Monday, 20 March 2017

The Monstrous Child, by Francesca Simon

Hel, half god half giant, daughter of Loki and corpse from the waist down is the reigning queen of the underworld. Not through choice, but because she was flung there by Odin, the one-eyed seer of everything. She's a goddess, but one with the worst gig going.

I'm not even a novice at Norse mythology. I know Thor had a hammer and Thursday and (probably) Thunder are named after him, Odin had Ravens. That's pretty much it. I found the relationships between gods and gods, gods and giants, giants and people, gods and people to be very confusing. I just wasn't feeling the mood and the atmosphere that the book conjured up. Yes it's unusual, but I'm not sure that it was enough to win me over.

I found the narrator, Hel, rubbed me up the wrong way. She starts her story with her birth, to a mother who wasn't that keen, way back before the beginning of time. I suppose it's something of a saga. She is, for me, too knowing, too sly, to bilious. Yes, even for keeper of the underworld. Where she probably thought of herself as sassy and fearsome, she just sounded like a stroppy, bratty child, lashing out at anyone who'd listen. Maybe she was. She muses on the pointlessness of poetry, references the passing of time and its ultimate redundancy for immortals such as her quite frequently, and eventually I was just getting kind of frustrated with it all. Yes, we know you're immortal. Yes we know you don't like the dead. What else is going on down here? I just found her to be overwhelmingly surly, and by the time I started to feel an inkling of sympathy for her, it was far too  late.

Hel spends the middle section of the book pining for married god-man Baldr, the one person that she encountered that wasn't disgusted by her during the brief interlude that she lived in the world above with the other gods. He spun her around once, so naturally, that must mean he is in love with her. That's about all you're going to get in the plot department, apart when things in the god world above start to get a bit end of days.

It's certainly a unique book, one with a very unusual protagonist. I found that whilst I wan't enormously keen on Hel, it might well have been entirely intentional, and I found the first person voice to be very consistent, characterful and very well executed. I felt that Hel was a whole, complete person, even if I wasn't finding her massively appealing. It's entirely possible that my lack of knowledge about Norse mythology prevented me from getting too into this. Interesting, but I don't think it was for me.

Friday, 17 March 2017

We Come Apart, by Sarah Crossan and Brian Conaghan

A verse novel that alternates between two very different voices of two narrators that have been brought together via the same crime, but from very different backgrounds. Jess is in trouble quite a lot- caught shoplifting, third offence, she is sent on a reparation scheme to 'give back to society'. Nicu is caught once, but perhaps due to him being a recent Romanian immigrant, seems to find himself on the same scheme. They form an unlikely bond, one that doesn't quite spill over into school immediately, but one that makes Jess re-think what she wants from friendship. It makes he reassess who she is, why she behaves how she does and surrounds herself with toxic people.

There are no chapter headings, but it's always easy to tell who's narrating- one, because it's so well written, and two because the voices are so distinctive. Not only because Nicu's broken English is quickly identifiable, but because the characters' personalities are very evident from what they say and think. The reader gets such an instantaneous, illuminating glimpse into these teens' heads. Nicu is fun loving, romantic, goofy and keen to please. He just wants to make friends, be liked and get people to smile back at him. He knows that as a Romanian in England the deck is stacked against him. It's quite heartbreaking how low he's set the bar for acceptance. He's like a beaten up little puppy that still wants to see good in everyone. Jess is literally the opposite. Cynical, angry, powerless; she lives with her doormat mum and her abusive stepdad and feels complicit in her mother's abuse as she is unable to stop it. Jess doesn't trust anybody; her dad left her, her brother left her. She is afraid to show any kind of vulnerability or weakness. It's fairly plain to see what Vile Terry's ling term goals are for Jess. She sees no realistic future for herself so despite her cocky attitude, her self esteem is dangerously low.

Though bullying, prejudice and  small-town Brexit-based hatred are prominent themes throughout, it remains a story about friendship. Nicu is head over heels for Jess pretty much on first sight, but it's a slow burning relationship that has to overcome trust issues, secrecy and the vile attitudes of Jess' 'friends' and stepdad. It's hard to watch Nicu be slandered and bullied- he stays so calm and dignified while Jess stays silent. It's interesting to see how social influence, power and acceptance shifts, changing the characters as it settles.

Through their friendship, though support and trust in one another, each character grows in confidence and self worth. Naturally, it's too good to last. Tragic, somewhat inevitable bad decision is made, one of those sorts of wrong place, wrong time, unfair little life wreckers that you cannot win either way. It's an emotional narrative, full of injustice and powerlessness, where the reader just has to wonder why we spend such time and effort being assholes to one another. It's short, bittersweet and thoroughly captivating- a modern tragedy of a beautiful friendship that society just refuses to allow.

Friday, 10 March 2017

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas

I have tried to write this review so many times and nothing feels right. So. I am just going to go a bit off piste, format wise, and post the blurb, then simply rave about all of the different reasons why this novel is amazing and why you should read it. It has temporarily suspended my ability to be anywhere close to articulate when it comes to trying to describe this book. So the blurb:
Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed.
It's easy as a white, British person to feel like this can't be real life. Our Police for the most part don't even carry firearms. How can this happen? But it does; "Unarmed Black Man" has been heard enough to become a stock phrase. It's simply baffling to think that a person can be pulled over for a rear light being broken and end up dead. How?

This is such a powerful, important, vital story inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. It's blood-running-cold kind of powerful that leaves the reader brimming with impotent rage at the injustices of judicial systems. Infuriating and baffling, yes, but it's also beautifully crafted- brilliant storytelling filled with wonderful prose. I flat out refuse to believe that this is a first novel, because the hand that has written it is nothing short of masterful.

Moving on to the characters. The protagonist is amazing. Starr Carter is fearless (even when she's scared, she carries on). I cannot emphasize enough how fully-realized and complete Starr was as a person. Her inner monologue, her double life, the fears of being labelled a girl from the ghetto, but feeling conflicted about betraying her race and her upbringing are presented in such a way that it impossible to not be affected by her situation. It must be exhausting to have to be so many things to so many different people, to live up to or defy their expectations. She's real, likable, easy to root for. She talks like a real teen! So many writers get teen language and dialect wrong- there's always some veneer of 'something' that prevents if from feeling real. As adults it's hard to become the voice of teens authentically, but AT pulls it off beautifully. I loved the quips about Future Husband Drake and Cousin-by-Marriage Beyonce. Realistic dialogue is my Holy Grail with YA- it's hard to find, but when you do, it is such a pleasure to read. Obviously this book addresses a really serious theme, but it also manages to be unexpectedly funny, and full of quips and verbal sparring and witty, playful dialogue. Because even when horrible things happen, people still sometimes say funny things.

So not only is Starr the most lovable protagonist I've encountered in ages, there is also a brilliant cast of supporting characters, all of whom have their own struggles, passions, lives and personalities. Even story lines. DeVante, Seven, Uncle Carlos- all proper, rounded characters that exist beyond the pages of a book, beyond the scenes in which they feature. Out doing their own thing. I loved too that the novel showed married 40 something parents that are in love, respectful, supportive of one another. So may YA contemporaries feature broken homes, step-parents, drama, breakups, divorces. It is wonderful to see such a strong family unit full of such well crafted secondary characters. Yes, the Carters aren't perfect, but they make it work and they work hard doing so. I love that Starr has learned how to be treated by a man from her dad's good example. I loved that Starr calls her parents her OTP. It's just too adorable.

On top of the obvious essential social issue context, it is also simply an amazing contemporary novel. The Hate U Give also looks at coming of age, boyfriend issues, female friendships, school, family dynamics, community. Many YA contemporaries struggle to tell even a straightforward frenemies in high school story; with this novel you kind of get that for free, served on the side of a story of injustice, bravery and rage.

I especially loved how Garden Heights and its inhabitants were depicted. Obviously it's a problematic neighbourhood, but the sense of community was so evident. People looking out for one another, cooking food for each other, looking after one another's kids. Despite this, it's easy to see how characters like DeVante and Khalil fall in with bad crowds when there are no opportunities, no accessible role models, no money and no futures available any other way. Even though it's a serious novel about injustice and prejudice, it's also full of hope and courage and inspiring people.

THUG Forces the reader to think about their own prejudices and wonder what they'd do in the same situation. Not just how you'd react in Starr's position, but the conclusions that might be jumped to when seeing news reports or police incidents. It reminded me a bit of the brilliant Asking For It by Louise O'Neil; the assumptions about the victim eclipsing the crime committed against them, that some crimes are justified by the appearance and past behaviour of the person against whom they are committed.

It left me pretty numb to be honest. It's a thoroughly engrossing, emotional and should be essential reading for literally every person, but most especially anyone that has ever said "All Lives Matter". It's so easy to just ignore issues that don't impact upon you personally; to not even have to think about how they won't ever impact upon you. It is privilege in action. The Hate U Give left me asking myself "How can I be better at not being a well meaning but clueless white person? Is there any little thing I can do or change or say to make even a tiny flake of difference?"

This book is going to be massive, should be massive, and Angie Thomas deserves every breath of praise that she gets. The emotional labour of getting a story like this on paper must be pretty huge.

Thank you so much to Walker Books for the review copy and thank you for helping to put this book out there. I still feel like I've not even managed to convey how incredible it is.

Monday, 6 March 2017

Mister Memory, by Marcus Sedgwick

An odd, fascinating detective mystery with all the twisty, turny brain wringing that the reader would expect of the Masterful Marcus Sedgwick. Known mostly as a Young Adult author, Sedgwick brings his unpredictable plots and spiraling scope to adult fiction for the second time.

As a youth, Marcel Després drifted to Paris from the wine producing villages of the south. At the urging of his artist neighbours, Marcel turns the one skill he has (but didn't realise was out of the ordinary), perfect recall, into a cabaret act; Mister Memory is created. Night after night he stands on stage, remembering everything, each bottle and hat removed, each digit on a blackboard- a neat trick. Except there is no trick; Marcel has an infallible memory that stretches back completely and entirely, with all its network of supporting memories and tangential avenues, to before his actual birth.

Marcel is also widely believed to be both a murderer and insane. What initially seems like an impassioned killing of an adulterous wife by an enraged husband is not as straightforward as it might seem. Incarcerated in an asylum, without any kind of investigation, Marcel Després admits to the murder, remembers it in vivid detail. complete and absolute detail, right down to the mouse droppings on the landing. The asylum's physician, Doctor Morel sees Marcel as the case of a lifetime- a book waiting to be written. Morel also discovers that in addition to his astounding memory, the patient is incapable of lying.

Meanwhile, hearing of the hushed up, too swift resolution of this broad daylight murder case and infuriated by the idea of a wife-killer escaping the guillotine, young detective Petit's curiosity and desire for justice is powerfully aroused. Reprimanded for poking around and frustrated by his superiors' lack of interest in justice, he sets about conducting a thorough, though off the record investigation of the murder of Ondine Després, alongside the somewhat unlikely partner of Dr Morel. With his assistance, Petit begins unraveling the night of the murder, depending on Marcel's perfect memory to recall every tiny detail. But how can a man who remembers every detail of every moment of his entire life sort the evidence from the everyday? The more Petit digs into Marcel's memory, the more untoward the investigation becomes: police corruption, sexual depravity, switched identities, deception and a scandal big enough to galvinise the political landscape of France; a secret that powerful men are proving themselves willing to murder for.

I loved how brilliantly MS crafted the seedy, decadent cesspit of Paris in the dying months of the 19th century; the cafes, the cabarets, the filles publiques, the booming business of photographic pornography and the promise of the dawn of a new era. This book felt a step above most historical fiction- fin de siècle Paris is a common setting, but rarely does it feel as alive and as grubby as Marcel's Paris. The detail about the contemporary police force and their chains of command and Judicial system were particularly thorough and lent an authority to Petit's below-board investigation. There are moments of shocking discovery and genuine tension as Petit's guesswork and predictions solidify into trials of hard evidence. I particularly enjoyed the scene in Paris' Archives of Hell with the librarian, guardians of the national shame. I loved that Petit was surprised and a bit disappointed that the library of confiscated "Indecent material" just looked like a regular library, with files and boxes and shelves. There are a lot of light, comedic little touches that season an otherwise quite intense read.

Though there are a lot of characters, each one is colourful and plays their part in the expansive web of connections that makes up Marcel's extraordinary case. The watery eyed doctor Morel who for the first time in years finds himself caring about a patient, wanting to cure him rather than idly minding them for their own safety. The misanthropic Boissenot,  senior police detective, who is convinced that Paris's crime rate, highest ever, indicates nothing other than the end of the world. The waddling Cavard, an old fashioned secret communist, good guy and ultimate hero- the guy who brings the police to account from within initially seems to be a grumpy pencil pusher, but evolves into quite the justice warrior.

I struggled in parts with the pacing, it very much comes in fits and starts and there is the occasional dry spell where not much happens, either with Petit's investigation or with Morel's probing of Marcel's mind. That might be my fault though, as I read in uncharacteristically short bursts over an unusually lengthy period of time... For the vast majority of the novel, Mister Memory is a whip smart, very satisfying historical crime detective story with a unique premise, an array of interesting and nuanced characters, and a deft hand guiding a twisting narrative that might seem, under a lesser writer, to be extravagantly far fetched. To discover the twist, the murderer, the motive and the fall guy by the halfway point and still keep the reader hooked is quite an achievement.

Friday, 3 March 2017

Broadway Book Club Discussion of The Trees, by Ali Shaw

Feelings were mixed about the four main characters. Adrien generally got a bit of a roasting about his uselessness, his idleness, about how he was basically the walking embodiment of Male Privilege, the thing that was most annoying was how little he changed throughout the book. He was boring and cumbersome, and we were all baffled why the group put up with him. Hannah was more likable, a bit naive and we thought the Hippy earth child thing was a bit overdone. She had the most interesting crisis of faith, but still remained mostly unchanged by it as a character. Hiroko was generally well liked, but we felt she was a bit of a Asia-Ice-Queen stereotype, and that she would’ve been much better going solo survivalist rather than letting her crown hold her back. Seth liked computers. That’s about it.

We were generally disappointed in the narrative. One person commented that Hannah would be better off “Foraging for a plot” than the mushrooms she seemed so keen on. They go to the Welsh coast. They cross to Ireland. They encounter a makeshift settlement ran by an unpleasant man named Roland and find Adrien’s wife Michelle, who he has been half-heartedly looking for. That’s it. There’s a Sea hunk called Eoin that builds a boat in a day, a few mythical creatures and whispery tree monsters that unnerve Adrien periodically. There are many, many descriptions of the “Throne Chair”, which gets quite repetitive.

One member com
mented that while she understands that the point of the book was to show the savage indifference of nature, there was a lot of gratuitous gore that did nothing to further the plot or mood. Another refuted this to say that there wasn’t enough gore to warrant the Tarrantino name drop on the cover. I think we all expected more human on human violence, more Lord of the Flies power struggles and the rottenness of human nature taking over. Not much of that to be seen. There was no threat, no real effort to rebuild. What happened in the cities? Were there any survivalist cults that adapted too well to the new Earth? Are there trees in the deserts? It just left too many questions unanswered.


We were particularly offended and incredulous at Adrien’s transformation into “Father Nature” at the end. It seemed out of character for him to make such a sacrifice, as well as unusual of him to surmise a solution to any kind of predicament presented to him. We though his guiding hand on nature, helping Hannah find strawberries in winter was frankly ridiculous.

We concluded that The Trees probably wishes it was Station Eleven, an excellent end of the world book that shows little pockets of survival rebuilding after a global contagion, how stories are endlessly human and how tyranny and violence will always be inevitable, but that there are different ways to live, if you keep looking. The Trees tried, but it was a disappointing pile of soggy leaves. It had such a promising, interesting concept, but was let down by its lack of plot, its unsophisticated handling of the “We are bad to the Earth” message and the too-frequent dropping in of a character (Pharmacy man, camper van woman, Vicar) to deliver a message of doom about out abuse of the planet and then disappear forever.

Monday, 27 February 2017

Pet Semetary, by Stephen King

Why yes. Yes I do intend to read them all eventually.

This is the almost last of the SK books I own with the blood red spine of "Iconic Terror". Famously King cites this as his most horrific book. Not the scariest, or the goriest, but the meanest, darkest of his work, the one he tried to bury in a drawer because it was too horrible.

Inspired by his own move to a Maine University, to a new house in a new town, one near a road frequented by big trucks on which his daughter's cat Smucky got killed, it's a story of what could have happened.

Louis Creed, a doctor from Chicago, takes a new job as director of the University of Maine's campus medical service. Looking to get away from the in-laws he hates and because the job is a nice cushy number of fixing up booze-injured students and fresher's flu, he moves to Ludlow, Maine. Uprooting his wife Rachel, young kids Gage and Ellie, and Ellie's cat Winston Churchill (Church to his friends) from the Midwest is tough at first, but the family settle in quickly with the help of wholesome Yankee father figure Jud Crandall, lifetime Ludlow resident and keeper of secrets. Lou comes to see him as a father figure, and he and his arthritic wife Norma are soon fast friends with the Creeds.

It's Jud that initially warns his new neighbours of the dangers of the highway that divides their houses, claiming that "that road has used up a lot of animals". It's Jud too that takes them to visit the Pet Semetary, a little plot of land tended by generations of Ludlow kids, all of whom laid to rest their beloved pets that the road "used up". Jud is nothing if not an enabler. The night after the family's first visit to the semetary, 5 year old Ellie has a prophetic-feeling dream about Church dying on the highway. Lou sees this emotional outburst as a healthy, normal response to a child's first encounter with mortality- his wife Rachel, who lost a sister young to spinal meningitis has a total death phobia and will not entertain the concept of anyone, least of all Church, dying. This pretty much sets up the inevitable chain of events that follow. There are deaths. There are resurrections. There are ancient Indian burial grounds and spirits of the north and all kinds of ancient malice.

It's not an elaborately plotted novel. To the untrained eye it might look like not a lot happens in Pet Semetary, but it's expertly paced with an oppressive, low simmering malevolence that lurks just behind every line. We follow Louis to work and back. The beers he drinks with Jud. We watch him scoop up his daughter's dead cat, and watch him follow Jud to the secret local-pet-semetary-for-local-people graveyard out in the creepiest woods in literature. We know it's a terrible idea, even before the cat turns up alive- changed, but alive.

I really liked Louis as a character, the Stephen King stand-in for this particular story. His mediocrity is kind of endearing, and he seemed to play the role of "family man" quite convincingly. Mostly enamored with his lovely family, occasionally frustrated and annoyed. Cocks up infrequently, but enough to prove he's a real person. He's a fairly weak character, in denial of his weakness. He blames his shortcomings on anything and anyone he can, he makes excuses. Is he guided and manipulated my some malevolent force? Or does he just make really bad calls?

I loved how subtle this book is, and how pure the horror of its plot. There are no scares, no prolonged scenes of torment or torture, no murders or stalkings- there isn't even a bad guy. It's a type of horror that makes you wonder whether your own morals and beliefs would have stood up to the same test, a creeping, chilling horror at things that seem 95% ridiculous. Pet Semetary is about wanting something so desperately that you do not care about consequences. The refusal to acknowledge that sometimes the hardest thing to do is the right thing, in this case to let go, to grieve, to pick up the pieces and carry on. I guess too it's about how you can never un-learn something, and the deadly temptation that this might sometimes present.

With every additional Stephen King book I read, the more I get why he's sold 350 million books. Man's no amateur.

Friday, 10 February 2017

Unboxed, by Non Pratt

A devastating little novella from the queen of kitchen sink teen drama, Non Pratt. I've loved both of Non's full length novels for their wit and warmth, and for the fantastic way she writes friendship and dialogue. Naturally, Unboxed was no different.

Narrated by Alix, the plot follows four friends as they face the prospect of an awkward reunion in their one time hometown- they are retrieving their buried time capsule from the school's roof. Having drifted apart over the last 5 years, each going off and doing their own thing, nobody is sure if the others will show. The reunion follows the death of Millie, the sweet, happy girl that held them all together. She was the one who made her surviving friends promise that they'd meet up- promise that they'd reunite.

After the stilted greetings and small talk and the clumsy retrieval of the box, we begin to see the friends relax into each other's company a bit more. As they go through the carefully selected memories that each of them chose to preserve, the four reflect on how much they have changed over the five years. They examine their motives for allowing their friendships to crumble. For Alix, it's guilt that she was never able to come out to her best friends. First fearing rejection, then consumed by guilt for not trusting them, she found it easier to drift away.

I really loved this story and was amazed at how much emotion and feeling can be squeezed into such a small book. Who has never looked at a photo of their schooltime squad and lamented "we all used to be so close and I haven't spoken to any of these for years- what happened?" maybe not at 18....but definitely somewhere along the way. I love how Alix voices her insecurities about how people change- relationships change, what people need from and are able to provide for each other changes. Out expectations change. Our priorities and values; guess what? They change too.

It was really satisfying to see a mismatched group of kids- kids that didn't seem like they ever would have been friends at all, be truly honest with each other in a way that requires the sort of maturity and self awareness that you just don't have at 13. It seems unlikely that as story that begins with a nightmare social situation; a person surrounded by ex friends they've outgrown could possibly end with four renewed friendships, cracked, but healed stronger than before. Like bones. And all the way through, the tragic absence of Millie, the missing piece, the one who orchestrated the whole thing from beyond the grave, hangs sadly over the whole thing.

Gorgeous and touching and utterly, utterly real. I genuinely do not know how she does it.