They were frantic. Dozens of them at least. They'd been packed in the egg, and they came out in a swarm, their bodies unfolding, alien and beautiful.
They were frantic. Dozens of them at least. They'd been packed in the egg, and they came out in a swarm, their bodies unfolding, alien and beautiful. Big and fast, black apricots thundering against the glass. Skittering.
When I was little, I had an illustrated book of poems. I’m sure they were mostly lovely. But the only one I remember went like this:
Don’t care didn’t care, Don’t care was wild. Don’t care stole plum and pear, Like any beggar’s child.
Don’t care was made to care, Don’t care was hung. Don’t care was put in a pot, And boiled till he was done.
Don’t Care was accompanied by an illustration of a freckle-faced little boy, poking his poor little head out of a cauldron over a big, orange fire. It horrified me. It fascinated me. It was so gruesome to me then. If I was bored, I’d open the book, take a peek and snap it shut with a shiver.
The Hatching is my grown-up equivalent of Don’t Care. Horrifying, but just try and look away.
It opens with a group of tourists in a tropical, eerily quiet Peruvian jungle. And a hoard of mandible-clacking, flesh-and-blood-eating spiders...
And these spiders are horribly, horribly organised.
They don't operate alone. They come suddenly from nowhere, totally coordinated, moving like a black river. Then they engulf you. Clack clack clack.
But they're not just in Peru.
China's secretly nuking itself. America’s in meltdown. In Kanpur there's some weird patterns on the seismograph. Even the Outer Hebrides aren’t getting off scot-free. They're everywhere. This is total apocalypse by spiders.
The story skips back and forth across quite a large stock of people and places. It makes the story so fast and moreish. I tore through it.
There’s something properly B-movie about The Hatching. Good old-fashioned monsters that have been lying dormant for a few millennia. But now they're laying eggs in people. Bursting out of live bodies. No one’s safe. I almost didn't want to get attached to any of the characters. Especially when they’re throwing around sentiments like, ‘I promise I’ll be back soon…'
But good luck not getting drawn to these characters. Because this is where the B-movie thing stops.
Forget about shrieking damsels with heaving bosoms and auto-unbuttoning blouses. Here are kick-arse women with guns, test tubes, and the keys to the White House.
There’s America’s first female president, doing all she can to protect the world from carnivorous spiders. The US secretary of defence is a 70-something-year-old woman, and she’s fierce. A female marine heads up her (male) team in the battle against arachnids. Meanwhile, a lead female science professor races against rapidly hatching egg sacs to discover just what the hell these killer spiders are.
There are others, too. Men – not just women – scattered across the world with stories I can't wait to read more about in the rest of the series. (Although I honestly don't know how I'm going to wait for book two, which won't be published until May.)
Basically, if you're after a fun, disturbing, addictive read that'll have you swatting at the slightest tickle on your arm, or jumping at shadowy shapes at the edge of your vision – grab a copy of The Hatching.
Around us, below us, this huge house seemed a monster, holding us in its sharp-toothed mouth. If we moved, whispered, breathed heavily, we'd be swall
Around us, below us, this huge house seemed a monster, holding us in its sharp-toothed mouth. If we moved, whispered, breathed heavily, we'd be swallowed and digested.
Flowers in the Attic is pure escapism – a bit silly but enjoyable nonetheless. Ironically, it also locks you up in a horrible old attic for pretty much the full 400-odd pages. But then, the whole book is one big ironic tale about fear and manipulation.
I missed this series growing up, although it would definitely have been right up my street. It's dark and twisted and quite Tim Burton-esque with all the blonde doll-like children, messed-up mothers, creaky old mansions and a gothic fairytale feel. Adolescent me would have been all over it. I almost certainly missed out on some of its shock-factor by reading it for the first time in my twenties, but even so, I found it fun in a creepy way.
Chris, Cathy, Cory and Carrie are four perfect children with perfect lives, until something happens and they find themselves hidden away in their grandmother's attic, like the dolls they resemble, with no end-date.
They have absolutely no contact with the outside world apart from what they see on telly or read in books. So the children create their own world with their own norms. There's a real conflict in this strange limbo between what they remember as right and wrong from before the attic, what their grandmother tells them, and what their new environment and changing bodies do to their values and roles as children. Chris and Cathy are changing rapidly as they reach puberty. Meanwhile the young twins Cory and Carrie are stunted by lack of light, food and stimulation.
Flowers in the Attic feels rather allegorical in a Victorian kind of way. It's a clever story that's satisfying and loops back round on itself nicely, which is great for the first book in a series. I haven't read the rest of the Dollanganger series yet – although I probably will get round to it at some point – but I do like it when books in a series feel complete as a standalone piece.
It's full of taboo, sexual tension and symbolism. It's claustrophobic. It's dark. It's titillating and all kinds of wrong.
It's definitely best read with your inner-teenager unleashed; hidden under the duvet with a torch, way past bedtime.
I picked up The Vegetarian without really knowing anything about it. My friend recommended it: she said it was
‘Why, is it such a bad thing to die?’
I picked up The Vegetarian without really knowing anything about it. My friend recommended it: she said it was dark, so I was sold. I didn’t even read the blurb, which was easy to miss because it’s hidden inside the cover. The quotes on the back call it ‘surreal’ and ‘sensual’ and ‘taboo’. They were all the words I needed.
(I’m glad I did avoid the blurb, by the way. I’ve since discovered it, and it’s quite spoiler-y. So if you’re going to give this book a go: avoid the description, if you can!)
Reading The Vegetarian without knowing anything about it first is like looking at a painting without being aware of its context. I’ve never read any South Korean literature before, so don’t know much about their society. Apparently it’s a commentary on Korean culture, but I’m not sure that’s true. And even if it is, I don’t think it matters if you don’t pick up on that. I imagine it’s one of those books that has an intent, but if you miss it, you’ll enjoy finding your own meaning.
I certainly didn’t read it as a social commentary. For me, it was a really twisted fairytale for grown-ups.
It all starts with Yeong-hye – a very plain, very normal South Korean housewife, with a very mundane marriage – having a dream. A pretty graphic dream. The next morning, her husband walks into the kitchen to find her emptying the fridge of all the meat in the house. She won’t be eating it anymore.
I was nicely surprised that the book doesn’t take a moral view on diet at all.
The book is split into three parts. Each is from the perspective of someone close to Yeong-hye: her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister, who are all affected by Yeong-hye’s decision.
They each take a real interest in her new diet. They aren’t happy about it, for various reasons, and they’ll do literally anything to force her back into eating meat. As the voice of the novel changes, so does the pace – which is refreshing in a book where nothing much happens. It follows the ebb and flow of Yeong-hye’s transformation.
Mental illness, deviance, control of the self and control of others are at the heart of The Vegetarian. Yeong-hye bears the brunt of them all, and it’s significant that she’s the only character who doesn’t have a voice: everyone has an opinion about Yeong-hye and what she should be doing, but no one listens to her. The only time we hear from Yeong-hye is in the peculiar snatches of her dreams.
The Vegetarian is truly unlike anything I’ve read before. It’s like poetry. And it made me ask some difficult questions I still don’t know the answer to, especially about free-will and when (or if) we should intervene in others’ choices.
In the same breath, it’s bloody, grotesque, dreamy, erotic, violent and heart-breaking.
My Name is Leon is the story of a little boy growing up in 1980s Britain with a white mum, and a black (now absent) dad. His mum, Carol, has just giveMy Name is Leon is the story of a little boy growing up in 1980s Britain with a white mum, and a black (now absent) dad. His mum, Carol, has just given birth to a new, white baby boy called Jake, who Leon thinks looks like a doll.
The blurb says something similar, and I’d been expecting a story much more racially fraught than it is. But it’s very subtle. The book’s through Leon’s nine-year-old eyes, so the ’80s politics – not just racism, but the IRA, hunger strikes, riots, police brutality and Royal weddings, too – is in the periphery. It’s a backdrop to Leon’s real struggles. His little world has bigger problems.
Yes – problems settling into a new foster home when his mum can no longer cope. But also where all his Action Men are.
One of the great things about My Name is Leon is that Kit de Waal tells the story through Leon without being gimmicky. The book’s in third person, which helps a lot. (At first, I found Emma Donaghue’s Room difficult because of the cutesy kid lingo.) I had to check though. It’s so authentically child-like that I hadn’t really registered what voice it was in as I was reading.
So, we’re totally immersed in Leon’s world, yet able to observe and understand what’s going on as adults. This is both brilliantly funny and, sometimes, desperately sad. Leon’s innocent view of the world is so charming. And the way he sees the adults who enter his life and the things they do is wonderful. He’s so observant and brutally honest in what he thinks of all these busy-body grown-ups – they smell weird, or have funny hair, or wobbly tummies, and none are as beautiful as his mum.
Sylvia is turning pages and paying no attention and this goes on for ages, taking the photographs out and reading the address on the back and talking about where they were taken and where they lived and who is thin and who is fat and who is still alive and who is dead and who was handsome and who’s got no teeth now.
The book’s full of passages like this that drop you straight back into your own childhood memories. (Going through envelopes upon envelopes of fuzzy holiday snaps is a particularly distinct and painful one, for me – so I really felt for Leon on this one…)
My Name is Leon is a compassionate and tender story that’s full of hope. And yes, you might have a few sniffles as you tag along with Leon, but I reckon you’ll find a lot of chuckles to be had, too.
If you like books with an unusual narrator (like Room, Elizabeth is Missing, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), you might want to get your hands on a copy.
(And a big thank you to Brum Radio Book Show who sent me mine!)