Shelley is making a new start, away from her old life where everyone knew the terrible thing that happened to her family. New school, new friends; she...moreShelley is making a new start, away from her old life where everyone knew the terrible thing that happened to her family. New school, new friends; she's drawing a line between then and now.
But life doesn't work like that. Nobody - not her old friends or her new ones - seems happy about her developing friendship with one of the local footy stars. Between hormones and memories, she can barely look at her best friend Josh any more, and anyway, he seems more interested in Shelley's new worst enemy. Her new friend Tara is an enigma to say the least, and her father...well, they can't speak for the elephant in the room.
Told in a beautiful, elegiac voice that reminded me of both Kirsty Eagar's Raw Blue and Pip Harry's I'll Tell You Mine, The Whole of My World gradually strips off the layers surrounding Shelley's secret until she realises she can't hide any more. She has to face the past in order to move on.
This is a moving coming-of-age novel, and I'm looking forward to seeing what Nicole Hayes comes up with next.(less)
I've been gobbling up Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache books over the past couple of weeks, and have been impressed with the growing complexity and th...moreI've been gobbling up Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache books over the past couple of weeks, and have been impressed with the growing complexity and the way each book builds on the previous one.
If this is your introduction to the series, please put it away and read one of the others first. Ideally start with Still Life, but at the very least, read The Brutal Telling, the plot of which plays a pivotal role in Bury Your Dead.
At the beginning of Bury Your Dead, Gamache has taken refuge with his old mentor in Quebec City. He is recovering from a terrible experience, the horror of which is revealed gradually as the book unfolds.
Although he's trying to escape his role as Chief Inspector of Homicide, Gamache is inevitably drawn into another mystery, this time involving the English-speaking community and a plot possibly stretching back to the very founding of the city. At the same time, Penny does something I've never seen in another crime novel and has Gamache's sidekick, Jean Guy Beauvoir, reinvestigate the mystery from the previous book.
The mysteries unfold simultaneously, all quite slight as individual plots, but Penny draws out the similarities and parallels with apparent ease. The book is slow to start, and at first I thought that finally I might be reading a Gamache novel that I didn't like. That changed about a third of the way in, when the various voices and plotlines came together, weaving a kind of symphony of sadness, acknowledgement, horror and grieving.
The ending is, appropriately, left to Gamache and the culmination of the recent tragedy, and I am not ashamed to say that I put the book down and burst into tears.
In another author's hands, the fiery, gorgeous Beauvoir would be the main character and Gamache would be a humorous sidekick. Or else the novels would be relegated to the cosy crime genre, where nothing truly bad ever happens (or if it does it is glossed over). But Louise Penny's characters, particularly Gamache, know how terrible the world can be; the magic is that Gamache takes the hits, but never lets them destroy his humanity. That is what makes these books so engrossing and moving, at least for me.(less)
Beams Falling is PM Newton's follow-up to the excellent The Old School, in which Detective Nhu (Ned) Kelly took on corruption within the police force...moreBeams Falling is PM Newton's follow-up to the excellent The Old School, in which Detective Nhu (Ned) Kelly took on corruption within the police force and came perilously close to the truth about her parents' murders into the bargain.
The sequel starts with Ned fighting to return to work - and to find out who was responsible for her parents' deaths. When she's shunted out to Cabramatta as a token Asian officer just before the apparently senseless murder of a young boy, she again becomes embroiled in corruption and the complications of duty, with problems this time coming (mostly) from the other side of the police tape.
The book paints a vivid picture of Cabramatta in the early nineties, almost a failed state in which many members of the police force seem comfortable letting the various gangs and dealers duke it out among themselves, regardless of how many innocents get in the way. Newton's descriptions of some of the awful situations characters have faced, since before they even arrived in Australia, offer a counterpoint to this view - not to mention a reminder of the plight of refugees attempting to gain access to Australia today.
There's also what feels like a very realistic portrayal of PTSD and the ways those affected deal with it. In fact, the entire book could be viewed as an examination of how characters from all walks of life deal with the bad hands they are given: some of them retain their integrity, such as it is; most don't, and who are we to judge them for this?
I loved The Old School, and recommend reading it first if you haven't already, but to me Beams Falling is a grittier, more mature book, deeper on several levels than its predecessor. Highly recommended, and I'm looking forward to more from Nhu and PM Newton.(less)
I didn't love all these stories, but I really liked most of them, and fell head over heels for several. Ray Bradbury's combination of love, loss, year...moreI didn't love all these stories, but I really liked most of them, and fell head over heels for several. Ray Bradbury's combination of love, loss, yearning and compassion speaks to my heart.(less)
Pressia is a Wretch, left outside the Dome when the detonations hit, and any day now she's going to be taken by the OSR, a kind of guerilla army that...morePressia is a Wretch, left outside the Dome when the detonations hit, and any day now she's going to be taken by the OSR, a kind of guerilla army that terrorises those who live in the wreckage of the new world. Partridge is a Pure, pampered, privileged and thoughtless, safe in the Dome...until the day he discovers that his mother, a martyr whom he believed had died in the detonations, may still be alive out there.
I liked this a lot, particluarly the hushed, haunting atmosphere Baggott creates, and her multi-faceted characters. The book starts slowly, but I was interested enough in the world and the characters to trust the writing, and was well rewarded for my patience. By the last quarter, I couldn't read fast enough, and only wanted more when the book ended.
It is so good to find an excellent YA dystopia that doesn't rely on first person narration to draw the reader in. That said, I was a little concerned when I realised how many characters' heads we seemed to be jumping through (although mainly the narrative confines itself to three characters) - but I shouldn't have been. Baggott uses the technique to great effect, particularly towards the end. I'm looking forward to reading the next book.(less)
Joe Spork is a clockwork-repairer, taking after his boring grandfather rather than his crime-boss dad and he's very happy with that, thank you.
Edie Ba...moreJoe Spork is a clockwork-repairer, taking after his boring grandfather rather than his crime-boss dad and he's very happy with that, thank you.
Edie Banister is an ex-spy with a romantic past, a sworn enemy, and a ticking bomb that could destroy the world - if her arch-enemy doesn't get to it first. When she embroils Joe in her plot, all hell breaks loose.
This is a hugely entertaining, riveting, playful masterpiece. I loved The Gone-Away World, but if I had a complaint about it, it was that I felt it lacked a bit of heart. Angelmaker is all heart, and I completely adored it. Like many heroes, Joe Spork suffers somewhat from blank canvas syndrome, but he well and truly fills out his character by the end of the novel. Edie is a wonderful character, furious at the limitations imposed on her by old age, but still brilliantly resourceful. There's a master villain, a female sidekick who absolutely refuses to be a sidekick, and a character who feels very much like a tribute to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy's Connie Sachs.
The book has over five hundred pages, and I'd happily have kept going for another five hundred. Harkaway has a poet's relish for language, and for me, he has well and truly fulfilled the promise of The Gone-Away World. I can't wait to see what he writes next.(less)
I don't think I've ever clutched a book quite so tightly while finishing it as I did with this one. It was partly awareness of the impending parting -...moreI don't think I've ever clutched a book quite so tightly while finishing it as I did with this one. It was partly awareness of the impending parting - I was about to finish the Karla trilogy and would have to let go of this world - but mainly it was pure tension, built up gradually over three novels and ratcheted up to maximum in this last one.
For me, this book - all three of them, actually - works because it hurts. Everyone sacrifices something, often part of their moral fibre, in order to get what they want. Smiley's People is a novel of quiet tragedy that reads almost like a straight-up disavowal of the glitzy Bond-esque spy drama. I didn't want it to end, but the ending, when it came, was everything it could have been and nothing more.
In terms of the writing, the author's spare yet evocative prose reads like a masterclass. And now I'm approaching hagiography (if you can do that about an author who is still living and writing, which I don't think you can), so I'll stop. Just...this is a virtuoso end to the trilogy.(less)
A kindly local councillor dies, leaving an unexpectedly large hole in the fabric of a community. The subsequent election to fill the titular casual va...moreA kindly local councillor dies, leaving an unexpectedly large hole in the fabric of a community. The subsequent election to fill the titular casual vacancy reveals the hypocrisies and problems that abound at all levels of the small-town society created by Rowling.
The Casual Vacancy starts as it means to go on: with a broad, careful narrative that takes in the preoccupations of a frustrated, dispossessed teenager and her junkie mother, an upwardly mobile grandmother with a pussycat smile concealing a world of anger, and everyone in between.
Rowling sets up her world (built with at least as much intricacy as that of the Harry Potter books) slowly, meaning that the story takes some time to get going, but once it does, the narrative unfolds with the rapidity of a tumbling house of cards. Characters bounce off each other like fairground dodgems, each intent on their own needs, and the tension simmers and builds, occasionally exploding into showstopping scenes that are as hilarious as they are horrifying.
Although he dies in chapter one, Barry Fairbrother remains at the heart of the story throughout. His absence is felt by all of the characters with varying degrees of grief (or schadenfreude), and his struggle to save The Fields and its inhabitants from the vagaries of local politics, as embodied by his kindness to Krystal Weedon, is the focal point of the story. With understated fury, The Casual Vacancy pits social deprivation against middle class self-satisfaction and hypocrisy in such a way that nobody, whether dispossessed or privileged, emerges unscathed. There are no easy answers, nor should there be.
From a technical point of view, Rowling's writing here is a step up from the Harry Potter books (I am less sure about the pacing, but by halfway through I was enjoying myself so much that pacing didn't really matter to me). Where she really shines, for me, is in her satirical eye for detail - this was in evidence to some extent in the Harry Potter books, for example in her portrayals of public figures such as Cornelius Fudge and the Muggle prime minister, but it comes into its own in this book. Rowling has a knack of picking telling details that instantly puncture the façade that each character presents to the world (and to the reader), whether she's describing a desperate wife's over-tanned cleavage, the sordid behaviour of an over-confident teenager or the abdication of responsibility by any number of characters.
JK Rowling isn't writing Harry Potter any more, but I am very glad she has written The Casual Vacancy, and I look forward to whatever she comes out with next.
Random thought for the day: if Mike Leigh were to update Winifred Holtby's South Riding, the result might be something like The Casual Vacancy.(less)
A reread, and just as satisfying (possibly more) as the first time through. I suspect my favourite genre of book may be "quietly heartbreaking", and t...moreA reread, and just as satisfying (possibly more) as the first time through. I suspect my favourite genre of book may be "quietly heartbreaking", and this book is an embodiment of that phrase.(less)
I see this is a novel that divides readers. For myself, I loved it from about ten pages in, and that didn't change until I put it down in tears.
I've r...moreI see this is a novel that divides readers. For myself, I loved it from about ten pages in, and that didn't change until I put it down in tears.
I've read a few Arthurian fantasies before, as well as various historical novels about the equivalent period, but this is the first that has really gripped me emotionally and intellectually to such an extent. I've spent the past few days engrossed in Sulien's world, and I want to dive straight into the next book (but I won't!) and continue my immersion.
Sulien ap Gwien is trained as a warrior, but unarmed when ambushed and raped in the opening pages of the novel. (For me, this is the most triggery part of the novel, and it was done with enough sensitivity that I managed to keep reading, without feeling that Sulien's experience was glossed over.) This experience colours, but does not overwhelm, the rest of the book, as Sulien rides to seek the support of King Urdo, soon to become the High King of the island.
Walton deftly flexes the Arthurian legend to fit a world in which women, too, are warriors, but in which they are also still women: they can bear children (or not); they can be raped, but this is not seen as an inevitable fact, as it (necessarily) is in many historical novels of the period. There are politics and sexual politics. The presence of many other interesting female characters with agency in the novel means that the evil character of the king's half-sister, sorceress and mother of Mordeth, is not quite so glaring.
Sulien is the perfect fit for Lancelot, Arthur's "parfit knight", and the gender change does fascinating things to the dynamics of the story. No longer is Lancelot a remote, near-asexual knight who gazes uncomprehendingly upon the hapless Elaine, but a living, breathing woman with hopes and fears for herself and her family, who also happens to love fighting and be Urdo's/Arthur's most loyal knight.
I'm going to be thinking about this one for a while. Highly recommended!(less)
I wrote this non-spoilery review a while ago for Meet at the Gate, website of the excellent Canongate Books. I'm reposting it (finally) in case anyone...moreI wrote this non-spoilery review a while ago for Meet at the Gate, website of the excellent Canongate Books. I'm reposting it (finally) in case anyone still needs persuading to read this book, which is one of my all-time favourites.
The Book Thief is set in Molching, a small town in Nazi Germany that is far enough from Munich to avoid political significance, but close enough to Dachau that Jewish prisoners are occasionally marched through there. It's a town full of ordinary people who are struggling to survive a war - like the mayor's wife, who might almost seem to have given up on life...except for one small act of rebellion. Like Rosa Hubermann, who insults everyone impartially but loves warmly. Like Rudy Steiner, a boy trapped in a world he can make little sense of. Like Hans Hubermann, impoverished house-painter and accordionist, caught out by an old promise and his own sense of honour. And at their heart is Liesel: fierce, passionate, a lover of words and stealer of books.
When we first meet Liesel, she is nine and reeling from the loss of her family. Delivered to the fostering authorities, Liesel is thrown into a new life which, while poverty-stricken and plagued by Hitler's apparently arbitrary edicts, is a step up from her old one. At a funeral she steals a book, which turns out to be a handbook for gravediggers. It is the beginning of a journey in which Liesel, and eventually many other characters, find power through the written word while the world collapses around them.
Given the setting, it is perhaps appropriate that the narrator of The Book Thief is Death. Zusak isn't the first writer to make use of Death as a character, but he puts this narrative twist to excellent use here. To Death, humans are objects of curiosity, to be viewed (but not always kept) at a distance. Because Death is in turn relating Liesel's tale, it's hard to know from whom the descriptions originate, but they are always memorable: Rudy has hair the colour of lemons; Hans has eyes made of silver and kindness; Rosa is wardrobe-shaped. Words have power: they literally tap people on the shoulder, or even slap them across the face.
This is a story about death and about Death. But it is also a love letter to the human spirit: to the individual heroism that makes us human in the face of mindless mob brutality.(less)