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!)
‘I been worried something rotten for you, Elka. This world ain’t no place for a kid like you on your own. There are worse things than wolves in the d
‘I been worried something rotten for you, Elka. This world ain’t no place for a kid like you on your own. There are worse things than wolves in the dark. Worse things than me.’
If you like your post-apocalyptic thrillers served bloody, you’ll devour this.
Raised in a cabin in the woods by a man she calls Trapper (and sometimes Daddy, to herself), Elka has been deprived of love and kindness her whole life, but she knows how to survive. Which is pretty useful when, after ten years, you realise he’s a bloodthirsty killer, and now he’s chasing you through a post-apocalyptic wilderness.
Elka is one of the best protagonists and narrators I’ve read. The story’s all in her coarse British Columbian dialect, so you kind of forget you’re reading. Instead, it feels like sitting by a campfire listening to a wild, illiterate hermit with a gritty tale to tell.
Humans have been doing what humans do, and destroyed the planet by dropping bombs everywhere. In one big event everyone calls the Big Stupid (or the Fall, or the Reformation, or even the Rapture if you’re from down south), maps are now obsolete, and there’s no modern technology. It’s back to a primitive world with a shaky bureaucracy, public hangings and a survival-of-the-fittest mentality. Killer storms appear just like that, forests grow faster than they should, and chemicals seep out of buried bombs, causing invisible dangers everywhere.
Nothing really seems to be on Elka’s side.
There’s some really stunning writing in here. And it’s incredibly physical. Because Elka has grown up outside of a normal community, she has a rather animal way of engaging with the world. She’s guided by her gut (sometimes literally – that girl loves jerky!) and an urge to survive, rather than a strong moral compass. This all translates into some blunt and brilliant descriptions along the way – graphic, but never self-indulgent – and some difficult situations as Elka grapples with her survival instinct versus her suppressed humanity.
Seriously, it’s hardcore gruesome. In the first paragraph there’s a scalped child, for crying out loud. (Or rather, a de-childed scalp…) And it continues in the same vein. Gore and guts and bodies steaming in the snow.
It’s a thrilling read: a seriously good cat-and-mouse story with an epic setting and some really messed-up stuff.
On the journey, expect to question things like family, belonging, and what it means to be human, good or evil.
Read the first chapter (it’s here). If you like that, you can probably stomach the rest, and you should buy it when it comes out 30th June.
You should beware of motherless children. They will eat you alive. You will never be loved by anyone the way that you will be loved by a motherless c
You should beware of motherless children. They will eat you alive. You will never be loved by anyone the way that you will be loved by a motherless child.
This novel is bloody amazing. My socks have been well and truly knocked off. No, not knocked off. Blasted off. Look, there they are – on the other side of the room. On fire.
I don’t really know how to put what I thought of it into words. But I’ll try, seeing as I’m writing a review…
The Girl Who Was Saturday Night is the glitzy, grungy story of motherless twins Nouschka and Nicolas, growing up in separatist Québec. (Their teenaged mum left them at birth with their grandfather, who raised them.) Their father is Étienne – famous in Québec for being a bit of a desperado, singing weird folk songs and getting chucked in prison all the time.
Nouschka and Nicolas have grown up in the dark outskirts of his spotlight; little more than adorable props to enhance his persona, brought out as and when he needs them. Forgotten about when he doesn’t. For the twins, Étienne is more of a constant in Québécois tabloids and talk-shows than in their lives, where he flits in and out like a recurring character.
Now the twins are 19, wild and inseparable. They’ve grown up without boundaries, parents or role models, with only each other to love. They still share a bed and sleep naked together, like children. And they remain stupidly tangled up in each others lives. It’s a suffocating, toxic relationship. Nicolas is destructive. Like Midas in reverse, everything he touches turns to crap. (Nouschka is barely any better.) But they also have something indescribably tender. (This untangling from each other all ties in cleverly with the landscape of separatist Québec.)
It’s Noushka who tells the story and I’m so in love with her. She’s naive and child-like, vulnerable and crude. Her relationship with Misha and their seedy – yet incredibly loving – meetings are some of my favourite parts of the novel. Their relationship is so wonderfully odd. A weird blurring of sex and mothering. (Misha is a man, by the way.) The way they talk to each other is just beautiful, and Nouschka’s fantasies are so fantastically odd.
‘We’ll have a little baby. A little Russian baby. He’ll be very good at gymnastics, he’ll wear his hair long over one eye and he’ll wear track suits with gold chains. I would put honey on his pacifier. We’ll name him Igor. It won’t matter if everyone in his class hates him, because then he will come home and I’ll kiss his little tears on his cheeks and heat him up some borscht.’
There are a lot of similarities between this book and Angela Carter’s Wise Children. The fascination with twins. Theatre. Absent fathers. Women. Sex. Taboos. Cats.
There are cats everywhere. Feral and indecent like the twins. They just seem to slink into a scene, observe, and slink out again. It’s perhaps because of my association with Wise Children that makes me think of the cats as metaphors for female sexuality. I don’t really know what they symbolise (perhaps I should re-read it already and figure it out), but isn’t this simile just perfect?:
A white cat with beige spots that I’d never seen before tiptoed off the bed and down the hallway like a naked girl heading to the bathroom after she’s had sex in an unfamiliar apartment.
Sometimes when I read, I write down passages that stop me in my tracks. I didn’t do that with The Girl Who Was Saturday Night because if I had, I would have transcribed the entire book. It’s like the triple-chocolate fudge cake of the book world. So rich, so decadent. I just want to shove the whole thing in my face. And rub it on my body. And roll around in it. Naked.