it”. Like, I’m not bothered if No Dominion is not a trying to make (or avoid) a massive statement about gender politics with the inclusion of this guitarist character, but that’s not on. Their role in the novel, as a semi-feral , neglected tunnel dweller turned activist and ‘lover’ of a man old enough to be their grandfather, is intended to demonstrate that abuse and manipulation can be disguised as kindness, not to make a statement about gender in a ruined world. However. An androgynous or genderless character, whatever their part to play in the narrative, deserves better than “he/she” and “it”. How hard is it really to do a singular They? I just felt such narration was completely at odds with the until-that-point voice of the novel and as a reader, it stood out on the page as a NEVER DO THAT and it kind of ruined the whole thing.

It’s definitely not in the same league as Station Eleven or After the Flood, which is what it will probably be compared to, but it holds the attention with its fast pace and is straightforward enough. Perhaps a little too straight forward. I feel like it was a tad episodic, as Stevie and Magnus propel themselves from one hostile situation to another, fighting, tricking and talking themselves into and out of settlements and societies. Personally I found the ending quite unsatisfying- it felt super rushed, a bit of a weak pay off for so much build up and journeying. Plus, there’s a textbook case of Deus ex Machina to finish the whole thing. I realise now that it never surprised me with its plot. There were a few arresting moments or images, but for the most part it brings nothing new to the Post Civilisation genre.

Monday, 3 July 2017

Shiver the Whole Night Through, by Darragh McManus

I’ve had this in my giant Read For Work When You Get The Chance pile under my desk since it came in based entirely on the title. I was expecting something gloomy and noir, a murder mystery with Twin Peaks forest vibes and potential Leadbelly/Nirvana soundtracks.

Kind of. It wasn’t as noir as I expected, and I certainly wasn’t expecting a character investigating their *own murder*. Shiver The Whole Night Through is essentially a paranormal romance with some detective work and supernatural badness thrown in, set in n a gloomy Irish town with a tragic, famine related history.

When we first meet Aidan Flood, he is teetering on the edge of the town’s ancient bridge, about to plunge to his self-inflicted death. He has endured months of merciless bullying and psychological torture because his then GF cheated on him, and sees suicide as his best option. Being cheated on is honestly the reason. I feel like this is one of the book’s weakest aspects- I can’t imagine a scenario where this is believable. Kids can be ruthless devils, everyone knows this. You do not need to invent such a weird reason for someone to be bullied. Being poor, as Aiden is, or a bit of a loner, as Aiden also is, is motive enough for him to become a target. The GF cheating story just felt completely unnecessary and redundant and kind of weakened the book’s premise for me.

Anyway, he decides against death at the last minute and goes home- only to discover the following morning that Sláine McAuley, a popular, beautiful, clever girl that was the year above him at school, has been found dead in the haunted Shook Woods. The town is bereft. The police say hypothermia; Sláine simply laid herself down in the cold and froze to death, no matter how out of character it might sound. Unconvinced, Aiden refuses to believe that Sláine was suicidal. Not that he has ever spoken to her…but she didn’t bully him. His suspicions are confirmed when he receives creepy, frozen messages telling him “I didn’t kill myself”. Drawn to the scene, Aidan returns to the woods to look for clues, or to catch the killer, or mope…but what he finds is more unusual than that. It’s Sláine- not alive, but not entirely dead either; a powerful, more beautiful than ever, ghost like entity. And she wants answers.

Together, Aidan and Sláine delve into the town’s tragic history and examine some of its shadier characters in an attempt  to discover who killed her and why, and if the murder is in some way connected to the unnaturally long, sub-zero winter the town seems to be caught up in. Just the town. The rest of Ireland is fine, it’s just the town and the surrounding woods and mountains. Meanwhile, some kind of feral animal is savaging the school’s numerous bullies, leaving them mangled and half dead- they all have one thing in common, Aidan.

I absolutely loved the setting- the mountains and the woodland that made the town so isolated, the reason it suffered such devastating losses during the famine. The author really did a great job of creating that neglected, shabby town vibe. The problem families that think they’re the Corleones, the dodgy estates, the crummy high streets. I really liked Aidan as a character, he was such a real person. Yes, he was quite annoying, smoking too much because he thought it made him edgy, being a dick to his adorable best friend Podsy, feeling sorry for himself and brooding endlessly on why life is So Unfair. Though Aidan is a bit melodramatic, he really aspires to get out of there and live a life, which is interesting considering where we first meet him. He’s an interesting character, and his inner monologue is always compelling, even if it doesn’t always make sense. Definitely not flawless, he would annoy the hell out of me for sure. But teenagers are often like that- it’s the age where you start to *understand* how messed up everything is, and how miniscule  your capacity to change any of it.

Once I’d cast off the shackles of logic, this book was actually genuinely engaging and enjoyable, like a really Irish episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, where as long as you don’t think too hard about the practicalities of a mortal human dating a supernatural creature, you’ll do just fine. There were things that didn’t make sense, like why Sláine would choose to reach out to a boy she doesn’t know, how obsessed Aidan gets about his ghost girlfriend, the bullying motives, and the ending is a bit of a Scooby doo special…however. The writing is top notch, really atmospheric and foreboding, successfully combining Irish history with the supernatural and the old school, ancient power of the forest. The prose was really impressive, and successfully papered over some of the logic gaps that I might otherwise have had a hard time with.

So though it sounds like a bit of a mixed bag, I still enjoyed reading this novel and would definitely recommend it to Murder Mystery readers and fans of Paranormal Romances. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever read a PR, I’m not sure I’d have read this if I’d have known that was the core plot. But I’m all for new things. Not as much Nirvana/Leadbelly as I’d hoped, but you cannot say that it isn’t an appropriate title.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

This is a very unusual book, be warned.

Lincoln in the Bardo is an odd and fascinating mixture of historical documentation and fantasy, which together paint a private and tragic portrait of one of American history’s best known figures. The story is mostly a father’s intense struggle with grief following the loss of 11 year old Willie Lincoln, third and much loved son of the President.

The historical parts are accounts from staff, friends, witnesses, guests and colleagues as they write about Abraham Lincoln on the day of his son’s death, along with numerous general accounts from history. In letters, journals, memoirs- they recall the Presidential party that took place that evening, his behaviour, his appearance, they speculate with the benefit of hindsight about the suffering boy upstairs succumbing to Typhoid Fever. 
These sections are referenced within the body of the text, so the reader knows where they’re from. It’s a new kind of narrative woven together with scraps of other documents. It feels and reads like prose- it flows beautifully and does not feel for a second like the historical collage that it seems to be. It does mention in the Q&A with Saunders that some of them are fabricated. Personally I could not tell which, but was happy to go along with the author’s artistic licence and vision.  It really is quite remarkable.

The other side of the story is the bardo, a sort of Purgatory (according to Tibetan belief), a forgotten semi-existence between lives- after death but before the next life. This is where the confused Lincoln Jnr. wakes up, a graveyard city populated with nebulous, vague souls from across the ages. Our main narrators here are hans vollman, a newly re-married printer crushed by a beam in his office and roger bevins iii, a suicidal gay socialite, both of whom died at opposite ends of the 1840s. The third is the reverend everly thomas, a man escaping his final judgement. Vollman and bevins are something of a double act, commenting on goings on around the bardo and inviting various residents to have their say- they are both funny and tragic, utterly convinced that they are merely ill and due to return to ‘the previous place’ any day now.

Abraham Lincoln, bereft at the loss of his golden child, visits him in the mausoleum. Unusually, he is visible to the bardo’s populace. Believing it to be some kind of omen or message, some potential way back in to the world, the bardo’s residents clamour to tell their stories to the boy and the grieving, unhearing form of his father. Though they do not know who he is, they sense that he is a powerful man. Some characters stick around for a while, some get the one chance to speak and are gone. Of the ones that stick around for a while, I found that their voices were so recognisable and distinct, that by the time the reader gets to the end of the segment, the notation of the speaker's identity is usually not needed, because you've grown to recognise how they talk, to whom they most regularly speak, and their backstory.

I really enjoyed this and tore through the whole book in two days. Even the most confused reader cannot fail to be moved by the waves of grief emanating from the President as he spends one last night in the crypt, alone with his son’s body. It’s a partial biography of Lincoln, the private man, rather than the Gettysburg guy as well as a commentary of a time in American history, with plenty of throwbacks to the past. Interestingly (and importantly), slavers and slaves share the same bardo. All those important seeming in-life life distinctions of class, gender, colour, religion and age seem to carry no weight in the nothingness, as they are all there together. I felt the book’s lasting impression was about the idea of an eternal chance to learn to get along, something we are so bad at in life.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a gorgeous book, an absolute one-off. It’s stunningly written, insanely evocative, funny, tragic, profound and ridiculous all at once. The delicacy of balancing farcical, comedic characters with such tragedy, such misery and grief is remarkable. It won’t be a book for everyone, the clamour of voices and the unorthodox style will put some off. But those that persevere are in for one of the most immersive, affecting reading experiences of their lives.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Life on the Refrigerator Door, by Alice Kulpers

An epistolary novel written in notes left on the fridge door by 15 year old Claire, and Claire's Doctor Mom. To begin with, the notes reveal a fairly ordinary domestic reality in a household with a teenage girl and a single parent. They are ships that pass in the night- money left on the counter for Claire to get some groceries on her way home from school. I'm babysitting tonight see you tomorrow. Sorry I forgot about your presentation, hope it went well. Let's do something Saturday. We never see each other anymore. I can't do Saturday, when will you be home. It's sad to see people that obviously love and care for each other take each other for granted and fail to make time to do things as often as they could. But life gets in the way.

The notes reveal the fluctuations in the characters' moods- Claire guilt trips her absent Mom, Mom gets mad about it, they make up. They're frustrated at not seeing much of each other, variously blaming themselves and each other for their failure to catch up. They think about themselves, they think about each other. They apologise, they grab a few hours together, a film or breakfast, and it's enough for now. It's not ideal, but the reader really gets a sense of these characters and how they live. The characters are really brilliantly crafted and both Claire and Mom are absolutely alive through their notes, their personalities poured onto those little scraps of paper. Things happen away from the page that are alluded to but obviously don't make it into the notes, which makes everything feel more realistic. Time passes, but the notes are all we have. It's enough. It's surprising how effectively the notes create a picture of these people's lives, like using historical artifacts to piece together life in the past. A small amount of information gives a lot away.

When Claire's mom gets a devastating diagnosis (Doctors make the worst patients) the notes carry on, but the way both characters handle their new reality is different- each seems determined to deal with it in their own way. They don't communicate, they irritate one another with their perceived selfishness or irritability. They try too hard or don't try hard enough. Claire and her Mom are both a bit guilty of trying to do the right thing but making it worse. There's still scraps of that old domesticity; Clean the Rabbit out. Buy milk and bread. James called. But it's interspersed with note-based evidence of two independent women trying to deal with a horrible situation alone.

In a lot of ways it's quite frustrating to read about two people handling something so badly- cycles of resentment, sadness, making up, shutting each other out and letting each other in. Trying to balance Dealing With Things with Getting On With Life. The book really makes it clear that there is no good, no right way of dealing with grief, anger and bad luck and that sometimes you are not in control. It's awful to read their dawning realisation of what the future holds, their hope and their attempts to get to know each other properly. All that wasted time.

It really is a fascinating format and a brilliant study of two characters that the reader never really sees. We know everything about these characters' lives, but have never technically met them or even overhead a conversation. It creates the same feeling as Instagram stalking, or being really into a celebrity or whatever. You know everything about them based on the trail of information that they have left behind them without ever being face to face. It's a fascinating format, done to perfection.

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Decline and Fall, by Evelyn Waugh

This was a book club choice and definitely not something I would usually read. I remember there being a Waugh author study module at uni many moons ago, which was one of the first ones I ruled out when choosing my 2nd year modules, so this is the first Waugh novel (novella?) I have ever read- and I have to say it was rather a pleasant experience.

You cannot, as a reader, help but feel sorry for poor Paul Pennyfeather. As if his name is not daft enough, he always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, acting in utterly the wrong way to limit any damage caused by any such misunderstandings. Expelled from Oxford for indecent behaviour (not really his fault) Paul is denied his sizable inheritance by his guardian. Forced by the pinch of poverty into a teaching position at a sub-rate boarding school in Wales, Paul has absolutely no experience or inclination to teach, and is advised by some of the other "Masters" at the school to just keep the boys quiet and blag his way through the instruction of sports, the organ and other randomly assigned duties. There are an assortment of similarly inept staff at the school, the mysterious, superior butler Philbrick with his many aliases and tall tales, the wooden-legged Grimes who finds himself constantly 'in the soup', the grumpy former man of God, Prendergast who is forever lamenting about his doubts and wears a wig, so finds discipline beyond him. The school is presided over by the pompous and inept Dr Fagan and his two plain daughters.

At the school's disastrous sports day that sees shootings, awful bands and the vilest sounding sandwiches, hapless Paul falls for one of his students' mother, the glamourous widow Margot Beste-Chetwynde which sees him spirited away from the Welsh boarding school to her ugly but immensely expensive house, installed as a private tutor and eventually promoting himself to fiancee. As you might by now expect, the arrangement is far from straightforward. Swept up in the glamour of society, Paul is arrested for his involvement in the human trafficking slash prostitution ring that he knows nothing about- it appears that his betrothed's fortune has its roots in high class South American brothels. Oh dear. How different can prison be to public school, really? There will be some familiar faces, more Unfortunate Events and an unlikely rescue of poor Paul Pennyfeather. You can't help but like him, mildly lurching from one disaster to another.

Published in 1928 (at the ripe old age of 25) to an apparently obliging audience, this novel is variously considered a 'comedy of manners', satire, picaresque and a farce. The story line is undeniably absurd, the characters ridiculous and flawed. Paul is not the only one that staggers from disaster to disaster, apparently oblivious to his fate and any type of consequence, or with any mind for his plight. It's a playful, well timed charade- Waugh lazily flicks obstacles into the paths of his creations and almost a century later it's still funny to watch them stagger around cluelessly, getting themselves deeper and deeper 'in the soup', hopelessly implicated and unfortunate to the last. It seems that not much has changed in the intervening years- money is no ticket out of trouble, the ruling classes are hopelessly divorced from reality and good intentions regarding getting on the straight and narrow are a guaranteed recipe for trouble.

Decline and Fall reminded me of Lucky Jim, in that same Series of Unfortunate Events kind of way...of lumbering from one disaster to another and somehow ending up in academia. There is obviously not much regard for the toil and dedication of scholars and academics, as according to most literature about them, they seem to have washed up in their wood paneled studies entirely by accident.

Monday, 19 June 2017

See What I Have Done, by Sarah Schmidt

Loved loved loved this. Is there anything more maddeningly delicious than a real life murder mystery that was never satisfyingly solved?

The book begins with “Someone’s killed Father”. Yes. Yes they have. Killed him so hard that apparently his eyeball was cleaved in two. Andrew and Abby Borden were hacked to death with an axe in their home in Fall River, MA on August 4, 1892 at some time between 9:00 and 11:00 AM. It is believed that Abby was killed first and then Andrew, though Andrew was the first to be found. Their bodies were discovered separately- Abby was upstairs and Andrew was on a sofa in his office. Andrew's youngest daughter Lizzie was arrested for the murders and spent 10 months in jail. After an 90 minutes' deliberation, the jury acquitted her of Murder. Nobody else was ever formally tried as a suspect.

Personally, I had never heard this rhyme, but apparently it is quite prevalent:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one.

Sarah Schmidt spins an oppressive, heat soaked narrative of the Borden Murders, creating a disturbing and dysfunctional picture of family life; an unhappy collection of people forced under one roof, plagued by rivalry, resentment, paranoia and generally very unhealthy relationships. Andrew Borden, though wealthy, is incredibly frugal, a self made man but despised in the business world. Abby, step-mother to the girls is hated by them both, despite getting along well when they were young. They are stiff, formal, apparently insular. They do not seem to connect.

Firstly, the writing is absolutely beautiful. It's eerie and oppressive and visceral in that music-box-music-playing-too-slowly kind of way. It gets under your skin and possesses you and is utterly, utterly compelling.

The story is told using the multiple narrators format and this is an absolute textbook example of 1) how this should be done and 2) what kind of effect can be created when used properly. The perspective shifts between the childish, coddled Lizzie, her neglected, put upon sister Emma, maid of all work Bridget who just wants to GTF out of there and ne'er do ruffian Benjamin, an associate of Lizzie and Emma's uncle. We see Lizzie through the eyes of strangers, the people closest to her, and from her own perspective. It's a fascinating examination of a very unusual woman. The narrative moves through time seamlessly, examining the day of the murder in forensic detail, sliding to the day before, then jumping forward 10 years to the trial and acquittal of Lizzie Borden. Each narrator has a distinctive, tangible personality and voice, each one is a living, breathing person, detailed and with depth, earnestly committing their memories to the page. Their voices are distinct, and unique, their stories are there to be believed or discredited.

The characters then. Lizzie and Emma are just so fascinatingly messed up. Lizzie is the most unreasonable, manipulative person, she completely controls Emma's life and influences her parents' opinions of her. Despite their ages, both sisters still live at home, simmering in their co-dependency and bitterness, never allowing the other to break away. Emma wants to escape, had the chance to get married, but Lizzie would never allow her to go. The Lizzie of this novel comes across as greatly infantilised, spoiled, spiteful and tempestuous, while Emma is bitter, forgotten, longing to escape the family home. She feels responsible for Lizzie, enables her behavior and tries to keep her happy for ease's sake. I was especially fond of Bridget - she seemed to be the narrator with the best assessment of the situation. Trusting nobody, keeping her head down, she seemed to slip unnoticed through the Bordens' house, keeping her accumulating impressions quiet and biding her time. I think she best represents the reader, the outsider, the person with the best objective view. She knows from the beginning that the Bordens are odd, and we see how manipulative they can be from her several attempts to leave, their constant retention of her.

As the narrative progresses, there are surprises, the introduction of unlikely characters, witnesses and developments. Lizze's account of her movements changes, the murder weapon is lots, a sinister Uncle lurks around the house. There is lots of vomit. We are thrown a possibility, sent off in certain directions. However, the book has decided its killer, and its fascinating to see that net close around the characters, to see how they change as suspicion turns to confession. I love historical fiction when it uses real history as its skeleton- easier to mess up, sure, but when someone gets it right, it is *the best* fiction. It put me in mind of The Haunting of Hill house, two co-dependent, sisters, one socially stunted and possibly a killer, the other trying desperately to carry on as normal, shielding her sister yet quietly terrified...also of Alias Grace, as there's that idea that truth, innocence, guilt and identity are very slippery, subjective things and that the same events viewed through different eyes will reveal different things. I loved the inclusion of the timeline and the will excerpts at the end- it just underline the factual elements of the book. So this might be a fictionalised account, but these murders happened, these people were real, the lived lives and had motives and they alone know why they behaved in the way they did.

I would absolutely recommend this to crime readers, to Real Crime fans, to anybody and everybody that loves an unsolved, much speculated about historical mystery. Lizzie is a compelling and fascinating character, her dysfunctional family home the perfect incubator for her obsessions and questionable sanity. I loved the sultry prose, all sweaty backs and heat haze, over-ripe pears and stifling rooms. It really is a stunning debut, executed perfectly, if you'll pardon the pun.

The Sport of Kings, by CE Morgan

Things I am a sucker for:
  • Things that proclaim to be 'The Next Great American Novel'
  • Anything vaguely Frontier-ish
  • Family spanning sagas
  • Anything that whiffs of Red Dead Redemption: plains, horses, log cabins, the Old West, buffalo
So bearing this in mind, you would've expected this to be right up my street. So did I. It's quite disappointing. This book took me upwards of 2 months to read, such was the unending slog...and then I DNF'd it 50 pages from the end. At least, it's highly unlikely I'll ever go back for those last pages.

Henry Forge- from the Old Kentucky stock, ancestors built the state with their bare hands. Proud, racist and stubborn as the mules that would probably disgust his thoroughbred breeding self. His lifelong obsession with breeding some kind of superhorse consumes his life- a desire that is shared by his only child, daughter Henrietta. This shared dream apparently makes some father daughter incest acceptable, because it's common practice to "breed back into the line" with horses so okay then.

Allmon Shaughnessy- a young black Irishman that learns to work with horses in prison. Sentenced for essentially being in the wrong place at the wrong time during some riots, he's hungry for success and money, having seen his beloved, uninsured mother waste away in poverty from curable lupus. His ambition draws him to the Forge farm, where he is assigned as a groom to the superhorse Hellsmouth and he begins a super awkward, not entirely into it relationship with Henrietta. He's a very angry, embittered man, definitely the most interesting of the three protagonists. The section on Allmon's promising youth and his potential scholarship, all that was snatched away due to poverty and circumstance was perhaps one of the most engaging parts of the narrative.

Horse racing is a high stakes, phenomenally high cost game, and this epic, multi-generational uber-saga is only to happy to hammer that home, with the relentlessly grim toil, the racism, the betrayal, the death, the ruination, the redemption, the lust, the heat, the everything. It's all incredibly melodramatic, with threats and births and incest, formal dinners and horse genealogy and  Derbys. And all in the most horrendously tiny type to have ever been committed to the page.

I really liked the parts with Scipio, a former slave and ancestor of Allmon. If the whole book had been about Scipio and his traumatic travels with Abby, his life and legacy, I would've been well up for that. I gather that he journeys immense distances from his life of bondage only to hang himself- what a fascinating character. I was always disappointed to leave the enigma that was Scipio and return to the banal, cruel sport of horse racing. Though the novel was fraught with commentary of America's turbulent and shameful past and the abhorrent practice and legacy of slavery, I just found my attention slipping far too frequently to ever make any emotional connection with the narrative.

What I initially thought was beautiful, fever-dream prose, fraught with imagery and symbolism and the blood and sweat of enslaved generations just descended into over written, florid nonsense.

Monday, 12 June 2017

The Fallen Children, by David Owen

The Fallen Children is an updated retelling of John Wyndham's The Midwitch Cuckoos, a book I read about 7 years ago and absolutely adored. I definitely think this leans more towards John Carpenter's enjoyably bonkers Village of the Damned than Midwich Cuckoos though, inspiration wise- only a selection of women are found to be inexplicably pregnant rather than all, and there is a great plot emphasis on the missing child- aborted in TFC, dead at birth in VotD which I do not recall even featuring in Wyndham's original (though there is a gender imbalance of 30 girls and 31 boys). It's a really successful transplantation of the story into the 21st century and focuses thematically on the idea of the mob mentality and their angry, auto-hostile judgement, the fear of the 'different' and the difficulties faced by young people in defying expectations, clawing at the slippery scraps of social mobility and the crippling lack of options to those born into poverty.

One evening, the residents and everyone in the immediate vicinity of Midwich Tower black out. It's at night, so many people miss the odd event entirely. However, in the days that follow, our narrators realise that they are all inexplicably pregnant, and that their babies are developing at a supernaturally fast rate. The four young women become the targets of hate crime and violence as they try to discover what happened that night, how come they can read each other's thoughts and feel the others' emotions and how the hell are they going to be able to look after babies. The book was really effective at creating an atmosphere of menace and hostility as it becomes more apparent that the characters are pretty much under siege by their neighbours. It showed how quickly people can turn on those they perceive to be different or dangerous.

Interestingly, The Fallen Children focuses on the lives, emotions and reactions of the young women that find themselves pregnant, something that until now nobody has explored in any great detail. Here, they are 17 (ish) year old Keisha, a former bad girl that's turned her life around, studies hard and has set her sights on university as a route out of the poverty of the Midwich Towerblock. She is furious and disgusted at the violation of her body and mortified that after all her efforts to make something of herself, she is just another estate girl with a baby. Her former friend Siobhan, directionless and damaged also finds herself in a similar situation. She is furious about the hijacking of her body and is most vocal about doing something about it (note: I felt I was supposed to be disgusted by Siobhan being overweight as it was referenced frequently and commented on by more than one character- that just didn't really feel right to me...I think that made me like her more because people were being so horrible to her). Third victim is timid 14yo Maida, a Muslim girl trapped into a future she doesn't want who sees this baby as an opportunity to change her course, and a nurse in her 20s, Olivia, who had previously known herself to be barren and so is overjoyed at the idea of being a mother by any means necessary. I don't recall any sections from Olivia's POV...The last narrator is Morris, ex-boyfriend of Keisha, in trouble with the local thugs, under financial pressure from his family and debtors and, incidentally, not pregnant.

Written in alternating perspectives, I honestly quite struggled to distinguish the voices of the narrators as the POV switched between them- perhaps it's because dialogue continued through some conversations despite the POV switch? I've never really had this problem before with multiple narrators. It would've flowed better for me if the characters' Voices were a little more distinct, if they exhibited more of their personality through the way they spoke and thought- they were just a little bit too similar to keep them all separate and distinct in my head.

I thoroughly enjoyed the novel and felt it kept up a good pace, kept that oppressive atmosphere of fear and hostility, kept that ticking tome bomb of the imminent baby and the race to find out the truth about the Night Out...however, I did feel that after the babies arrived, it lost its momentum somewhat and became a bit more confused with its messages. I really did not like the attitudes of Keisha and Maida regarding Siobhan's successful attempt to end her pregnancy. Like, even if it's a mysterious alien baby that you've no idea where it came from, hearing characters direct hatred, judgement and pain at a person for terminating a pregnancy (ever a supernatural one) leaves a bit of a nasty taste. I get that the super-powerful-babies were physically preventing their carriers from directly inflicting harm on them (that was really well done throughout the narrative- it really feels like the girls are absolutely at the mercy of the fetus inside them) like when Siobhan tried and fails to step off the roof, and when the fetus erase the word "abortion" from their mothers' minds- that read like an unnatural manual override from a parasite within...but to hear some of the post baby bile directed at Siobhan by her former friends just didn't sit right and just didn't feel like it was part of the same book. Like, the baby is out of you now, act like a human. Once the babies are born, we drop Siobhan as a narrator and pick up Maida instead, who suddenly comes across as Children Evangelical and is all for unleashing them on the world.

I really liked how the latter part of the book the shifts the focus onto the idea of belonging, it rescues the third act. Zero, the sole male Child, feels adrift and angry because his twin did not survive- there's an interesting question about nature and nurture lurking under that storyline that asks to what extent we are in control of our own behaviour and destiny. Similarly excluded and lost, Maida feels like she has created something extraordinary but cannot truly be a part of it- Marvel and Helena, the Female Children, share a bond that she cannot ever hope to experience.  During these later section of the book, the characters are beginning to make sense of the similarities and joining the dots between the Midwich occurrence and a similar one in Cornwall, a nice little nod to the (possibly Cornish) fictional village of the source story. There is a lot of delicious mystery left unsolved because sometimes things cannot be explained.

So all in all, it's mostly really good and is definitely an interesting and engaging modernisation- I would definitely recommend The Fallen Children as a fast paced kind-of-mystery about teens placed in impossible situations and having to battle against their whole neighbourhood just to live their lives- I loved the setting and the updating of classic sci-fi, thought the themes of prejudice, difference and that lack of autonomy, either socially or bodily were explored well. I liked the evolution of the story into a story of belonging and being in control of your own direction, but I felt that it fell down by its characters a little. I just couldn't fathom their behaviour- towards Siobhan after the births, Maida's super-villain story arc, how Morris just seemed constantly in denial and hopelessly useless. Maybe that's just totally acceptable teen logic, I dunno.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Beautiful Broken Things, by Sara Barnard

Such a brilliant, thought provoking book about the strength of female friendships and how intense they can sometimes be- how in giving so much to a friend, you can lose sight of yourself. The narrative also explores the importance of boundaries, severe trauma and mental health problems, and the tragic truth that sometimes, trying to help, trying to 'be there' for someone is damaging, no matter how good your intentions are. You can be the best, most thoughtful and accepting friend in the world, but some people need rescuing from themselves.

Caddy and Rosie have been best friends their whole lives, despite their separate schools. Caddy's set up is a woefully boy-free affair, filled with too-high expectations and extra curricular activities. At the start of year 11, Rosie meets new-girl Suzanne, and Caddy is determined to hate this super gorgeous, witty, self deprecating interloper that Rosie has brought into her life. But Suzanne- enigmatic, secretive, hurt, has just escaped an unsafe home life and is struggling with her behaviour, her destructive tendencies and her self esteem. Caddy does not come off well to begin with. She's jealous, kind of spiteful and spends a lot of time being self obsessed, lamenting that nothing interesting ever happens to her, unlike Rosie who has a baby sister die and her sister Tarrin who is bipolar. Yep, she really is wrapped up in herself to the extent that she is jealous because her life lacks the drama of death and mental illness. As with many 'shy/boring/too-nice' narrators, she's determined to shed her shyness, become more Rosie, become more interesting. Get a makeover and a boyfriend, in true teen priority style.

Thankfully, Caddy does grow as a character. The duo becomes a trio and for once, it's really refreshing to read a story about three girls where one is not ostracised. As the girls get closer, the reasons for Suzanne's increasingly erratic behaviour becomes clearer. Is friendship enough to save Suzanne? Will listening help? So Rosie seems more aware of Suzanne's state of mind, seems to view her struggle more objectively- Caddie is just desperate to be there, to be a good friend to Suzanne. She kind of gets off on being Suzanne's go to- not just the friend of a friend. She still parades around like a fool as Rosie begins to become concerned about Caddy and Suzanne's developing friendship and the intense closeness that they suddenly have. Caddy thinks she's jealous. Caddy's family think Suzanne is an awful influence and is jeopardising their daughter's future. Suzanne is a brilliantly crafted character, heartrendingly vulnerable and deeply sympathetic- she's frustrating and reckless and in many ways quite unlikable. But she is hypnotic. Rosie and Caddy’s deep, lifelong friendship is such a beautiful one- I absolutely believed in their bond and knew that they were both in it for the long haul.

Teen rebellion is explored brilliantly, and the rites of passage, the bust ups, the friction and the solid foundations of teen friendships are beautifully explored. Anybody that has ever been a teen will relate pretty hard to this. Sara Barnard captures that teen intensity, that NEED to be accepted, to be liked by your peers, perfectly in a complex and engaging character study. The prose is gorgeous- sensitive, resonant, and enthralling. These girls are so real: their changing relationships, the lessons they have to learn and the challenges each faces are so authentic and absorbing.

It leaves the reader with a weird mixed feeling cocktail of melancholy, happiness, hope and that sort of tragic acceptance of inevitability- it's the very definition of bittersweet. In her notes at the back of the book the author herself afterwards calls it "A love story without a romance", which it so absolutely is; it's really refreshing to find a contemporary that willfully neglects boy meets girl romance so steadfastly and instead spins a tale of the deepest and most life changing friendships. The support, the craving and finding of acceptance, how heady that can be. How occasionally, intentionally or not, such intensity often leads to destructiveness.The fallout from such a friendship makes bad decisions seem like good decisions, fosters an impulsiveness that overrides sense. The book is so realistic in its depiction of that process, and in the aftermath and the consequences of such an intense, impulsive friendship.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The State of Grace, by Rachel Lucas

The State of Grace is a ridiculously charming story about a teenager with Asperger's attempting to navigate being 15, something that's difficult enough at the best of times. Grace has to navigate first romances, perfect little sisters, mum's bitch best friend, absent fathers, not freaking out at school and generally exhausting herself by interacting with other humans and trying her absolute hardest to minimize her difference at school.

“Sometimes I feel like everyone else was handed a copy of the rules and mine got lost.”
Not trying to steal any thunder from the ASD community, but who hasn't felt like that at some time? Part of the reason why I loved this book is that it's just such a good coming of age story- of dealing with all the crap that happens when you're 15 and you're too young to do much about it but mature enough to know that there's nothing you can do; thus, angst and rage.

One of the biggest factors for me in whether or not I will like a contemporary is the voice of the protagonist. It's really hard to write authentic, believable dialogue spoken by teens who conceivably could exist in real life. Not a problem here at all- Grace is such a solid, likable, understandable girl, she's funny and believable and honest on the page in a way that offers readers a real insight into the realities, difficulties and triumphs of being a person with an Autistic Spectrum Disorder.

I think this is the first time I've read a contemporary novel with a) a girl MC with ASD b) A novel where an ASD character is not using their 'powers' to be some kind of detective and c) An autistic character with ROMANCE. So all kinds of goodness there.

So. 15 year old Grace lives near the sea in North-West of England who lives with her younger but more independent, confident and generally more capable sister Leah, her mum, and technically her dad too but he's often out on adventures being a wildlife cameraman. On his latest jaunt, things in Grace's life have started to come apart at the seams. Her mum has a horrible new best friend, Eve, who is exerting her bad influence in really damaging ways. Leah is falling in with the wrong crowd at school. Grace is being bullied by the usual suspects and is trying really, really, really hard to not let it get to her.

I loved that this book had at its centre a really solid female friendship. Anna has been Grace's best friend since primary school, much to Grace's wonder and surprise and she has been by her side most of her life, despite being clever and pretty and well liked. It's kind of heat breaking how convinced Grace is that Anna deserves better, how inevitable she feels it is that someone more deserving will come and take her away. But Anna is a doll and an absolute Model BFF and this is not a book about a rocky patch in a friendship, it's about exciting first kisses and first romances and sharing it all with Anna because Gabe Kowalski is the most popular boy at school and he is genuinely, definitely into Grace.

One of the book's greatest successes is placing the reader in the head of somebody with ASD. The overwhelming noises and smells, the feelings of inadequacy, not understanding people's meanings, not being able to show that you're listening or trying to find signals in the faces of others. It was a really illuminating reading experience- Grace is frequently frustrated that she cannot express herself well, that everybody else seems to find being human so easy and for her it is an almighty struggle. However, she never feels sorry for herself and she is never a victim. She has her friends, her horse Mabel; therapy and friend, and her interests, just like everyone else. She's really relateable. The book also makes the reader painfully aware of how autistic people are treated, that sort of casual, barely there ableism. People talking about her when she's in the room, that assumption that Grace is inherently a problem, the reason her mum doesn't work. Like I say, it was illuminating and very revealing.

I would absolutely recommend this to literally everyone. Not only is it an eye opener into the world and life experiences of others, but it's a funny, compelling and thoroughly enjoyable story about a wonderful friendship and the thrill and horror of first romances, of trying to get things right, making mistakes and learning life lessons. I honestly think it's one of the best contemporary romances I've read in years.

Fir, by Sharon Gosling

This book is a brilliant, YA combination of Stephen King's The Shining meets the terrifying, snowy, forest-gonna-get-you atmosphere of Until Dawn meets the houses have memories and will show you what they know of James Herbert's The Secret of Crickley Hall. But in Sweden, with a frosty side of conservation and Northern mythology thrown in too.

Firstly, the narrator of this book is just right up my street. Surly, un-affectionate, sarcastic- hello Swedish me. I don't think we ever find out the name of the narrator and once you've read this, you'll realise why that's significant and incidentally, super clever...

Anyway- the teen narrator and her parents move from their comfortable urban life in Stockholm to a remote tree plantation out in the far Northern wilderness of Sweden. Bought for a song from the previous owner when he abandoned the enterprise, Mom and Dad Stromberg are determined to make a fresh start in the lumber business. Their daughter is not exactly thrilled by the prospect and resents her parents for uprooting her. Right away, things aren't what they expect. For one there's an expedition of schoolkids out on a conservation trip with a woodsman named Tomas who warns the family off felling the old growth forest. Unmoved, the dad is determined to cut it down- this is a lumber plantation after all. Tomas takes the opportunity to take the Strombergs out into the Firs to show them the ancient woods and to attempt, in a vague, semi-supernatural fashion, to educate these townies about things that they don't understand. Unseasonable quantities of snow start to fall, cutting the Strombergs off from civilisation and forcing Tomas to cut the trip short, leaving the family with the creepy inherited housekeeper Dorothea.

Dorothea was amazing. Wizened, hunched, scuttling around like an omnipotent beetle, she is key to unlocking the plantation's secrets. Thoroughly unpleasant and filled with superstition, the narrator is constantly hindered and sabotaged by Dorothea as she turns detective, attempting to piece together the plantation's recent and more forgotten history- Polaroids in the desk drawers, ledgers in the study. They tell of accidents, fires, mysterious disappearances going back over the decades. Dorothea has been here through it all and must know what's out there.

I loved the atmosphere of the plantation and its surroundings, particularly the forest; it's one part sinister, one part magic and one part self-preservation- it feels like it has the right to protect itself. There is something fascinatingly primeval about old, old woodlands- who knows what forgotten things still linger there. The trees whisper to one another in between the chapters, demanding what is owed them, threatening and waiting. There are shadows in the forest and they are closing in.

I loved the family dynamics of the book- frayed somewhat by the upheaval from the beginning and going downhill from there. Shortly after the narrator starts to think she sees things, wolves, children, moving in the trees- resentment and tension continues to build between her and the parents that don't believe her. Is the isolation getting to them? Or is there really something supernatural in the snow? There's blood and footprints, teeth, claws and a gusty, windy song that seems to stir the branches. The dad tries to blindly continue with his plan, the mum gets more and more manic and deranged, talking to a ghostly boy. It all adds to the horror and unreality, all contributing to the atmosphere, constantly forcing the reader to decide what's real and what isn't. I bloody love an unreliable narrator and a shaky, is-this-the-real-life foundation of a supernatural or maybe not story.

The narrator's story closes with a grim discovery, a narrow escape and all the plantation's secrets exposed- the parents are satisfied that this is a mistake, they're going back to Stockholm and what a stupid idea this all was. But that's not where the book ends. The appendix blows the whole thing wide open- it's a glorious twist at the end that utterly chills the reader and leaves you demanding to know what happened. What happened in the hours after the narrator's story ended? What happened to Dorothea? WAS IT ALL REAL?? I am normally in two minds about open, mysterious endings like this, but Fir left me reeling.

A thoroughly satisfying, creepy, atmospheric chiller for readers that loved Say Her Name by Juno Dawson, haunted house narratives and anything involving obscure mythology and/or the oppressive darkness of the Scandinavian winter. I will definitely be seeking out more of Tiger Stripes' Red Eye chillers and cannot recommend this enough.

Wednesday, 24 May 2017

The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry

I think I went into this expecting the wrong thing, but I stayed for the beautiful prose, the incredibly well created Victorian setting and the infuriating characters. My problem normally with historical fiction, 19th century set specifically, is that the creation of the world is so flimsy and artificial, it's usually just best to read some actual Dickens or Wilkie Collins. The Essex Serpent, however, builds an England of the 1890s that is both authentic and subtle, its ambiance and characters seem believable and fit beautifully into the world. The prose was simply gorgeous, and that's what kept me reading.

Following the death of her abusive but somehow still loved husband, intelligent young widow Cora Seaborne discards the shackles and corsetry of London society and departs for marshy, coastal Essex. Cora departs, accompanied by her oddly independent and (to us) obviously ASD 11 year old son and his nanny/her companion Martha. 

Exploring the local area and enjoying her new freedom, Cora's peaceful period of recuperation is forgotten when she discovers a local rumour; a mythical, fearsome serpent engaged in a murderous rampage further up the estuary. The villagers are adamant that the serpent is to blame for a string of recent deaths and disappearances and that it represents a divine judgement upon them. A keen natural historian and Mary Anning superfan,Cora is determined to learn more and so departs from Colchester to Aldwinter to stay with the local Priest William Ransome, a friend of the dandy philanthropist Charles Ambrose. Cora is determined to discover the serpent, but William is resolutely convinced that it does not exist- a superstition of the locals and nonsense. Their burgeoning friendship is an unlikely contrast of faith and belief versus logic and reason from unlikely and contradicting angles. Naturally, they are attracted via their very oppositeness.

William has a radiantly consumptive wife, obsessed with the colour blue, and an interchangeable line up of children- his daughter Joanna is the only one really developed as she dabbles with witchcraft early on and is caught up in a The Falling esque collective fit of hysteria at school. He and Cora develop an odd relationship founded on mutual respect, a love of lively conversation and a burning desire that apparently lay undetected in either for an unlikely period of time.

I mostly liked the novel's collection of secondary characters and felt on the whole they were meticulously created and arranged, despite many of them having no proper function. I liked Banks, the Prophet of Doom and spearer of moles, he was such an odd, rural weirdo and brilliant touch of local superstitious colour. I liked the impish, gifted surgeon Dr. Luke Garrett, utterly and hopelessly in love with Cora, but I found her treatment of him pretty damning. Of course she has every right to not return his love, but she teases him and leads him on so much, his anguish was obvious and I sympathized with him enormously. His loss of his surgical gift is a tragedy- the book explores certain medical advancements of the late 19th century with a healthy mixture of wonder, suspicion and disbelief. Garratt's friend and colleague Spencer, doctor and philanthropist was a charming and endearing character, hopelessly rich and with no idea what to do with his money. I loved how Social Justice Warrior Martha managed to turn him onto the cause of poverty and slum clearance- she too knew he was in love with her, but dealt with it in a much more upfront, commendable and ultimately more effective manner.

I wasn't keen on Cora. She was a huge tease, exploiter of people's good natures and not a particularly attentive parent. She was jealous, flighty and rarely considered the feelings of others or the consequences of her actions. She was always described as "striking" despite her mannish clothes, which I read as "beautiful but doesn't know it". Yes she's curious, unorthodox and progressive, but I just couldn't warm to her. Martha, on the other hand, was an absolute queen. Slightly snide, upfront, getting stuff done, campaigning for what she believes in and fighting for change. I liked her suggestion that firm friendship and camaraderie were much more valuable and rewarding than romantic relationships. Go Martha. Speaking of Martha, I really liked the book's stance on contemporary social issues; the idea of the "deserving poor" will be so familiar to readers it's almost satire (Don't give the underclasses anything nice, they'll only break it or sell it for fags/booze/sky TV/tattoos)

Personally, I think the hype might have killed this for me- I think I went into it with the wrong expectations. I was looking for something wildly atmospheric, chilling and with either the Gothic supernatural of Frankenstein or the satisfyingly corporeal "case closed but what a ride" of The Hound of the Baskervilles. I think this just wasn't for me...

The Essex Serpent is undoubtedly a beautifully written, incredibly competent novel, filled with interesting characters with vivid personalities, progressive attitudes and suitably Victorian flavours, but one that ultimately left me disappointed. I wanted an eerie, haunting, atmospheric tale- unreliable narrators and was it real or was it all in the mind...There are sub-plots about unrequited love, social justice, the advancement of medicine, women's rights and superstition, but it lacks a of main course. Other readers evidently adore it and I'm glad it has been a roaring success, but unfortunately I can't fully count myself among its many admirers.

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

The Graces, by Laura Eve

I went into this thinking it would be the school royalty vibe of Mean Girls mixed with the funny but also serious but mostly really about relationships paranormal goodness of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But it's not. It's hard to say whether this book takes itself too seriously, or whether all its characters do. Both, possibly. It's slow. It's super emo. It thinks it's dark and deep and poetic but it's just plain pretentious. The repetition of coal black, coal bright made me irrationally angry.

River- not her real name, moves to a small coastal town after the sudden and mysterious disappearance of her dad. Her mum is so absent she might as well not exist, so let's not dwell. River quickly learns that resident within the town are a family, the Graces, with whom the entire population are obsessed. They are super attractive, glamourous, rich and rumored to be witches; two twins and a younger sister.
Fenrir: fit, smells of manly vanilla, everybody is in love with him and his luminous glow of buffness.
Talia: his twin. All incense, windchimes and headscarfs and floor length skirts.
Summer: younger sister. Attitude, black everything, too cool.

They are insular and private and never have any long term friends, never have anybody over to their giant mansion and don't invite friends to their parties so River is very surprised to be adopted into their clan. She becomes very close to the Graces, convincing herself that if she acts right, says the right thing and shows the appropriate amount of interest in magic she can become like them, thus solving all of her parental and poverty problems. There's some chanting and herbs, and the three Grace siblings all have different attitudes to the magic that may or may not be real. This book really lacks atmosphere.

River then, the narrator. I did not like her. She is a standard out-for-reinvention protagonist that's 'not like other girls' because she's so unique and different and she wants to get to know the *real* Graces, not the glamourous, mysterious witchy ones. Joke- that's exactly what she wants, but has calculated that the best way to go about it is to carefully curate her behaviour , opinions and action to seem like a genuine, interesting, unique person. Also- 'not like other girls' girls can just stop happening already, there are an infinite variety of girls.

However, an unlikable main character does not necessarily make a book bad. She is (naturally) obsessed with Fenrir, but hides it well. So well everyone feels betrayed when it comes to light. Her every action, thought and verbalisation is calculated to appeal to the Graces, to seem cool, different and fascinating. We are subjected to a constant inner monologue of her second guessing every action, an analysis of how well she performed in every encounter or conversation. She is insecure and naive, and the Graces like her because they believe her to be the carefully constructed role she plays. I'm not saying there aren't people like that; there most certainly are, but when you combine a drab, neurotic narrator with three other irritating, pretentious hipster characters, add very little plot- it does not end up as an enjoyable read. The writing is by no means bad, that's what's so annoying. There's obviously talent there, but I felt that this book did not showcase it well.

I liked Wolf, the Eastern European cousin, but he doesn't feature enormously. He is honestly the only character I felt even remotely interested in. He is the individual around which most of the book's plot (what amount there is) focuses around when it attempts to become mysterious.

I was expecting a big twist at the end but was very disappointed. Not just because I saw the switch-a-roo that-explains-all-the-stuff coming, but the outing LGBT* relationships and characters as a plot device left a very nasty taste in my mouth. It's not a plot device. It's just not. Even annoying characters deserve better than that.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Riverkeep, by Martin Stewart

A coming-of-age, fantasy adventure in a magical, Scotland-infused world swimming with threats and danger, magic, wonder and myth. We follow Wulliam, son of the Riverkeep and soon to be Riverheep himself, who embarks on a dangerous downriver journey to save his beloved Pappa when he becomes possessed by a river spirit. The Riverkeep’s job is to tend the river, keeping the waterways free of ice in the winter and removing and administering to the dead when they are found. Abandoning his post at the river and letting it freeze over for the first time in centuries, Wull’s only hope is to get his father to the sea, then, somehow hunt down and kill a legendary water monster whose bodily tissues and fluids are said to have healing properties and other restorative powers.

Along the river, Wull, for whom time is of the essence, meets and reluctantly accumulates some hangers on. First is Mix, a sprightly, chipper girl that has a gift for thievery and seems very easy to like. Then Tillinghast, a man who is made of straw, herbs, skin and consciousness that provides most of the comic relief with some oddly placed knob jokes. Then there’s Remedie, an on-the-run witch lady, prim and proper, cradling her strange, wooden baby. They're a motley crew, taking up too much space in bäta, a kind of (possibly semi-sentient) ceremonial rowing boat with eyes.

As they make their way down the river, far beyond Wull’s usual territory, the characters encounter various obstacles, fights, deadly creatures and other hostiles. They are forced to depend on the unique skills of one another for survival. Mr Pent and Mr Rigby, the duo of hitmen employed by the snivelling Mr Rigby reminded me of Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar from Neverwhere, a book whose influence on this one is evident. (Reluctant, slacker hero; impish girl sidekick; impossible quest to slay a mythical beast; grotesque brutish hitmen; verbose conman with certain, post demise talents- I realise Neverwhere is basically the Odyssey, yes, but the similarities are too many to not be noticed).

I felt this book left a lot of unanswered questions. Why didn’t Mix eat? What were those tattoos? How did the Mormorach’s first victim’s face get all that way up river from the estuary? What happened to Bonn, Remedie and Mix? What was the Mandrake all about? What will Wull do now? Should he get some more whale oil while he’s in the city?

This was a strange read for me. I was very aware of the writing throughout- it’s a style that forces the reader to notice; very heavy on the metaphors and the mysterious, unexpected imagery. Riverkeep’s prose is very thick and gloopy, the world-specific dialogue swamping the reader. I found myself frequently putting this book down just for a bit of a breather and respite from the constant, somewhat domineering language. I’m not sure who this book is written for to be honest. I don’t think younger readers will persevere with the overwhelming language, the slow (but effective) world building and the gentle pace of the adventure. There are episodes of action and violence, but they are spread thinly throughout a 350+ page novel. I don’t think many readers will have the stamina to get very far with this. Tillinghast’s saucy Carry On-esque comments might raise an eyebrow or two, but they are so buried in the molasses of the prose that I’m  not sure they would be understood.

As interesting as the premise sounded, and as richly gifted in imagination and prose as Stewart unquestionably is, this one was not for me. If it had not been for the fact that it was shortlisted for the YA book prize, I think I would have DNF’d. Sorry. I am delighted that a high fantasy (of the non elf and dragon variety) has made it on to the YA book prize list, and I wish debut novelist Martin Stewart nothing but good luck and success with his subsequent novels, but Riverkeep did not turn me into a fantasy reader.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Chasing the Stars, by Malorie Blackman

Oh dear. I full blown love you, Malorie Blackman, but this was not good. I had heard the premise of this book at YALC last year- a super modern, feisty femaled, gender swapped Othello in space. Sounds good, right? Then it made it to the YA Book Prize shortlist and I was all WOOO! Sci-Fi on prize lists! Shut the air lock door! But then I read it and was so disappointed.

So Vee and Aidan are the sole crew of the Earth ship Aidan. Their parents and the rest of the crew were killed by a sudden, mysterious virus and the twins are on their Earthbound journey when Vee recklessly launches a rescue mission to a previously uninhabited planet that is currently under attack from Mazons, a bitter xenophobic alien race. After a daring, risky rescue, 22 survivors are snatched aboard. Tensions are high as Vee and Aidan realise they have just filled their ship with strangers capable of who knows what, and they have to adapt to being around people again after 3 years of solitude. Vee gets to know some of the refugees, sparking a connection with broody hunk Nathan quite early on. All goes well for a time, but the new crew members, just as they are adjusting to the prospect of freedom and sanctuary, begin to be picked off in a series of very puzzling 'accidents'.

The story is told in alternating chapters from the perspectives of Vee and Nathan. Sometimes this really, really works (see: Trouble, by Non Pratt; We Come Apart, by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan) but in this instance I struggled very hard to distinguish the voices. Despite the separate fonts, I still had to constantly check who was speaking because the voices were not particularly strong. Sometimes I had the wrong character entirely and then got thrown some anomalous context that made me realise I'd gone didn't make for a very fluid reading experience. I found both characters to be incredibly annoying, self absorbed, untrustworthy and untrusting to the point of mania and just so consistently clueless. They would always say one thing, then do another. "Let's keep our relationship secret" then they flirt outrageously and drop saucy comments and double entendres in front of the other crew, confident they are above notice. Vee constantly tells herself that she trusts Nate, then acts like he's the shiftiest guy ever. Or she's the most suspicious person ever. There's occasional hiding things from each other with good intentions, misinterpretation and then overblown falling out about it. The guessing. The second guessing. Nathan seemed emotionally manipulative, flip-flopping between simpering suck up and bitter, petulant child. He might also be a sex addict. Vee completely let him steal her agency and independence, which it is possible to retain, no matter how head over heels in love one claims to be.

I really liked the plot's parallels to the Underground Railroad and the introduction of info about the work of the Resistance towards the end. Early on, the book reveals a very divided society, made up of 'Elites' and 'drones'. The latter are an abused, subjugated underclass, consigned to backbreaking labour in jobs too deadly and places too remote to send regular people. The slavery parallels are obvious, but it's also a comment on penal systems, crime and punishment and the oppression of one group by a more powerful, more autonomous one. I liked this aspect of the novel a lot, and would like to have found out more about the Resistance, which emerges properly within the final pages. It is hinted at earlier, but only ever mused upon in one character's thoughts.

I'd worked out part of the "Twist" quite early- I'm not sure if it's because I watched Red Dwarf  as a kid or because it's a bit obvious that something isn't right- even if my guess was *slightly* off...I won't say. As for the murder mystery element- it felt a bit Sunshine but with a less crazy motive. I couldn't help but feel that the identification and capture of the murderer took a back seat to Vee and Nathan's steamy action and all their juvenile squabbling and dramatic trust issues. In between the two of them taking turns to blow hot and cold on each other, I kept forgetting there was a rampant murderer on board because it's the least tense thing ever. It's a bit predictable, in that it's the least likely character, but is one of the few that has been adequately fleshed out.

The book features one of the most fatal cases of insta-love I've ever read. Yes- I get that sometimes people feel strong emotional connections very quickly after meeting a person. I guess it's rare, but it's not impossible. But this is two infatuated teenagers, who seem to think that going overboard on the insta-love is OK, as long as you constantly comment about how ridiculous and dangerous and out of character is is, how you never thought it would happen, how silly you feel to be a slave to your own urges in this way. It's a bit embarrassing. The kissing scenes go over very, very well trodden ground, all 'darting tongue', 'wandering hands' and earlobe nibbling...the sex scenes are a bit too explicit for younger readers, but too clichéd for older ones- so I'm not sure who this is really aimed at. At least in Othello, the secret marriage takes place before the play begins so we're spared the Love is An Open Door part of the relationship.

Whilst I definitely don't think this book is for me, and I don't think it was crafted particularly well, it's hard to say if the most frustrating elements (the constant trust issues, the blowing hot and cold, the willful ignorance, the misguided self-sacrifice, the 'let's just look longingly at each other and not say our actual feelings' are the author's fault. Possibly it's Shakespeare's fault. I do think this falls well below Malorie's usual standards. I think it had a lot of potential in the setting and the concept, but the whole thing was lacking the polish and the emotional impact of Malorie's other works. Which is such a shame, because she is an enormous, glorious talent and inspiration and arguably one of the founding mothers of the UKYA landscape. Chasing the Stars was frustrating for all the wrong reasons. Rather than being enraged by injustice and prejudice, I found that I was mostly frustrated at the boring space-talk, the well-trodden romantic trails, the uninspiring murder mystery and the irritating characters.

I'm sorry. I will still read all of your future books and still love all of your other books.

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Paper Butterflies, by Lisa Heathfield

Paper Butterflies is utterly heart-breaking. It’s so compelling and beautifully written, but it hurts to read. Like a physical stab in the heart. It’s claustrophobic and terrifying- is there an idea more chilling than telling the truth and not being believed? To hide something because you know how far fetched and unlikely it seems, so suffer the constant, crushing repercussions of your secret, then to have that silence used as proof that your story is a lie?

The story follows June from her young childhood to early adult years, moving between the "Before" and the "After". We begin when she is around 10- her mother has died in the recent past and her dad has married a new wife, Kathleen. June’s step-mom is abusive. She plays vindictive mind games, she hurts and humiliates, she shames and verbally tortures, aided by her accomplice Megan, her biological daughter. June’s completely clueless father refuses to see what is right in front of his eyes, berating June for not trying hard enough, for being distant when all Kathleen has ever done is try to love her. 

June is black, like her late mom, which only increases her sense of 'otherness' in her white family, and in her mostly white school. She feels like a cuckoo at home and a target at school. Her torture from her stepmother and classmates seems never ending- she endured it with such tragic, silent dignity. I don’t want to romanticise her silence and imply it was the right thing to do, but she is so brave. So brave and so alone. As readers, as adults, as people who have not experienced this torture, it is easy to say that she should’ve spoken out; but the fear. The fear is shown so thoroughly and totally by the author- it rubs off on the reader. That suffocating, claustrophobic *dread* is profound and visceral. That fear of making the first step, of breaking the cycle. She tries so hard and so frequently to tell, early on. We see her repeatedly promise to speak up, only to lose faith in adult after adult. We say it’s brave to stand up and speak out, and of course it is, but June is a separate kind of brave- the kind that suffers unspeakable torment and hardship and persecution but refuses to be broken. 

Paper Butterflies is about how all those safeguards that we think protect us; family, teachers, grown-ups, society, authority in general, can fail a person so entirely. It's about the treacherous flexibility of truth, the gaps between how events can unfold and how they are perceived from the outside. Kathleen is a master of manipulation; she has perfected her craft and her persona in a Gone Girl like way. The book does remind us though to consider the cycle of violence and abuse; it reminds us that nobody is born evil. June is asked to consider- what made Kathleen this way? What must she have endured in her life to manifest this suffering on you? How must Megan have felt about her part in this? Who is really to blame?

The only reprieve she gets is in the form of her secret friend, Blister, and his eccentric family. The secret talisman that she can hide from her violated home, that will protect her for only as long as it is hidden. I loved Blister. I loved his carefree happiness, his trust in his own identity. He was utterly authentic and his mad, enormous Weasley-ish family was absolutely gorgeous. I don’t know what June would have done without them. Blister ensures that this book has a light in it; a sliver of hope to hold on to.

I don’t think I have ever felt more impotent, wounded rage on behalf of a character before. I’d worked out quite early what had become of adult June, but the route to that ending pretty much destroyed me. The unfairness. The injustice. That tiny sliver of hope just amplified the wrongness of the whole thing. This book is a testament to the craftsmanship and the skill of its incredible author. She forces us to walk the tiny, sliver of a line between hope and despair and we are so close to the despair that it will haunt us forever. I loved Seed, Paper Butterflies, though difficult and ruinous and devastating, is also an incredible, incredible novel. 

The YA book prize has, since its inception, never shied away from recognising and platforming tough novels, novels that other, more traditional kids' book prizes might discount as being too traumatic, gratuitous or bleak, regardless of the strength of the message or the quality of the writing. I am so glad the YA Book Prize included Paper Butterflies on its shortlist, it's absolutely essential. If the winner was decided on the strength of a readers' reaction, PB would win every time.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien

A multi-generational, continent spanning epic of two families bound together by music, dictatorship and political turmoil; beginning with the Chinese cultural revolution, the destruction of the Shanghai Conservatory and the denunciation of its musicians, the brutal machine of Mao’s communist china and the violent repercussions of the Tiananmen square demonstrations.

Do Not Say We Have Nothing begins with 10 year old Marie living with her mother in Vancouver, Canada. The arresting first line tells of the year that her father, Jiang Kai, leaves his wife and child behind- the next news they hear is of his suicide in Hong Kong. Broken, left with few memories other than her father’s favourite music, Marie begins to gain perspective on her Father’s mysterious earlier life through the presence and the stories of Ai-Ming, a Chinese refugee that has been sent to live with them. Marie begins to unknot the stands of her father’s life before he was a father-the people he loved and was deeply connected to, among them, Ai-ming's father, the gifted composer and musician Sparrow.

Marie acts as a kind of anchor for the story, bridging the past and present. We check in with her at 10, during her brief connection with Ai-Ming, then regularly as she ages, always seeking the friend that became like a sister to her. Ai-ming brought with her to Canada a set of hand-lettered notebooks, the Book Of Records, an adopted, ever evolving narrative that seems to be constructed of the past, the present and the fantastical all at once. The Book of Records and its creation, survival and legacy is another constant throughout the novel- across the continents, decades and generations.  It is in this book that messages, locations and meanings are hidden via the double-meanings of Chinese lettering and calligraphy.

Throughout the historical sections, three young musicians are central to the story: Jiang Kai, the successful pianist, Zhuli, the incredibly young, gifted violinist and perhaps most importantly, her cousin Sparrow, the quiet and sensitive, highly respected composer. These are the second generation of characters, Zhuli being the only daughter of convicted rightists Wen the Dreamer and Swirl, Sparrow being the son of Ba Lute and Big Mother Knife. The trio of musicians are colleagues and close personal friends, two of them are cousins and the third, an orphan is practically family. Their relationships grow more complex with time, with the intensity of their pursuit of music, their implicit mutual understanding of one another and, unforgettably, the relentless march of communism. We follow Sparrow most closely, who seems to have everything to give and everything to lose- he is the one most broken by the difficult times that he must try to survive through.

I loved the characters in this- I saw them so clearly. Sparrow’s potential and pain, the injustice of his assignment to the radio factory. He was so accepting of everything his life threw at him- so good at hiding who he really was. Ba Lute and Big Mother Knife were incredible characters too- a whole generation of invisible people for whom second guessing every thought and feeling became second nature. Big Mother Knife especially was a brilliant creation- indestructible, apparently immortal and the utter embodiment of a solid, fearsome woman that you Would Not Mess With.

I loved the gorgeous, lyrical language, the sensory nature of the prose and how the author integrated music into the story- again, another thing I am so horribly ignorant of. Though I have no schooling in classical music myself, the characters’ adoration of music is palpable- their dedication and commitment to music was instantly and consistently evident; their talents so obvious, so beautiful and so dangerous. I actually listened to Bach's Goldberg Variations just to try and understand Sparrow’s dedication to it.

The novel reminded me frequently of Julian Barnes’s fictionalised biography of the Russian composer Shostakovich, The Noise of Time, which also was beautifully written and littered with musical liberation and political oppression and extremism. Shostakovich gets namechecked frequently, along with Bach and other non-revolutionary musical powerhouses. 

I soldiered on through this book despite my slow progress and my lack of familiarity with the time and issues; as usual it was my dire knowledge of world history that let me down. I know nothing about Chinese history, the rise or fall of Communism, the Cultural Revolution or any of it. This book was a horrifying education. It’s hard to believe the scale of suffering, oppression, starvation, displacement, fear and absolute dismantling of the individual that this book depicts. The ruthlessness of a government, the disastrous chasing of a political ideology that turns the whole country into a production machine, making components of its citizens.

I would absolutely recommend this book, though it is a commitment and a bit of an ordeal to read. It’s harrowing and beautiful, incredibly brutal and haunting too. The characters and the music get under the readers’ skin, and the injustice and trauma of the Mao administration, the identity theft of a whole nation is shocking and truly thought provoking. I would never have normally read this had it not been for the Bailey’s prize, but I am immensely glad that I did as I think it will stay with me for a long time.