Wednesday, 18 January 2017

The Secrets of Billie Bright, by Susie Day


Billie Bright is part of a big, messy family of boys and they all live in a tiny flat above their dad’s cafĂ© in Kensall Rise. Billie, aged 11, is about to go to big school thankyouverymuch, the same school as big brother Mikey. Her other brother Raffi doesn’t go anymore and has loads of different jobs for about a week, then gets inevitably fired. Billie’s other bigger big brother Gabriel lives in a fancy flat in Canary Wharf with his boyfriend Aleksy. Billie’s mum died of cancer when 6 years ago, and Billie can’t really remember her anymore. But she prays/writes to her a lot to keep her up to date with what’s going on. Billie knows she’s being watched over by here mum, who was probably very beautiful and liked Coronation Street and knitting.

Starting big school is a big deal for Billie, who has been looking forward to it since year 5. She knows it’s going to be exciting, being so grown up, and that making friends is going to be challenging, because her two friends from primary school have gone elsewhere and Billie has to start from scratch. She’s eyed up small, scared looking Efe as definitely best friend material, but bossy Ruby looks like she’s already decided Billie is going to be her friend. Amongst the whirlwind of emotions and episodes that make up the first week of a new school, year 7 are assigned an exciting task: to compile a research project about their hero. Billie, obviously, is going to do hers on her mum, but she doesn’t know much about her and her brothers are oddly reluctant to talk about her. In the course of her research project, Billie is set to find out all sorts of secrets about her family.

I love how incidentally diverse the book. Billie and her brothers are half Trinidadian, quarter Italian and quarter Welsh. Eldest bro Gabriel is gay, engaged to a Ukrainian. It’s not a plot about race or LGBT issues at all- not every difficulty an 11 year old mixe

d race kid encounters is going to be linked to race. Efe is Nigerian, Ruby is Chinese English, Sam and Sam have two mums- all part and parcel of modern life and it’s wonderful to see such a representative normality in this story. Not a plot point, not a Big Worthy Message or a characterisation short cut clichĂ©. The girls’ problems with periods and bras and keeping on top of how your tie is supposed to be knotted so you don’t look a nerd are universal worries. It’s a coming of age story at its most thoroughly relatable and understandable.

I really loved this book; it was an absolute joy to read.

Billie, as a narrator, is wonderful. She’s sweet and charming and has just the right balance of confidence and doubt. Billie describes her sarcastic form tutor, Mr Miller, as sad and grey “Like Eeyore”. Love love loved it. She makes friends easily with Girl Sam, Efe and Ruby (slightly more reluctantly) and she’s naturally curious and funny. She narrates with a heart-breaking honesty and vulnerability. I love how much she cares about her family, how thoughtful she is.

Anyway; there are year 7 hijinks with sleepovers in the Natural History Museum, practise sleepovers in the flat, bridesmaid duties, fancy dresses, emergency search parties to famous locations and lots of uncovering of heart-breaking secrets that make Billie question everything she ever thought she knew. It’s not an entirely happy ending- there is lots of happiness and love, but also tears, acceptance, disappointment and the acknowledging of fallibility. It’s a very grown up lesson that Billie has to learn the hard way.

Very much recommended for 9 ish-12 ish year olds that are into Jaqueline Wilson, Lara Williamson and Pamela Butchart. Brilliant, obviously, for those slightly nervous of staring Big School.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Girl out of Water, by Nat Luurtsema

I was a bit sad and mopey after my latest reread of His Dark Materials and wanted something completely opposite. I'd seen Nat Luurtsema at YALC on a panel about funny women (with Holly Smale and Katy Birchall, I think) and had made a mental note there and then to read her book as soon as I could find a copy, because long story short, she was hilarious.

Unsurprisingly, Girl Out of Water does not disappoint on the lol front- I laughed through pretty much all of it, punctuated with an actual snort at the 'Pew of Askew' when the Brown family crash a church service.

The girl of the title is Lou Brown and she is out of water because she has just failed to qualify for an intensive training camp for the team GB Olympic swimming squad, a goal that she has been working to since the age of 7. Even worse, Lou's team mate and best/only friend Hannah made the cut and is off to Devon to train and become a national hero. That leaves loser Lou literally high and dry; alone to face school a social outcast and Olympic almost.

After a summer of empty boredom, denial and rage, Lou, completely by accident finds herself coaching a team of far-too-popular-to-be-he-friends boys at an underwater sport she invented whilst moodliy floating around in the leisure centre pool. But at £20 a session, she'll give it a go, despite their swimming ability (poor) and general fitness levels (bad). Their ultimate goal is to audition for what is essentially Britain's Got Talent (mad- where are they going to get a tank for that?). She's got to also cope with being a social leper, supporting her distant friend through the mind-murdering pressure and stress of camp, and avoiding her former frenemies turned straight up enemies from the swim team.

I loved Lou as a character; she's hilarious, unconventional, irrational in her teenage logic and struggling to find her place in the world. I like that she's not particularly interested in clothes or boys or boybands. She wants to be interested in order to *seem* more 'normal' but her indifference just cannot be denied. She looks like a hipless, boobless swimmer, because even people with 0 body fat can still be insecure about their body. I also empathise massively with unreasonably tall characters, being one myself. I loved her family- super popular, trendy but actually sweet big sister Lav, mum (dating) and dad (unemployed, living with divorced wife, not a couple). Lou has a really odd home set up, which they definitely all acknowledge, but it seems to work. The book's main theme really is that sometimes unexpected things happen and you just have to deal with it and sometimes it's better than the thing you wanted in the first place.

Although obviously most people haven't failed to qualify for an Olympic event/sporting career, the idea that the thing you've pointed your whole existence in the direction of not working out is a pretty relatable theme. Whether that's a realisation that actually, this is not what you want at all, or because circumstances have conspired to prevent you from 'living the dream'. I loved the idea that a 'failure' led to the thing that Lou needed most of all, which was friendship and self-confidence, and that's what she came away with.

This book is hilarious; it has brilliant characters, an excellent voice via Lou, the not-good-enough-to-be-Olympic swimmer and a realistic, heartwarming ending that isn't exactly walking off into the sunset, but is believable and satisfying anyway. Definitely good for readers that enjoy the awkward- girl-fish-out-of-water narratives like Princess Diaries, Geek Girl etc. A welcome addition to the coping with school/being bad at teen life canon.

Can wait for Nat's next book.

Tuesday, 13 December 2016

Mystery in White, by J. Jefferson Farjeon,

Continuing my festive cosy-crime-a-thon, I went next for Mystery in White, the surprise sleeper hit of last year which was recently reissued for the first time since the 1930s.

It's a bit of a time capsule really, set between the wars and probably already a bit nostalgic when it was originally published .

On Christmas Eve, heavy snowfall brings the 11.37 from St Pancras to a halt near the village of Hemmersby. It's the olden days where trains actually left and ran to a schedule, so modern readers will have to suspend their disbelief somewhat. A mixed assortment of passengers of the type that would never normally associate (Jessie, a chorus girl, an 'old bore' that keeps talking about India and snakes named Mr Hopkins, a trendy brother and sister; David and Lydia, a physic Derek Acorah type that goes by the name of Mr Maltby and a dull, fantasist clerk called Mr Thomson) sit around in the stationary carriage and discuss their options. The brother and sister, the clerk and the chorus girl decide to try their luck walking to the next station but become lost and disoriented in the snow.

Stumbling across a deserted country house, they decide to take shelter within; the fire has been lit and the table laid for tea – but it seems that no one is at home. They decide to create an itemised list of everything the eat, drink and use, with the intention of reimbursing the rightful but absent owners. After a short look around, the chorus girl is confined to bed with a twisted ankle, and the clerk with a fever. The old bore and the psychic arrive shortly, with a common, rough and inherently suspicious type named Smith who a few of the group recognise from the train, but who denies being anywhere near it. 

Trapped together for Christmas, the passengers seek to unravel the empty house's mysteries, overseen by a creepy, too-lifelike portrait of the probable owner. There are bodies discovered in the snow, lots of traipsing back and forth in the unforgiving weather, there are locked doors that are suddenly unlocked, hidden letters, incriminating axes and disturbances to the psychic atmosphere of the house, channeled through the chorus girl and the psychic. The plot thickens with the rescue of two stranded motorists crashed into a ditch in a country lane; a young woman and an old man- they bring with them knowledge of of an old family rivalry and answers about the identity of the man in the portrait.

There's an interesting crop of characters, with laughably contemporary (to the 30s) attitudes to women and beta males. The man with too much imagination and the flighty woman are cloistered away upstairs pretty quickly; the alpha males downstairs to their civic duty by trying to shield the lesser minds from the unpleasantness, potentially the evil, of the house. Lydia, the trendy sister is by far the most appealing character- tasked with nursing the invalids, bringing trays of pineapple upstairs (??) she's determined to contribute her opinions to the dude-fest-decision making table and holds her own throughout.

Mystery in White is an enjoyable, melodramatic romp from the golden age of crime. It begins in a so far so Murder on the Orient Express kind of way, but deviates from that track as soon as the characters exit the train. I loved the gradual build up of dread that was thinly, patiently and expertly layered- it's a pace so slow that it would seem unacceptable to the modern thriller reader. The tension almost sneaks up on you.

Usually, with any crime that isn't Raymond Chandler, it's kind of obvious long before the conclusion which way the mystery is unraveling and the dexterous reader can often see it coming. Most mystery stories twist and twist, lob a red herring, twist a bit more, then either finish with your suspicions confirmed, or a end with a twist finish that looking back doesn't really fit with the previous twists. Not so much with this. The addition of wildcard characters towards the end is unexpected and throws any arising suspicions out pretty instantly. It's hard to know where its going- there's always a chance that it might even veer into ghost story territory.

It's an enjoyable, festive little mystery that fits the pre-Christmas bill when it's still a bit early for A Christmas Carol and 2016 has left you with no motivation to read or do anything other than scream into a pillow. I can see why some readers might see it as slow, bland and lacking in excitement, but sometimes, a nice gentle, surprising mystery is just what you need. Like the book equivalent of tea and toast.

Tuesday, 29 November 2016

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, by Agatha Christie

I've had a really tough time this autumn (this year really) finding 
the motivation to read. My annual 'books read' total is almost half what it usually is...not that I set targets as such, but I do keep track of what I read and when, make notes and lists, and record any particularly impressive quotes or passages that I like. So whilst I don't keep records specifically to track how much I'm reading, it is easy to tell how much I've read. Maybe it's the horror show of 2016, the year that humanity irreconcilably pushed itself over the social PONR. Maybe it's because I got a puppy this time last year and now she's a big massive dog that demands dog-time, not book time. Maybe it's the books I'm reading. Maybe it's just one of those things.

However.
In an attempt to kick start the official festive season (any festive inclinations in November are really just pre-amble) and as a return to a tried and tested remedy for sluggish reading vibes, I turned to the queen of crime, the first lady of the drawing room mystery, the Mistress of Murder Agatha Christie. And it worked a treat.

Christie describes this book in the preface as a Christmas dinner of two main courses, two entrees and a sorbet, along with a glorious description of her childhood Christmases in an old, draughty country manor with a boiled turkey, a roast turkey, mince pies and plum pudding.

So the setting of the first main course, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding is quite familiar; an old country manor house, two types of turkey, mince pies and plum pudding. I see what you did there AC. Only is M. Poirot enjoying these festivities, not the author. Poirot is dragged, as he often seems to be, to the countryside over the festive period, lured by the idea of central heating and all the mod-cons, to find some rubies stolen by a dastardly ladyfriend of an Eastern prince. Naturally, it is a matter of the utmost delicacy, and Poirot manages to kill two birds with one very large, very valuable red stone.There's a staged murder that takes a turn for the too-real that turns into a happy Christmas for everyone. Appearing originally in 1923 and then subsequently expanded, it's nice to see that almost 100 years ago, people still griped about Christmas not being what it used to be. Even in 1923, the concept of decorating a tree, having an excessive dinner and having the whole family round was seen as kitsch, old fashioned and somehow under threat from the relentless march of modernity. Our trees might look different, our food might be more lavish and a bit more additive-ridden, but our complaints about the cessation of tradition never seem to alter.

The other main course is The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, an old school body-in-the-chest while everyone has a party round it. It reminded me of Hitchcock's Rope, a massively underrated film that also has a big, boxy dead elephant in the room that nobody notices. It's a bit of a nod to Othello and has an interestingly small number of characters/suspects and a pleasingly convoluted, absurd series of motives. Not particularly festive though, if you don't count all the eating.

Then come the entrees, because maybe that's the order that post people eat in. The Under Dog,  a reasonably familiar lots of people living in a big house and one of them is killed deal where our M. Poirot has to look through all their bedrooms in the manner that he seems so thoroughly to enjoy, and Four and Twenty Blackbirds which seems to have been included purely because it is a food based mystery. But what is more festive than food?  Lastly, the sorbet; The Dream, a short, twisty tale with a mad Home Alone style booby trap, identity swapping and murder.

Yes they'e silly and daft and old fashioned and mostly variants on the same themes, but these short stories definitely did the job. I found myself *wanting* to pick this book up; I thought about it when I wasn't reading it; I sacked off boring crap like cleaning and ironing to have an hour with Poirot, careering round country houses and telling everyone why the could've been the murderer but weren't. Anyway. I've ordered the Mystery in White next, cos cosy crime is by bag at the moment and it's too early for A Christmas Carol.

Has anyone else had a really long book slump before?
What do you recommend to get over it? What are your go-to authors or books for re-invigoration?

Monday, 28 November 2016

Broadway Book Club Discussion of Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

So we only had one person at the meeting who actually managed to finish the book- even I didn’t make it to the end of this one- the first time in almost 5 years that I haven’t finished a Book Club title. 
Thanks to Ruth for filling in the plot gaps for the rest of us and Clive for listening to the audiobook and providing us with a handy guide to name pronunciation. Team effort!

So. We began with a discussion of the characters of Half of A Yellow Sun, most notably Richard, Ugwu, Kainene and Olanna. We concluded that as the reader we are offered the story mostly through Ugwu’s eyes, but felt that the author saw Olanna as the novel’s central figure. Olanna’s presentation was almost too good to be true; demure, intelligent, beautiful, kind and graceful- we felt we were supposed to be enthralled and captivated by her in the same way that Odenigbo and Ugwu (and more or less every other man in the book) are. However, we talked about how directionless she was, how she drifted through the narrative. She was incredibly well educated and privileged, convinced she was revolutionary and modern by refusing to marry her lover but ended up in a very feminine, wife/mother role anyway. She was incredibly conventional, but we felt that the author really felt that she wasn’t. Kainene on the other hand was a practical woman with a ruthless business head. Successful, independent- so obviously she had to be kind of ugly. It’s the sort of thing we’ve seen a million times before. Kainene emerged as the strongest character throughout the discussion. We talked about Richard, how he served little purpose and tried to adopt a Biafran identity, resolutely determined to be a Native African despite very little acceptance from the community around him. We felt kind of sorry for Richard and his endless writing- he really was quite pointless as a person- supported financially by his great Aunt, then his lover Kainene. And then there’s Ugwu. Creepy from the beginning, with his sexual fantasies about a girl that might be a relative, his weird voyeurism of his sister’s body…his listening at doors and silent fumbles with servant girls. I didn’t even *Get* to the bar-girl scene, but it sounds like his creepiness only intensified into actual war crimes. His treatment of women aside, Ugwu is an awful snob and a troublemaker among the other help, constantly playing the compound’s staff off against one another. Similarly Odenigbo, for all his high minded liberalism takes zero responsibility for his actions, his mother is awful, Olanna and Kainene’s parents are corrupt, classless and shallow, their friends are interchangeable suck-ups and nobody in the whole novel seems even half way decent as a person. We guessed that this was supposed to cay something about the rotten, corrupt core of Nigeria as a country.

One of the things that we thought was very well done was the Olanna’s internal conflict about her background and education. Adichie writes gorgeously about what it is like to be an educated, African woman of colour; about how education is seen, rightly or wrongly, as a “white” thing, and any attempt by a black woman to educate themselves, to benefit from learning, to be academic is seen as a bit of a betrayal of the community, a move away from the village and its inhabitants into white space, an alignment with the oppressors. “Too much book” as Olanna’s aunty phrases it.

We talked about Nigerian history, and how lacking an English education is in any historical events that did not directly impact upon England. We talked about the colonial MO and how often it has been repeated around the world. Bloody Britain.

We agreed that parts of the book are beautiful and the prose is quite lyrical in places. Significantly, the scenes that really stand out are the traumatic, horrifying events witnessed by Olanna and Richard (personally I never made it much past the Biafran independence, but am assured there was more horror to follow). The scene of the Igbo slaughter in the airport and the things that Olanna witnesses in the village of her relatives and on the train home have a savage, arresting intensity to them. These scenes are incredibly well written; shocking  and intimate and horrifying all at once.  For me personally, these are probably the only parts of this book I will remember.
As with All the Light We Cannot See, we decided that the out-of-sequence structure added nothing to the book. Though it was presumably done that way to make Baby’s parentage and the mess between Richard/Kainene /Olanna more of a reveal, it was pretty writ large what was coming, so it wasn’t really worth disrupting the narrative flow for so little twist. Numerous readers said that they struggled to keep track of events, characters, relatives and dates and that it was kind of jarring to be introduced to young Baby, then almost immediately whisk  back in time so she suddenly disappears. It’s hard to keep track of, especially amongst a backdrop of constantly appearing and then disappearing poets, academics, politicians, revolutionaries, party guests  and so on.

I think the general consensus was that whilst this is probably a worthy and very emotionally affecting  socio-historical novel, none of us really got much out of it and found it a completely uphill struggle. Maybe it’s not the right time to read a book about civil war, state-sanctioned violence and relentless suffering. Maybe it’s just too horrific a subject to expect to enjoy a book about. Maybe socio-historical novels just aren’t our collective bag.
Here’s a recent article highlighted by our resident history source Clive on the lasting implications and deadly legacy of Biafran independence. 46 years later, tensions still seem as high as ever. 

Anyway- we break for Christmas now, so I’ll see you guys in the new year for our discussion of His Dark Materials in January (it’s grim in parts, but hopefully will offer a bit of an antidote to all the suffering we’ve read lately). We will resolve to choose some more uplifting books in January to take us through to Easter, so come armed with a list of things you missed out on when they came out, things that have sat on your shelf for years, new paperback releases or something that you’ve always wanted to read but never got around to.

Monday, 14 November 2016

His Bloody Project, by Graeme Macrae Burnet

So apparently this sold the most copies in the wake of its nomination for the Booker Prize shortlist, but did not win in the end. But winning isn't everything, right?

His Bloody Project begins with a preface by the author, Graeme Macrae Burnet, recounting how he found the manuscript that you are about to read, intact and inexpertly bound, in the archives of an Inverness repository. The story re-imagines the supposedly real-life story of 17-year-old Crofter's son Roderick Macrae, perpetrator of a triple murder in 1869, the bloody project from which the book gets its name. The narrative is constructed of testimonials from Roderick's neighbours, teachers and other crofters in the township. Opinions of him vary wildly, from gifted (if slightly contemptuous) scholar, to quiet loner, to murderous, dead-eyed miscreant. After the short testimonials, Roddy tells his own story, in an unlikely, flowing prose from his prison cell, recounting the series of events that began with his mother's death, and led up to a triple homicide.

It's interesting in that it is not a whodunnit, because Roddy is never in any denial about his guilt. The interest arises in why. Why did this boy, an apparently clever, thoughtful lad feel driven to murder his neighbours? A boy that, on his first day of employment working for the landowner on a shooting party, scared a stag off to save such a magnificent animal from being slain. What drives a person like that to kill someone? Not just kill them, but full blown smush them to a pulp?

It's an intriguing little book- sort of a literary found footage. It's unexpectedly humorous in parts, with an oddly compelling narrator in the softly spoken, literary Roderick. It reminded me in parts of Hannah Kent's Burial Rites, in that it is a memoir written with the noose around the neck. The difference was, that narrator was innocent. It reminded me most of Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood; the idea that multiple versions of a person exist to different people perceiving them. The idea that guilt and innocence are slippery ideas, that if a person is devious enough, clever enough, if they believe their story enough they can dupe almost anyone. The innocent party becomes a character to be played, even to  themselves.

In His Bloody Project, the reader is left to make up their own mind about the accused, but they are heavily influenced by his own, lengthy account. We end up sharing Macrae's own perception of himself, whether that is what his peers see or not. We see his background, his treatment at home. We see how his beloved sister is gradually dimmed by toil, abused and then extinguished. We see his aspirations, his unlucky sequence of events. His acceptance of them. His arrival at the only conclusion; a win-win- he is freeing his father from both the burden of his torment, and the burden of his useless son.

It's an enjoyable book that paints a picture of the bleak inevitability of life in the Scottish islands- a simple, ancient life made unbearable by the arrival of power and tyranny. It's unusual in its format, and some readers might be put off by the verbose prose of Macrae's account of his life. I've just realized the author shares a name with his protagonist. *so dense*. I'd definitely recommend this to people who enjoyed Alias Grace, and to readers of crime generally. It's certainly a new and compelling twist on a very, very familiar genre. It must be hard to write a really original crime novel, but GMB has managed well. Memorable.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

Broadway Book Club Discussion of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr,

Everyone in attendance had enjoyed the book; we talked about the readable, engaging prose style, the interesting central characters and the fact that Occupied France and the campaigns on the Eastern Front as World War II narratives that seem to be less common.

Most people agreed that the interweaving of the two plots  was well managed and each strand was equally interesting, but that the jumping backwards and forwards in time and location added nothing to the book. We thought that a chronological narrative would have been easier to follow and would have told the story just as competently. We could never remember if Werner was in the basement of the hotel, in the Orphanage, on the Eastern Front, back in the basement again or at Nazi school because it seemed to change too often and didn’t feel particularly consistent.

We talked at great length about how well the author portrayed the gradual rise to power of the Nazis and how sympathetically Werner and Frederick (poor, poor Frederick- he confirmed what happens to people that don’t fit the fascist mould)  were depicted despite technically being Nazis. How Germany was ruined after the First World War, its citizens struggling to survive- then jobs began to emerge and prosperity gradually returns, thanks to these apparent saviours. People are eating meat again, manufacturing is thriving and gradually more opportunities become available…a frenzy of nationalism emerges, where you are either part of the frenzy or an enemy of the state. We really felt for Werner, whose intelligence and ability bring him to the attention of the Party and he is taken away for training at the most horrific soldier school. We talked about how many ordinary Germans there must have been that were either indifferent to the emerging Nazis or quietly opposed to them, but how ineffective and dangerous this opposition must have been- so they just went along with it. It’s frighteningly familiar. One day it’s not defending a neighbour or keeping quiet when a foreign accent is derided. Pretty soon you’ve got full blown fascism and we all know the rest of that story.

We talked a lot about the book’s other characters; we loved the PTSD suffering Etienne, trapped in his house with the badass resistance leader and long-time maid Madame Manec. The impressive, brutal super-German Volkheimer, a legendary, ruthless giant that trained and posted with Werner. Though he seems so unsympathetic, we really felt for the post war Volkheimer who had sank from Nazi notoriety to a solitary, grim anonymous life of a radio installer. We were universally disgusted by the gross gemologist von Rumpel and his disgusting overflowing neck fat and his obsession with the Sea of Flames

We discussed the diamond and all the coincidences that it had encountered since its ejection from the earth- unable to decide if it was a supernatural object or just another reason for people to fight each other through history- another trinket to own. Fate, coincidence and free will are pretty consistent themes throughout the book , exemplified quite well via the mysterious diamond.

It was a really enjoyable book that prompted a lot of discussion about the tragedy of war, good and evil, doing the right thing, virtual and literal entrapment and the generally interesting things about the French Resistance and other lesser known aspects of the Second World War. We seem to know all about the Blitz and Evacuees and D-Day, but it’s easy to forget the hundreds of thousands of other stories that exist of that time.