Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Sooky Halloween Reads

I love ghosts and haunted houses, but always run out of time before October 31st to actually *fit any in* as September/October is often "Frantically reading the Booker Shortlist" time. So in the interests of being nice and early...If you were in the market for some spooky Halloween reads, theses are some of my all time favourites.

Say Her Name, by Juno Dawson
A classic bloody Mary ghost story set in a girls' boarding school. Bobbie, the main character is just so funny and realistic and badass, and it's genuinely a scary, blood curdling story of tragic boarding school girls, vengeance and classic malevolent spirits that aren't bothered who they damn forever.

The Secret of Crickley Hall, by James Herbert
Nefarious orphanage patrons. Ghostly boys. A celler door that won't stay locked. A bereaved family looking for peace. Draughty corridors and secretive locals. Proper classic stuff.

The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson
The OG of all the films, both ones directly adapted from this novel and all those slightly similar- it seems familiar because it kind of started it all. The tweedy professor type, the handsome posh boy, the shy retiring girl and the balshy bohemian investigate a reportedly haunted house. By daylight Hill House seems a dilapidated, handsome but disheveled country manor. By night, something slightly more sinister. I love the idea of places and buildings being diffused with malignant evil, that they soak up all of the bad things that ever happen within their walls and mete it out to the unwise fools that get close enough. SJ is absolutely masterful and pulling suspense out of nowhere. A masterclass in unease.

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins
So not technically a ghost story, but that beginning scene is one of the most creepy, atmospheric perfect little book beginnings in 200 years. Mist. Gas lamps. A cemetery. A white clad figure, looking sad. It's all there.

So what am I trying to squeeze in this year? The plan is:
Let the Right One In, by John Ajvide Lindqvist
Strangers on a Train, by Patricia Highsmith
Ghost Story, by Peter Straub
Something by HP Lovecraft because I have read absolutely nothing of his and that is shameful.

Does anybody else have some good spooky/ghostly/haunt-y recs? Let's face it, horror works so much better on the page because the author is automatically denied the possibility of the dreaded, lazy ass JUMP SCARE!! you can't resort to cheap tricks and a too-loud made-you-jump soundtrack in a book my sneaky Hollywood friends.

After the Fire, by Will Hill

Probably the best standalone YA novel I have read this year. After the Fire is compelling, empathetic and so perfectly paced. Narrator and protagonist Moonbeam is a remarkable character- despite never knowing life in the real world, she is humane, intelligent and ceaselessly strong. What an amazing young woman, I kind of love her.

The novel jumps right in to a chaotic siege, there is gunfire, panic, roaring flames. The frantic narrator recognises bloodied, dead and dying faces around her; she's running, apparently on neither one side nor the other. We don't know these dead people yet. The next time we see Moonbeam, she is waking up in a secure facility, alive and bandaged. She has survived the fire, but she does not know if she is safe. She is now in the hands of the Outsiders, the Government- people she has been raised to believe are torturers, murderers and devils. She is suspicious of them to begin with, as anyone would be waking up in what they have always been told is the lion's den.

The book is split into numerous sections, each one labelled Before and After (the fire). In the After, a shell-shocked, confused and doubt riddled Moonbeam is required to sit down in therapy sessions with a Dr Hernandez and eventually also Agent Carlyle, as they work to piece together the aspects of her life and experiences. Moonbeam grew up and lived most of her life on the "Base", the homestead of the Lord's Legion, a cultish branch of extremist Christianity led by the charismatic, tyrannical Father John; a fire and brimstone Prophet who claims to commune directly with The Lord.

As Moonbeam reveals more about Father John, his increasing powers and his means of control, life on the Base is laid bare. The manipulation. The fear. The brainwashing. The disappearances. The radicalisation of angry young men by means of isolation, ego stoking, entitlement and gun access. The reader follows Moonbeam's gradual realisation that her religion is deeply flawed, that how she and her peers are treated is wrong, that Father John is an absolute maniac and that nobody else is going to be able to help her get away- nobody except for Nate, a dreamy guy from the outside that manages to win the favour of Father John, chucks a spanner in his works and then promptly vanishes into the dust. It's really easy to relate to Moonbeam's feelings for Nate- being convinced that he just sees her as this annoying, doting kid with a crush.

Moonbeam takes her time to recount her story, gradually leading up to what she considers to be a sickening, gut churning secret, a festering guilt that will taint her in the eyes of the men she has come to trust, and the remaining Base kids that are still at the facility with her. The ones that look up to her. It's a hearbreaking story of abuse, a yearning for belonging and powerlessness that is both emotional and fascinating.

I love books that feature cults, and the people that come to their senses and escape. After the Fire is honestly one of the best novels I've read this year and would thoroughly recommend it to anyone- readers that loved Lisa Heathfield's Seed will go mad for it, as would any adult readers that enjoyed last year's runaway cult bestseller The Girls, by Emma Cline. After the Fire is pacy, intelligent, filled with compelling characters, both innocent and evil and a fascinating study of how charismatic, forceful individuals can create their own empires if they are deluded enough, they believe their own lies enough, and if the supply of lost, damaged and disillusioned individuals to convert is plentiful enough.


Thursday, 28 September 2017

History of Wolves, by Emily Fridlund

Ahhh, the first bum note of the Booker Shortlist 2017.

Normally, narratives about cults and communes are right up my street. Coupled with the isolated woodlands of Minnesota, I was fairly confident that this was going to be a winner for me. How very wrong I was.

Linda, aka Mattie aka Madeline, now 37, remembers a pivotal summer when she was 14. The summer the Gardners moved into the neighbouring cabin on the lake. Apparently the perfect city family, glamorous Patra and toddler Paul are awaiting the arrival of husband/father Leo when Linda initially befriends them. Part babysitter, part governess, Linda teaches the upfront, oddly serious three year old about the woods, survival and nature, as well as keeping him out from under his parents’ feet. Leo is a controlling and manipulative Astronomer, dubbed a genius by his doting, fawning wife. A wife that is 11 years his junior and a former student.

It is hinted at, then referred to as the book goes on that there is something wrong with Paul, something that, in the future, Linda will be quizzed about. Her actions, responses and thoughts will be analysed and assessed in minute detail. These later events break into the summer narrative periodically, recounted by a much older Linda.

During her narrative, Linda bounces from topic to topic, from decade to decade. There’s a teacher arrested on pedophilia charges; her 20s spent living with a Canadian girl, a mechanic boyfriend; the summer she babysat for the Gardners; lots of meandering through the beautiful but somehow uninteresting forests; writing to the pervert teacher; a sudden death. I did find it quite hard to keep track of what age Linda was supposed to be in which scenes, perhaps because the storytelling was kind of sloppy, perhaps because I wasn’t super bothered.

Even the woods were stripped of their magic by the detached Linda and her unvaried treks through familiar trails. The lakeside woods were simply an unremarkable reality, her known landscape. No more unusual or noteworthy than buildings or roads. The same cycles went round and round, bringing their own tasks, challenges and temperatures.

I found this book dull and pretentious- there was no atmosphere, no suspense. I don’t know what the wolf business was about. The subplot with the teacher and Lily was entirely divorced from the Gardner’s plot.. The structure was abrasive, the characters forgettable, dull and lacking in any kind of agency. Linda was incredibly irritating, her inner monologue unbearable. She seemed periodically obsessed with Patra, with classmate Lily, with Wolves...all intense but transient. She had no motivation, no interests, no convictions, no opinions, no identity. She seemed thoroughly damaged, fantasizing about doing something (anything) shocking or inappropriate, then invariably standing there like a silent lemon wrestling with her thoughts. She’s socially awkward, emotionally distant from her family. She seems to have no friends, and she delights in pranks and stunts, cruel or inexplicable letters. She was obviously very lonely and isolated, left behind with her presumed parents after the breakdown and drifting off of their commune community. I just couldn't care about her at all. An unlikable character is not always a deal breaker, but I didn’t find the prose particularly beguiling and I was glad to finally have done with this tedious story.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

Autumn, by Ali Smith

Autumn begins with a trippy out of body experience- there’s definitely a beach, possibly a dead body, definitely a copse and trees, sand and leaves and nature. It’s ethereal and floaty, dreamlike and disorientating. Having read Lincoln in the Bardo, this summer I was expecting it to be some kind of purgatory, because it seemed oddly familiar. We eventually learn that this is Daniel Gluck, one of two characters that will recur at different times, at different ages throughout the novel. The next time we see him, slightly more corporeally, he is 101 and clinging to life in a soulless care home.

Next we meet Elisabeth Demand, a thoroughly modern just-about millennial, over educated and under employed. Scraping an existence as a casual contract lecturer in Art History, she seems harassed, unfulfilled and adrift in a world that she no longer recognises. The first time we meet her is to observe a farcical, almost Fawlty Towers-esque ordeal with the bureaucratic minions at the Post Office involving head sizes, deli tickets and the humourless jobsworths that work there- the erosion and decay of Public institutions and social bankruptcy are recurrent themes throughout. The Post Office, on this visit, is full of homeless people as the library has closed. The book declares itself to be the first post-Brexit novel, and it captures the melancholy betrayal of a divided and abandoned nation, one that is confused, angry and adrift. I loved the book just for how disappointed it is in people. It’s not really a hopeful story, there’s no suggestion of a conclusion and that fits how us official 48% feel about pretty much everything.

As a child, Elasabeth lived next door to a late 70s aged Daniel- their friendship was an odd one, encouraged by Elisabeth’s mother when she needed a babysitter, recast as suspicious if she thought about it too hard. The sprightly for his age Daniel taught his young neighbour to think, to imagine, to wonder. To see things that weren’t there and change things that were. He seems to be one of the first people to really recognise Elisabeth’s intelligence, and he treats her like an equal. We also get a glimpse of his immigrant backstory and his lost sister, a woman that Resisted and was promptly never heard of again.

Elisabeth’s mother, the only other character we really see much of is an odd woman, to begin with almost Mrs Wormwood-ish in her brashness and presumed negligence. When her daughter is young, she seems reckless, irresponsible. She lies to her kid about where she’s going and Elisabeth is smart enough to see through it with adult-level cynicism and exasperation. Mum encourages her daughter lie about her homework and leaves her in the practically stranger danger hands of a next door neighbour. Later on she is suspicious of their friendship, wilfully and frustratingly misunderstanding their shared love of art as something sinister and inappropriate. After moving to the village in later life, she becomes this liberal antiques enthusiast, lamenting the hate crime wave and railing against the lies and the wilful ignorance. 25 years makes her unrecognisable. I don’t know what that means, but Ali Smith never makes it seem like a mistake. It’s just mysterious people being mysterious.

Autumn is a non-linear novel that flits around between Elisabeth’s lifetime- the art dissertation she wrote on a forgotten British pop artist, her canalside walks as a child with Daniel, sat at his bedside in the present day reading Brave New World. The prose is beautiful and powerful, a slideshow of images and emotions. It manages to be both playful and furious at the same time, which I was incredibly impressed with. I love books that have art as a central theme, how art makes a person feel. It’s fascinating to have such visceral and personal responses captured in prose, which is one of the elements that I found the most joyous about How To Be Both.

I enjoyed this book hugely, I was absolutely captivated by the world it created- this murky Autumnal landscape of apathy and gloom. I loved Elisabeth and did not find it difficult to empathise with her for a second. I loved how ordinary she was- how responsible she felt for everything, how resentful she was towards her mother’s generation and how guilty and conflicted she felt about being so. It’s not a novel that everyone I going to be able to get on with, but I thought it was witty and playful, with a generous and cathartic helping of righteous Brexit fury

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

This is Going to Hurt, by Adam Kay

Wow. For 95% of this book, I was imagining how I’d write it up; praising its hilarity, its pace, its wit. I was going to do a big paragraph about how much I loved all the Harry Potter name swaps. I was going to gush about how Green Wing this whole book is in its absurdity and farcical “you couldn’t make it up” vibes… about how entitled some of the British public are. How stoic, how bonkers how utterly unfit for walking the Earth unsupervised and being allowed to operate heavy machinery. I was going to talk about how the author definitely knows how to regale his audience with almost Keaton-esque timing…It’s all in here. But the last entry, the last major incident that Dr Kay deals with in his career as an ObGyn senior registrar is chilling to the point where all of the funny, human warmth of the other 250 pages kind of feels distant and like it happened in a different book. I think the last 5 pages of this book is going to haunt me forever.

What starts off as a hilarious but illuminating peek behind the curtain into the operation of NHS hospitals becomes a very sobering biography of a beloved institution on the brink of collapse- a diary of a man with a scalpel and a wipe-clean hoover desperately trying to keep things running in a system that seems designed to make everything grind to a bloody, crunching halt. Not because of these greedy, workshy doctors that won’t turn up for a Saturday shift and are only in Medicine for the special parking space and the rivers of cash, but because there are simply not enough doctors to do all of the things that need to be done so that people don’t die. The ratio of work to sleep/home/sustenance sounds like something out of a PoW camp. The normal rules of workload, work/life balance and being awake enough to function simply do not apply and it is both horrifying and fascinating.

I’m worried now that writing this so soon after finishing the book (within 30 minutes) has made me err on the side of glumness, so I just want to reiterate what a (and I do not use this phrase lightly or without a trace of self hatred) laugh out loud book this is. I read half of it in one sitting, sat in a plastic chair in the King’s Mill Hospital A&E waiting room, watching the giant, rusty, beloved behemoth that is the NHS in motion. I marveled at the smiley, efficient nurses as I tried to stifle snorts about the likelihood of French holiday homes, or hold in a horrified WTF face at the “degloving” story. But I was always, always amazed at the commitment, the proficiency and the sheer iron will of Adam Kay and his colleagues, who soldiered on long after any normal person would have understandably collapsed in a snotty, tearful mess. These people are superheroes that don’t even realise they are extraordinary.

I urge everyone with eyes to read this. Partly because it’s painfully funny, partly because it’s pretty much the whole of human experience wrapped up in scrubs and then bled on. Mostly though, because nobody could read this, this dispatch from the frontline of an NHS hospital and fail to recognise what an asset it is, what a good thing we have here and how ESSENTIAL it is that we protect it. Nobody could read about these men and women repeatedly jeopardising their own home lives and happiness for the wellbeing of total strangers and not feel compelled to defend and protect the NHS and all who sail in her with their last, gurgling breath. READ IT!!

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.