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 wrong...it 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.

Friday, 28 April 2017

Broadway Book Club discussion of His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

2016 Booker Prize shortlisted His Bloody Project was our April choice- just a quick summery of our discussion.

Reception of the book was mostly positive, though it was commented that it was a tough book to read for several reasons- the grimness of the plot, various bloody murders and its unhappy ending for one, but also the dense, jargon-filled legal proceedings, the somewhat dry court case, the technical reports from psychologists and doctors. Whilst it was varied and cleverly done, many of us struggled to plough through at least part of it. One person also commented that though they thought it interesting, they weren’t sure if they would recommend it, definitely not sure who to. We agreed that the format was definitely unique, that a unique novel in such a popular, established genre such as crime fiction was an achievement in and of itself. We agreed that the “found documents” style of the book definitely added to the reader’s experience as it placed them in the detective’s chair and allowed them to draw their own conclusions after reviewing the collected evidence.

As you might expect, we talked at length about Roddy Macrae and the type of person that he is. In his own account he is a somewhat naïve dreamer of a boy- a disappointment to his father, a conflicted and unhappy person that seems to get everything wrong and suffers from enormous stretches of bad luck. There are inconsistencies with how he perceives himself and how others perceive him. He is described variously as a gifted student, the village idiot, a dangerous miscreant, a harmless if odd teenager. Some accounts tally with what Roddy himself claims. Some most definitely do not. We talked about how hard it was to wade through the conflicting accounts, how quick we were (or how long it took) to realise that Roddy’s story was merely a version and not the truth, how subjective first-hand accounts can be and how flexible things like truth and innocence can be. His Bloody Project was compared at this point to Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, as that too has a main character on trial for murder, scrutinised by professionals that make declarations about her sanity, motivations and personality, while the narrator too tries to work out who she is and what she has done. Read it if you haven’t, because it’s excellent.

We talked about how damning the coroner’s report was as a piece of evidence. Until the report is read in court, it’s easy to write off other villagers’ opinions of Roddy as prejudice or malice. When the Coroner describes the mutilated, ruined corpse of Flora, Roddy’s crush and supposedly unintentional victim, he claims no knowledge or memory of performing such actions. In his version he simply kills her in a daze and wanders off. We discussed how, in a narrative so dependent on impressions, recollections and perceptions, a coroner’s report describing Flora’s injuries just feels too conclusive to ignore. It proves Roddy as a liar and forces the reader to re-think everything else- the raising of fledgling birds, the startling of the deer to save its life…we decided it cast it all in a new, sceptical light.

We talked about how good and evocative the setting was, how dark, gloomy places seem to evoke a desire to murder. We talked about how the rigid class structure and firm social views regarding aspirations and knowing your place might have contributed to Roddy’s motives. The other crofters seemed fairly unanimous that though Lachlan Broad was an unpleasant bully, the Macraes’ issues with him were minor. WE talked about Calvinism and predeterminism and the idea of fate and prophecy. Roddy’s sister had predicted Lachlan’s death, so Roddy felt compelled to bring it to pass. Very Macbeth.

We talked briefly about the minor characters and how utterly miserable their lives were- how Jetta was driven to suicide by her father’s rage and the fact she was pregnant. Jetta and Flora seemed particularly endangered- there was a nasty whiff of incest about their relationships with their respective fathers- both girls seemed trapped and deeply unhappy. If Lachlan was able to abuse his neighbour’s daughter in the way that he did, we didn’t doubt he’d do it to his own. We talked too about how Roddy’s half siblings might have been Lachlan’s.

I’ve probably missed out quite a lot, but it was an interesting discussion about a unique novel that made a big impression- full of contradictions and mysteries and unfathomable people that see more than they let on and know more than what they say.

Our book for May is Sarah Perry’s bestseller The Essex Serpent, which is luckily on the 2 for £7 in Tesco (and probably other stores). Future choices were discussed; we thought we’ve read a lot of new releases recently, so something a bit more vintage would be welcome. Thanks to everyone that suggested these J

June- Decline and Fall, by Evelyn Waugh
July -The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

August- The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch

Monday, 24 April 2017

Crongton Knights, by Alex Wheatle

The first Crongton tale, Liccle Bit was narrated by the Lemar 'Liccle Bit' Jackson- we were introduced to the tapestry of life on his estate, and to his mates Leon and McKay. The sequel, Crongton Knights is narrated by McKay, so we get a fresh perspective on the Crongton housing estate- a place that is impoverished and struggling, tormented by blood feuds and turf wars but that is joined by community.

His mum has died, and McKay, his brother Nesta and their dad muddle along, trying to cope in their own ways. Nesta is struggling to keep his nose clean and has become caught up in some kind of feud with a local bigman over the theft of his beloved bike. McKay's dad works nights, struggles to make ends meet and his youngest son suspects there might be something his dad and brother are keeping hidden from him.

Crongton Knights focuses on the three amigos being talked into embarking on a mission for V, the apple of Liccle Bit's eye. She's had her phone stolen by an ex boyfriend with compromising pictures on it. Together with V, her friend Saira, and a hanger on nicknamed The Boy From the Hills they brave riots and looting and the world's most awkward bus ride to the Notre Dame estate way over the other side of the city. Things, naturally, get out of hand and there are decisions made, consequences suffered and lessons learned by all.

I love the characters in this series; they are all so complex. McKay especially is the one we get the clearest insight into in this instance. He's a talented chef but sensitive about his weight, so we understand his insecurities and his ambitions. He's really sweet to Saira and Valencia- interested in what they've got to say, defensive of them when in danger, he loves his brother and his dad and just wants to stay out of trouble and for his brother to be safe. The dynamics within the friendship group are believable, often hilarious and just so warm and affectionate. They're so loyal to each other and obviously all highly value their friends.

I particularly liked the introduction of The Boy From the Hills in this book-  a sad, lonely kid that McKay defended once and now can't get rid of. He's desperate for company and friendship and follows them around like a lost pup- quietly rich but definitely unhappy who covertly tags along but ends up earning the respect of the group and finding a place for himself in their circle. His burgeoning friendship with the 2 girls and 3 boys is beautiful to read, and so well deserved. I'd love for him to be in Straight Outta Crongton.

I love Alex Wheatle's books. Though the plots are often straight forward (Hide a knife, retrieve a phone) they're about more than just these little quests; his books are about bad decisions, the consequences of poverty and struggle, family, friendship, loyalty, the limited options that are available to estate kids. His use of language is masterful, there really is nobody in YA who writes like Wheatle- his words have a rhythm and a lilt all their own. It's not that his language and dialogue are particularly believable or gritty or reminiscent of American gang culture, it's like he's created this whole new world that has its own slang and voice totally apart. It's a self contained world that lives and breathes all by itself.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Seeing, by José Saramago

Despite the heavy rain, the presiding officer at Polling Station 14 finds it odd that by midday on National Election day, only a handful of voters have turned out.
Puzzlement swiftly escalates to shock when eventually, after an extension, the final count reveals seventy per cent of the votes are blank - not spoiled, simply blank. National law decrees the election should be repeated eight days later. The result is worse; eighty-three per cent of the votes are blank. The incumbent government receives eight per cent and the opposition even less. The authorities, seized with panic, decamp from the capital and place it under a state of emergency.
In his new novel, José Saramago has deftly created the politician's ultimate nightmare: disillusionment not with one party, but with all, thereby rendering the entire democratic system useless. Seeing explores how simply this could be achieved and how devastating the results might be.
I read Blindness, Saramago's most famous (and also amazing) novel in 2013 and did not realise until half way through that this is the sequel. Perhaps a closer look at the titles would've illuminated me. Anyhow.

Seeing takes place in the same nameless city of the same nameless country (Portugal in mentioned, purely as an example). Only this time, the epidemic that seems to be sweeping across the nameless capital is political apathy. Political apathy which is confusing, unexplained and dangerous. Therefore it is swiftly upgraded to domestic terrorism; the city evacuated by the authorities and placed in a state of siege to sweat it out. The remorseless, treacherous inhabitants will stew until they are sorry.

The first part of the book is back and forth squabbling between the interior minister, the prime minister, the president and the exterior minister. All are, initially, aware that casting a blank vote is not an illegal act- what is and is not illegal is conveniently irrelevant during a state of siege. Good idea. After much discussion, observation of the chain of command, faffing about what should and should not be done and generally demonstrating perfectly why powerful men are essentially useless, the government seems to conclude that the people trapped within the city, 83% of whom cast blank votes, are enemies of the republic, miscreant anarchists with no respect for democracy or civilization. They declare them to have brought this all on themselves, with their savage, conspiratorial ways and the chaos and villainy that befalls them is their fault alone. Logic is the first casualty of this particular position. Truth swiftly follows. They have no plan. They have no sense. They have no courage or morality. They are politicians. They retreat, set up a border and see what happens.

After a period of siege, during which the besieged go about their business in a bemused, non violent and positively collaborative way, the government receive a letter. It it a letter from the first blind man, who four years ago fell in with a woman who retained her sight through the blindness epidemic. He tells of her leadership, her bravery, the fact that she did not go blind. Seizing this non existent connection between the previous and the current epidemic, the increasingly paranoid Governments gets a bee in its bonnet about bringing to justice the person that they believe to be the ringleader of this corrupting war on democracy- the doctor's wife. There is nobody else it could be; they will find the evidence to prove her guilt and expose her as the cold hearted criminal kingpin that she is.

The second part of the novel is three police officers, a superintendent, an inspector and a sergeant conducting an investigation into the supposedly suspicious activities of the doctor, the doctor's wife, the girl with dark glasses and the man with an eye patch, the first blind man's ex wife and the dog of tears. The first blind man, he that wrote the letter, is not under suspicion, being a patriotic informer. He probably cast a valid vote. The boy with the squint cannot be traced.

Personally, I found this second section much easier to read. The internal struggle of the superintendent is kind of heart breaking to witness. He has been explicitly ordered to conduct an investigation, and implicitly (though no less clearly) told what its outcome is expected to be. To see a man wrestle with what is obviously a very finely tuned conscience is grim; to see him still try to stick to his moral code and be good at his job. I got quite attached to the superintend ant and his fatherly stewardship of his subordinates. I liked that he was occasionally insecure about his decisions, endearingly methodical and occasionally quite grumpy, but he's the novel's hero really. He sees the goodness in the doctor's wife from the first moment and his quest for evidence against her dies quickly.

Written in Saramago's margin to margin text, disregarding most punctuation and dialogue conventions, Seeing is a slow burner. The squabbling politicians, though deplorable and eye-rollingly, infuriatingly familiar, are never exactly exciting and are (I think) intentionally interchangeable. The novels is a fascinating and depressingly accurate satire on the ineptitude of politicians and their obsessive need to point the finger, to be seen to be solving things. To get their bravado on and be Big Men. Their hell-bent determination to pursue a pointless, destructive, impossible plan and to expect demand, the pie-in-the-sky outcomes that they dreamed up is bitterly recognisable.

The end of this book is just so horrifyingly unjust. So abrupt and unsatisfying. Not in a badly written, structural way, but in a "That's life, what's now?" kind of way. I'd love to know what the government did next. Their master plan- so expensive, so ill thought out, so destructive and morally bankrupt, has demonstrably failed. Now what? How are they going to manipulate their populace, now the crowds and even the papers have failed to back their crazy movement? It's that spiral of increasing desperation on the part of the powerful, decreasing influence on the part of the 99%.

If you have not read Blindness, definitely do that first. Then feel the impotent rage after you finish Seeing.

Monday, 3 April 2017

The Call, by Peadar O'Guilin

Ireland has been cut off from the rest of the UK and the rest of the world, trapping every person on the island, Irish or not within its borders. Nobody in, nobody out. No internet, no new technology- nothing. For decades, every adolescent Irish citizen has been ‘Called’, an ordeal that can happen at any moment of the day or night and last for 3 minutes 4 seconds Earth time, but a whole day in The Grey Land- a sulfurous hellscape, a pain ravaged world straight out of a Bosch painting. The survival rate is about 1 in 10, and those that come back are usually traumatized wrecks, psychologically and physically bent and stretched beyond recognition. Each Irish teen must fight for their life against the torturing, flesh sculpting Sídhe, a beautiful, deadly hill-dwelling creature of folklore, banished beneath the Earth by the Irish countless generations ago.

Our protagonist is Donegal girl Nessa, a fifth year student at a college that trains teens to battle the Sídhe. They learn hand to hand combat, hunting skills, how to hide, bushcraft, folklore and study the testimonies of those that survived their Call. It’s almost easy to forget sometimes that this isn’t a normal boarding school, with the usual teen dramas and friendships and teacher-dodging going on- but there’s those little reminders that Ireland is not a thriving nation; the terrible food, the lack of resources, harsh punishment and the fact that adolescents will disappear regularly leaving behind a pile of clothes until they return dead or alive three minutes and 4 seconds later. There's a decent cast of supporting characters, ever dwindling as they are Called, that populate the school. Conor, a swaggering, treacherous 'Elite' has assembled a round table of followers, ego strokers and minions to parade himself in front of. His story arc is an interesting  study of the power hungry types blessed with physical strength, confidence and charisma, and how sometimes it can be their undoing.
Detail from The Last Judgment, by Hieronymus Bosch, 
I really liked Nessa as a character; she was resourceful, focused and had just the right amount of sass. Nobody expects her to survive because she has weakened, malformed legs and feet from Polio- so cannot run fast or walk without crutches. This just makes her more determined to survive, and she has upper body strength that puts the rest of her school to shame. Nessa comes across as cold and aloof, but it’s only because she knows that as the weakest combatant in the college, she cannot afford to be weakened by personal relationships, attachments and worrying about others’ welfare. Having said that, best friend Megan and would-be-more-than-friends-but what’s-the-point Anto have found a chink in her armour.

I loved the questions the book asked about conflict, colonialism and conquest. It asks; what are the consequences of war? What is the cost of victory? Who pays that cost? How do we determine who is responsible for actions of the past? What does it mean to be guilty or innocent? Who inherits that guilt? It’s so insightful and so subtle. The book refrains from taking a stance on the matter mostly, but it’s made clear that the Sídhe are not mindless destroyers of nations; they are trying to claim back what was stolen from them. Their vengeance is a consequence of displacement. They are a conquered people desperate to be restored to land they consider their birth right.

I really, really liked this and read it in one sitting. I really had to force myself to not skip ahead to see who died- an unusual show of self-restraint from me there. As with the best speculative fiction, The Call delivers us metaphors that force us to examine our world and question our actions, perspectives and opinions. In Britain, now especially, we have a tendency to romanticize our horrendous colonial, genocidal, tyrannous history- erase whole periods in some cases. I loved that this novel used a combination of Irish legend and mythology, poetry and language to create this tapestry of history that was kept alive at a horrible cost. And wrapped it up in a haunting, heart-pounding, breathless action narrative of death, trauma and merciless continuation.