Friday, 16 March 2018

S.T.A.G.S, by MA Bennett

S.T.A.G.S is a prestigious, elite boarding school, founded when there were still three numbers in the year by a Saint that once made a stag turn invisible. Greer MacDonald, ordinary girl and film enthusiast has won a scholarship to study there for sixth form and after one term is finding herself lonely and isolated. She sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the old money student body, the kind that are all either minor royals or 25th generation minted, have family crests and heirlooms older than Hadrian’s Wall, and know what each of the 1,000 utensils are for at a formal table setting.

Needless to say she is baffled and curious when she receives an invitation to spend the Michaelmas weekend (October Half Term, for normal people) at Longcross, the ancient country pile of Henry de Warlencourt, the Country Life poster boy king of the school, for a weekend of Huntin’ Shootin’ and Fishin’. Despite apprehensions due to never having done any of these things before, Greer accepts, thinking that this is finally her being recognised as ‘One of them’, and a chance to get to know (and possibly join) the Medievals, the unofficial kings and queens of the school. Despite her Buzzfeed feminism, Greer still wants to fit in, something that she kind of despairs at herself for.

Togged up in very worn but obviously once expensive Country Clothes, think tweeds and Hunters, installed in one of the suites, Greer is surprised to discover that there are no adults on site, just some surly but incredibly compliant servants. Greer, Shafeen and Chanel, the other outsiders selected for the weekend are at the mercy of their gracious, generous hosts. Each of them is committed to ingratiating themselves, despite occasional derision and vicious attacks from the Medivals. As the three bloodsports, the huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’ take a very accident prone turn, it becomes increasingly apparent that the stags, the pheasants and the brown trout aren’t the only things being hunted.

I liked the idea of this novel, it was unique and it kept that question mark hovering over exactly what was going on- it reminded me of e. lockhart’s We Were Liars in that respect. In one instance because it’s a book about privileged white kids doing whatever the hell they want to and hang the consequences, but also because it dangles the truth just above the reader’s head the whole time. It’s there to see, but the prejudices and the hopes, the bias and the objectives of the narrator sort of conceal it. In this case, Greer and the ‘I think he likes me’ vibes she is picking up off Henry, lordling of the manor. Can somebody that charming, that friendly and someone so committed to showing her a good time be as evil as they suspect?

I liked how Shafeen, Nel and Greer grew closer through their plotting and their sneaking, developing more in the last third of the book than in the first parts. I feel like this was the first glimpse we got into the deeper workings of any of the nine characters. I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but the three ‘Sirens’ and the two boys that weren’t Henry seemed pretty interchangeable.

I was not a fan of the tacked-on feeling ending and I felt that it needed just a little too much disbelief suspension to buy. Though it was an easy enough read, I found my attention drifting quite often. I quickly felt frustrated with the constant film references. I get that it was Greer’s *thing*, and that’s okay, I guess, but I think that particular pudding was marginally over-egged, with a reference on literally every other page. Like, it’s fine to make just a Hannibal Lecter reference. You don’t need to say Hannibal Lecter, from that film Silence of the Lambs. There is only one Hannibal Lecter, we know which one you mean. Assuming you are not an *actual* teen, in which case you probably haven’t seen Silence of the Lambs anyway, so never mind. I also thought that if this Michaelmas ritual had been going on for as long as suggested, maybe the perpetrators would be a bit better at *the objective*, rather than going about it in the half-hearted way that the Medievals demonstrate in the 2017 season. I didn’t feel that there was enough threat, no commitment to the actual cause, so the whole thing lacked the necessary tension…

All in all, it’s a bit of a mixture, is S.T.A.G.S. I really liked the combination of rich kids, boarding schools, privilege, class structure and cults, but I just felt that the whole book failed to deliver what it promised. I was expecting something more Until Dawn, with tension and desperation and gore. I like the insanity of the idea that people are too superior for the act of murder to affect them in terms of finance, morality or prosecution, it was very Rope. Or, as Greer would say, “Have you seen the Alfred Hitchcok film, Rope? Where a character considers himself to be so mentally superior that it makes him capable of pulling of a random, perfect murder? It was like that, but with a class motivation.”

Thursday, 15 March 2018

Moonrise, by Sarah Crossan

A beautifully written, emotional story about broken families, fragile hope, the legal system, the trap of poverty and being *present*. I love Sarah Crossan, I love her gorgeous verse and her carefully chosen words that can be so fragile one minute and devastatingly fatal the next. Verse just seems to suit her stories so well.

Moonrise is the story of Joe and his family. When Joe was seven, his brother was arrested.  Now Joe is 17 and alone in Texas, and he is seeing his brother, Ed for the first time in 10 years. Nobody has seen him since he disappeared with their aunt’s car a decade ago. Since then Joe and his sister Angela have been raised by their Aunt, after their drunk, pharmaceutical addicted mother walked out on them.  Since that time Ed has been in a high security prison, convicted of murdering a young police officer. A death penalty offence in Texas.  Joe has a couple of weeks with the brother he barely knows before he is put to death for something he claims he never did. Nobody has visited, they have barely written. Joe’s aunt has insisted all along that the best thing to do is forget all about Ed- he’s the reason the family fell apart.

I liked the portrayal of the broken Moon family, and Joe’s struggles seemed really real. We start off by thinking that the brothers barely know each other. But the flashbacks that occur throughout fill in some of the brothers’ history: Ed, wayward as he is, was basically both parents to his kid brother- a responsibility that it seems was just too much for someone so young. The story is emphatic that no matter how broken and dysfunctional a family, there is something that holds you together, for as long as you want to be held. No matter how wobbly, no matter how imperfectly. It makes you recognise that it’s a family that brings you up, even if it isn’t parents specifically.

Joe has a lot to work through whilst in Texas; the realisation of his brother’s future, the prospect of being the only family member there when it happens. He struggles with finances, with loneliness. He reflects a lot on his upbringing and who has and has not been there. He also meets a girl at the diner, Nell, that he becomes friends with that helps him through his impossible summer. I liked the presentation of this relationship too- it was fragile and precarious, temporary but significant, kind of unreal. The whole town had a feeling of unreality, a town that wasn’t really anything beside a place that was close to a prison.

The verse really suited this story. It made the narrative seem immediate, considered, bursting with feelings and so honest. Every word seems carefully selected and lovingly curated. Every line feels important, just like every day feels important to somebody on Death Row.

With every Sarah Crossan novel I read, I am more in awe of what she is able to do with words. Though her characters and narrators are often private, insular people, people that are vulnerable and lost, she manages to project them so clearly and so precisely into the reader’s mind that they kind of stay there forever. They are so distinct and so affecting, and I think it must be the verse that does that.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

It Only Happens in the Movies, by Holly Bourne

I love Holly Bourne. She is part of the UKYA quadrant that I’m always kind of expecting to see secreted away in an eavesdropping corner of the school that I work at, because her teen characters, the way they act and speak and coexist are so 100% percent accurate that she obviously has some sort of secret pipeline into schools. When you, a sensible, nearly 30 YO official Grown Up Person reading Holly Bourne, it's *creepy* the way the years fall off and you're 17 again and there's boy drama and UCAS and Leeds Festivals and staying on sixth form because college seems too scary and HOW DOES SHE DO IT??

It Only Happens in the Movies is about sixth former, amateur actor, cinema employee and professional cynic Audrey. She is done with love. Recently dumped by her ex-boyfriend after a minor bedroom mishap and major betrayal of trust, she has spent the last year watching her family implode after her dad walked out on her mum for a younger woman and won’t stop rubbing their noses in it, another major betrayal of trust and of love in general. Audrey is so absolutely done that she is going to write an A Level Media Studies essay about how damaging and unrealistic and dangerous romantic comedies are, with their perfect couples and their clichés and their airport dashes and declarations and kisses in the rain. Real life is not like that and the world needs to know.

There were a lot of things I loved about this book. I shall nebulously list them.

I loved Audrey. Caring for her mum alone, whilst her dad coos with his new, better family, and her brother is off at uni, she is struggling to manage her mum’s depression and irrational behaviour. It shouldn’t be down to Audrey to cope with it, but here we are and she endures in an incredibly realistic way- resentful, bitter, but with love. Because nuance, people. I loved that she tried to keep that line open to her dad, it shows she’s a good person. But it was good for her to confront her anger too. She was resolute and vulnerable, smart and honest and I would absolutely have been friends with her as a teen. I am also a very big not-fan of romance films (10 Things being the exception, I’m not a monster) but I loved how in tune with, and also disgusted and outraged by the tropes and expectations of both cinema and society she was.

I loved how all of Audrey’s friends were nice and supportive, and no matter how much she isolated herself from them or felt that she didn’t deserve them so she’s doing them a favour by cutting them off, they were still waiting for her when she figured something out. They didn’t intrude, but let her grieve and be angry and waited. Leroy was lovely and hilarious, and I would absolutely read the Spinster-esque spin off with him as narrator. LouLou was incredible, with her pink hair and her sass and everyone was just a part of a drama-free, supportive friend network and that was brilliant. More please.

I liked Harry. I did not love him. He was charming and funny, he was capable of being serious and a talented filmmaker that saw Audrey’s talent. I loved that he made her see her worth, and that it was a value that existed separately from relationships and men and love- it was a talent and a value that was just hers. I liked their relationship. I liked that Audrey knew he was a cliché bad boy, and that it was both futile and formulaic for her to believe that she would be any different than his other many conquests, or for her to even think that she could try and change him. She is also aware of the irony that being aware these things does not mean that she will not attempt them anyway. And then be mad at herself for being predictable and stupid. Audrey is a contradiction, like us all. She knows at the outset that she’s falling into to plot of a rom com, but, aware as she is, she is powerless to stop it. Until she does stop it.

I loved the uncommonness of the ending. I don’t want to spoil it, but it is so unusual for a romantic heroine to get to choose. To not have a guy foisted on her. She gets to put herself first, and to make a decision based on what is going to be the best for her long term, averaging out the ups and the downs of a relationship. 
*spoilery* The “I love you but you are bad for me, so I am going to decline even though it will hurt very much for a long time” is so rare and refreshing and, to prove Audrey’s point, it’s something you rarely see in the movies.

If you love romance films, read it.
If you hate romance films, read it more.
If you like hilarious, realistic stories with awesome, smart, tough young women in them, then definitely read it.

Monday, 5 March 2018

Thoughts about The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin

Four New York siblings visit a Romany fortune teller during the hot summer of 1969. A word of mouth rumour, she is reputed to be able to tell you the exact date of your death. Daniel, Klara, Varya and Simon, all under ten (ish) the Gold children scrape together their pocket money to visit this mysterious woman, drawn by their desire to Know.

They are fascinated and horrified by what they learn. Torn between dismissing it as nonsense and clinging onto the superstition, concealing their dates from one another and never mentioning it until adulthood…the Gold siblings are burdened with a knowledge that hangs over every hour of every day, a knowledge that threatens to make their choices for them and forces them to make the most of every opportunity
The book scrolls through the lives of the four Gold siblings in the order in which they die. We start with Simon, youngest Gold and heir to the family’s drapery business. Knowing that he will die young, he runs away to San Francisco with his wayward sister Klara and throws himself head first into living fast; the famous Gay Scene, night clubs, drugs, ballet, sex and hedonism and eventually romantic love. His date turns out to be true.

Essentially estranged from the rest of the family through a mixture of distance and flighty waywardness, Klara dedicates herself to becoming an illusionist and vaudevillian like her Hungarian grandmother. Perfecting her signature death-defying stunt, the Jaws of Life, the trick is that there is no trick, just strength and will and guts. Her secret shame is the guilt she feels at being the one that convinced Simon to come to San Francisco, she feels responsible for his death and that guilt plays a large part in the road to her death.

After Klara's death, unsure if her unknown date was accurate or not, Daniel, the sensible Army doctor sets off to find the fortune teller- gradually  becoming more and more obsessed with making her pay for the deaths of his siblings. This section ends with a slightly out-of character Thriller--esque showdown...The final Gold standing, a genetic researcher and OCD sufferer Varya is the last to narrate, the only one granted the gift of old age. Her life’s work is to extend the natural human life, but the price to pay is that her (long) life is fairly miserable, a grey existence of controlled calories and hermetic environments. Like her sister she too is defying death, but through a microscope rather than on stage. She's probably the hardest Gold to warm to- somewhat passionless and calculated, she resented her siblings their freedom and now finds herself without any of them.

I love multi-narrative books and books about siblings, so this ticked a lot of boxes for me- I loved the themes of self-fulfilling prophecy versus fate, how knowing what’s around the corner might influence and affect the decisions we make and the direction that our lives take. It’s fairy usual to discuss what we’d do if this was our last day on Earth, and we’re all familiar with the saying of “Being here for a good time, not a long time”, and this book asks whether we’d live differently, make different choices, take risks, set goals, try harder if we knew when we were going to die.

It’s concerned too with the idea of free will, and whether by setting a date in stone and obsessing over it, a person inadvertently fulfils these prophecies with their obsession, or whether it is in fact pre-determined, and the only unusual factor is the awareness of the date, a date and an event that cannot be deviated from…

The Immortalists a wonderful story about family and loss and choices, and how we decide on our life’s priorities. Is it better to live a short life full of joy and love and impact? Or is it better to live a long, safe life, controlled and protected. The dynamics of the family as they grow apart and are forced back together, a smaller circle every time is heart breaking and relatable and tragic. They are all so tortured by the awareness of their own failures; failure to act, failure to reach out, failure to try and understand. People are strange creatures and whatever we choose, we can never really win.

Very much recommended.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman

Having read a reasonable amount of Neil Gaiman (Very much liked it) and not very much Terry Pratchett (and really not liking it at all), I have finally gotten around to reading Good Omens, despite taking it on holiday twice and never managing to even start it.

So. It tells the story of an angel and a demon, Aziraphale and Crowley respectively, who have been kicking around together since the times of literal Eden and have since gone a bit native on Earth. Both have their indulgences; wine, books and tailoring, and classic cars, booze and sunglasses indoors. They have grown fond of Earth and humans and more importantly, their nice comfortable lives amongst them. Crowley is tasked with switching a human baby for the antichrist in order to bring about the Apocalypse, the End Times, the big, season finale of WAR between Heaven and Earth, Good and Evil and so on. Aziraphale is there too because the two of them are kind of unlikely BFFs. The Antichrist is destined to be raised as Warlock, son of a prominent US diplomat. Aziraphale and Crowley resolve to work their saintly/demonly influence on him as he grows up, essentially postponing the end of the world as Warlock, hopefully, struggles to choose between good and evil. At least that is the plan. However. The problem is, there’s a bit of a mix-up with the Satanic nuns and the Antichrist is actually an ordinary, but unusually charismatic boy from the suburbs, Adam, who likes playing in the quarry with his mates, reading comics and messing about with his dog, Dog. Meanwhile, Warlock is just a normal kid with a weird name.

It’s if the Omen and Life of Brian got blended.

The rest of the story is Aziraphale and Crowley tearing around the country in an on-fire Bentley trying to conceal their vast mistakes, to track down Adam, the real antichrist before the various emissaries of Hell get there first and reveal the boy’s true powers to him. Adam's power so far extends to righting some environmental wrongs that he's read about in hippy conspiracy theory magazines. There’s a nth generation witch living her life from a book of prophecies, a witch hunter that falls in love with her, the four horsemen of the apocalypse and Adam’s three mates thrown in for misunderstandings, declarations and revelations, culminating in a planned and relief-inducing anti-climax at a Nuclear Power Station.

I can see why people love this book. It’s funny, it’s all about the inherent goodness of people, Aziraphale and Crowley are hilarious and adorable. I can see how a frequent re-reader could just slide back into the world easily and just hang with the characters. However. It just didn’t strike a chord with me and I found myself just wanting to be finished with it. I struggle to identify exactly what failed to resonate. As much as I loved Aziraphale and Crowley, I found most of the other characters to be forgettable and was always a bit annoyed when the narrative swung over their way.

It’s been on my TBR list for years, so I’m glad I read it, and I didn’t really know what to expect, but I honestly don’t think this kind of fantasy is my thing. I kept convincing myself I could cherry pick the Terry Pratchett jokes and they irrationally annoyed me. The flavour of humour just doesn’t do much for me, despite the very comedic prose. Like, I can tell it’s funny, but it doesn’t make me laugh, if that makes sense.

I don’t know. Just not my thing I guess.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

The New York Trilogy, by Paul Auster

A proper head scratcher.

The New York Trilogy comprises three apparently separate stories about people going missing, being searched for or possibly not actually existing in New York City. Apparently separate but also possibly connected. I'm not sure I got it TBH.

The first, City of Glass, is narrated by an isolated writer called Daniel Quinn who adopts the identity of Detective Paul Auster in order to take on a case. He writes under a separate pen-name, just for added layers). The case involves tracking a recently released abusive father and ensuring that he stays away from his psychologically damaged adult son. It sounds quite normal when you say it like that. But the narrative becomes a murky, confusing sequence of events that ends with Quinn's descent into a type of madness. An invisibility. The segment ruminates on themes of identity, authorship and the ease with which a person can remove themselves from the world (in a non-death sense). Quinn becomes obsessed with the released father, mapping his movements through New York, divining messages in his routes, basing his theories on obscure readings of Classic Literature and scripture. The name Henry Dark, who may or may not be fictional, is floated for the first time. Paul Auster shows up in his own novel with his real life (then) wife and actual kids. As you do.

The middle section, Ghosts, is about a private eye called "Blue", former protégée of "Brown", who is tailing a man named "Black" on Orange Street for a client named "White". Orange Street doesn't get air quotes because that seems to be a real actual street in Brooklyn. Blue, who starts the story as a regular detective, stakes out Black's apartment, composing written reports to the unknown and unseen White. White pays with regularity and keeps Blue installed in an apartment on the other side of the street to his target. Black seems to mostly read books and write at his little desk. After weeks and months staring at the ordinary, secluded Black, Blue begins to lose his grip on his identity, spiralling into madness and falling out of his old life, becoming obsessive about the increasingly mysterious Black.

The last story, Locked Room, features an unnamed narrator, a critic, who is unexpectedly contacted by the wife of an estranged childhood friend. Her husband, Fanshawe, has disappeared and left instructions to contact the narrator. After a certain amount of time has elapsed, he has instructed them to publish his life’s works- poems, plays, three novels. As the narrator smoothly installs himself into the home, marriage and family of the missing writer, tracing the lost years of his former friend becomes an obsession.

I can't work out if Auster (the author, not the fake detective OR the on the page Auster from the first book) is reusing names, or if there really is some connection between Henry Dark, a name two characters adopt and a third claims to have invented, if the Paul Stillman in Paris is either of the Paul Stillman (Stillmen?) from the first story...or if they're all the same person? I fell like I don't have the mental stamina to connect all the dots. If there are dots. It's possible he's just messing with us. It's possible it's vastly important. The paranoia!

The books are excellent at making the reader question everything they've read. The narrators are unreliable to the EXTREME, so you develop a constant cagey-ness to everything. They make for incredibly unsettling reading, but so atmospheric. I loved the recurring themes of authorship, of the act of writing and recording daily lives and how this meshes or clashes with our notion of identity and self. Such themes feature heavily in all three segments, as does the central idea that it is in fact incredibly easy to just remove yourself, or simply fall out of your own life. To ghost your own existence. In the latter third, how easy it is to just insert yourself into the life of another, to take up their still-warm space when they unexpectedly desert it. Perhaps this ghosting is especially easy in a city as enormous and as impersonal as New York.

Though I’m pretty sure there was much more going on in the book than I was able to grasp, I massively enjoyed this unique take on the PI genre. As a reader, I rarely read crime thrillers, but these slow burn, research and investigation heavy old school Maltese Falcon style detectives doing loads of legwork stories I am here for. It kept me guessing. It kept me wondering. It exposes something about people and the inexplicable, contrary, self-destructive little creatures that we are.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Portrait of a Murderer, by Anne Meredith

Another Christmas, another revived cosy crime classic from the forgotten annals of the 1920s and 1930s.
"Each December, Adrian Gray invites his extended family to stay at his lonely house, Kings Poplars. None of Gray's six surviving children is fond of him; several have cause to wish him dead. The family gathers on Christmas Eve - and by the following morning, their wish has been granted.
This fascinating and unusual novel tells the story of what happened that dark Christmas night; and what the murderer did next."
So far, so familiar. A bunch of boorish, entitled relatives gather in the home of their insufferable patriarch for a bitter and resentful Christmas. The Grays are a formerly wealthy family on the way down, financially. *Just how* far down is revealed quite early on.

His offspring are, as ever, after money; politician Richard, an MP whose heart set on a Lordship whatever the cost- he is hemorrhaging money on pointless luxuries in an attempt to impress people into bestowing a lordship on him. Impoverished and despised artist Brand, the family embarrassment, who wants a pay-off to unceremoniously dump his urchin-like family and migrate to Paris to top up his painting inspiration. Eustace, the dodgy financier is married to Adrian's daughter Olivia. They need a substantial sum to buy their way out of sticky imminent legal proceedings and presumed ruin. Murder victim Gray has made a number of very questionable business arrangements via his thoroughly dodgy Son in Law and both are on the brink of ruin. Cringing spinster Amy has never left home and resentfully runs the house on the meager allowance her skinflint father allows her. Isobel, a waif-like ghost of the woman she once was is home permanently following the failure of her marriage. Only Ruth, the youngest child, seems happy. Ruth and her lawyer husband, Miles are the only ones satisfied with their Middle Class lifestyle, content with each other, and neither want anything from Adrian. As the snow falls and Christmas eve becomes Christmas day, one of the family will murder Adrian.

What I liked about this novel was how thoroughly and unapologitically horrible most of the characters were. With the exception of Miles, who only really gets anything to do in the last 20%. I don't know if contemporary audiences would have found them any more appealing to be honest, though the Anti-Semetism might have been less of a contributing factor.

The book is not really a whodunit, as we watch the murder happen. It is more of a study of the psychology of murder, and of the mental intricacies and whims of a murderer. It examines the intellect, the temperament and the awareness required to try and pull off a deception. In this way it reminded me a little of Hitchcock's early masterpiece Rope, which is one of his undeservedly forgotten offerings. The murderer is thorough, calculated and ruthless, painstakingly laying traps and planting evidence to implicate another for their crime. Maybe they aren't capable of pre-mediated murder, but post-murder manipulation seems to be right up their street. The murderer impressively acts the part of the surprised but not terribly sad offspring as the news of Adrian Gray's death is broken over the festive Breakfast Table. It's more a story of trying to get away with murder, than working out who committed it. However, that is the role assigned to lawyer Miles, the man that has to pick through the events of that night, the inaccuracies, the accusations, the possibilities, the sequences of events and the opportunities.

I found the pace a little slow going, and the unpleasantness of most of the characters does not make it a speedy read. There are elements, notably the way Jewish individuals are characterised and talked about that leaves a nasty impression (plus, the vague suggestion that should an entitled white aristocrat find themselves doing a bit of unplanned murdering, it can easily and conveniently be  blamed on the nearest available Jew is a bit ick). I suppose it hasn't aged well, really, and the author may have let their own disdainful prejudices colour their narrative slightly. 

I didn't rate it as highly as Murder in White, and though the psychological pondering about how life might be from the perspective of a murderer is interesting and distinguishes the story perhaps from others of a similar theme, it left me mostly nonplussed and quite pleased to be finished. I've now moved on to the Silent Nights, a collection of short detective stories from the same series, and honestly, it's much better.