**spoiler alert** This is one of my problems with YA: in a lot of YA books, the characters behave like adults. They are more emotionally mature than m**spoiler alert** This is one of my problems with YA: in a lot of YA books, the characters behave like adults. They are more emotionally mature than most people in their late 20s, and often they are not only vastly intelligent, but also have a kind of world-weary wisdom and cynicism that only really develops with age. This usually really puts me off because I find it so unrealistic, and yet the books in which characters act like this seem to be the ones that become the most popular and garner the most praise. Belzhar is a book in which teenagers do the opposite - behave like teenagers and display the maturity and intelligence levels of teenagers - and that seems to have a lot to do with many readers' dislike of it.
One of the main criticisms I've seen levelled at this book is that the main character, Jam (this is short for Jamaica... yeah, I have no idea either) spends a year pining for a boy she had a very short relationship with; and also that when it is revealed that she was never in fact in a real relationship with him, this drains away the reader's sympathy for her and/or makes her 'trauma' pathetic in comparison to the other characters'. But honestly, I felt that the whole situation was if anything more realistic than the way teenagers are usually portrayed in contemporary YA. Jam is fifteen, and when I was around that age I spent much more than a year obsessed, and I mean obsessed, with a boy who had no interest in me; he'd spoken to me maybe a handful of times and when I say 'spoken', I mean saying hello, not conversations. I actually broke up with a boy who wanted to go out with me because of this crush; I completely believed myself to be in love with him. I would stay up all night crying, wailing; I cut myself numerous times. Now, beneath all this there were clearly other issues - the depression that would manifest properly when I was older, and the fact that I'd been bullied at school for years and hated it there - but much of my focus was on this boy, this boy I loved so much I thought I would die because he didn't care about me. So yes, I can believe in the sustained length of Jam's period of grief, and I can believe in the power of her feelings regardless of the nature of her relationship.
The other main issue is the portrayal of Jam's boyfriend, Reeve, who is allegedly British. I mean, you can tell this character is going to be ridiculous from the name alone - as if any British person would call their kid REEVE (well, I'm sure someone has once or twice and some British Reeve is going to pop up in the comments to discredit me like #NOTALLREEVES, but my point is that this is supposed to be an ~unusual, quintessentially British name and yet to any British person it sounds like a stereotypically American one). He also loves the Monty Python parrot sketch, has apparently never heard 'douchebag' as an insult/says Brits actually know that word for its literal meaning, talks about a football match being 'brill' (I don't think anyone in the UK or anywhere has said that since approx. 1994), claims 'tight' means drunk (OK THEN), and says things like 'it's in the OED - the Oxford English Dictionary'. Because he's just SO BRITISH, YOU SEE?! BRITISH!!!!
Perhaps it's because I knew all this before I started the book, but I just found all these details about Reeve funny. Yes, they're completely ridiculous but they didn't make me mad. There's a part of me that thinks it's so unlikely that Wolitzer - an Ivy League-educated author of literary fiction - would write a British character so terribly, it must be deliberate; that perhaps all these stupid things Reeve says and does are just a part of Jam's fantasy of him, her juvenile, media-constructed idea of what a 'perfect British boyfriend' would be like. But Reeve does say and do some of these things in the 'real' memories too. So idk, maybe the author really does know nothing about British people, or maybe she just thought American teenage girls would think it was cute.
The whole premise is silly. Jam and the others are studying at a school for 'emotionally damaged' children or something, but this is obviously a flimsy setup to get all these 'troubled' characters together: they never get any counselling or therapy and nobody ever seems to do anything to address their problems. Jam gets accepted into an exclusive English class and studies Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar, so that mentions of Plath and the book can be scattered throughout the narrative (the story itself doesn't really relate to The Bell Jar in any way and is more like a junior version of The Secret History. The most relevant Plath reference is from her poem 'Mad Girl's Love Song' and actually, it's so pertinent I could easily believe the whole premise for Belzhar came from that poem). The 'Special Topics in English' students (is this a Marisha Pessl reference?) write in journals given to them by their ~mysterious~ teacher, and find that the act of doing so results in short, intense visions or experiences, in which they seem to return to their life before whatever their trauma was.
The teenagers in the Special Topics class aren't the most wonderfully well-realised characters, but they are believable as teenagers. They're moody, uncooperative and awkward; their discussion of Plath is basic and shallow; but they're fucked-up 15-year-olds, not university students. I feel almost embarrassed admitting it, but I did feel something for Jam, and that developed even though I knew what the twist would be. In fact, I think her story is emotionally powerful precisely because Reeve doesn't exist. In a reversal of most readers' reactions, I felt more sorry and sad for her when I discovered her delusion than when I thought she had a dead boyfriend. (Side note: questionable whether it really is a delusion/psychotic episode or conscious lies, because she certainly seems to be aware she isn't being honest when she tells the others about Reeve's death. If she believes he loved her and is really dead, then why does she hold all of that back from everyone else, apart from passively agreeing with an assumption someone else makes on their own?) The truth, and the depth of her attachment to the lie, illustrates how lonely and desperate she must have been. That's what packed the emotional punch for me.
I think Belzhar has only been praised by critics in relatively 'highbrow' publications because Wolitzer has previously written literary fiction for adults. From a serious critical perspective, of course little of this book is of value, but I struggle to see how it is worse in that regard than most contemporary YA. Isn't it all emotionally manipulative? Isn't that practically its raison d'être? I may be able to remember how obsessive crushes made me feel when I was fifteen, but I can't recreate the mindset effectively enough to allow me to imagine how this book might have made me feel at that age; maybe I would have found it moving and meaningful or maybe I would have scoffed at it, but either way I can't imagine it would have been damaging in any way. (And it would probably have got me interested in reading Sylvia Plath, at least.)
The bottom line is that I couldn't stop wanting to read bits of this until I was done (I read a lot of it on my phone in between other things because I just had to know what happened) and for some reason, I felt a great deal of affection towards it. Maybe it was just that something about all this hit a chord with me specifically? Who knows.
TL;DR: This book is ridiculous, but I really enjoyed it. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ ...more
This felt really pointless to me. As several other reviewers have commented, it seems like a children's book, and the assumption that it is in fact inThis felt really pointless to me. As several other reviewers have commented, it seems like a children's book, and the assumption that it is in fact intended for kids is the only reason my rating isn't one star. A pleasantly sinister set-up about a boy being trapped in a labyrinth beneath a library soon descends into a daft, random story with no satisfying conclusion and no explanation. The illustrations are more artistic touches than images that actually illuminate the story - they look like the artist was given a list of keywords relating to the plot, since they only relate to, and don't actually illustrate, what happens. On the plus side, it's extremely short. ...more
I've read a few of these Kindle shorts, usually designed to act as a cheaper introduction to an existing or forthcoming novel - eg The Rose of Fire (TI've read a few of these Kindle shorts, usually designed to act as a cheaper introduction to an existing or forthcoming novel - eg The Rose of Fire (The Prisoner of Heaven), Clara's Room (Reconstructing Amelia), Eve in Hollywood (Rules of Civility) - but I've usually found them far too slight, sometimes too short to even bother reviewing. This one actually has a bit of substance. It's a short story featuring the characters of Company of Liars, released to coincide with the publication of The Vanishing Witch. The story itself is an episode that could have been drawn from the pages of any one of Maitland's books - richly imagined medieval setting (with plenty of disgusting details), gruesome characters, peril and magic - and while it's not enormously memorable, it's as well-written and compelling in exactly the way I would expect from this author. Mostly I'm just in awe of how prolific she is - The Vanishing Witch came out this year, as did this story, and I already have an advance copy of her next book The Raven's Head, due out in March....more
When I get a new book, I always read the first couple of pages straight away. This is not because I have any intention of actually reading the book in full; it's just a habit (and, on Kindle, I do it to get rid of those 'new' badges that sit next to the titles if I don't). When I received the electronic ARC of Catherine Chanter's debut novel, The Well, I scanned the opening, as I routinely do - but that was all it took for me to be completely and utterly hooked. By that night, I was almost a third of the way through, and I'd finished the book within days.
The titular Well is a house, an idyllic country retreat discovered by Ruth and Mark Ardingly, a harassed fortysomething couple seeking escape from London. So idyllic that you just know the place can't possibly be as perfect as it seems. But we're not in the realm of horror or gothic fiction (and while that initial set-up might seem mundane and domestic, that's where the normality ends). In actual fact there is nothing wrong with The Well - it really is 'paradise' - and that's the problem. While the rest of the country suffers ceaseless drought, The Well flourishes. Rain continues to fall on the house and its land, crops are abundant and livestock thrives. Antipathy towards the Ardinglys starts with the locals - lifelong farmers jealous of the newcomers' effortlessly huge harvest, while their enterprises fail - but the longer the drought lasts, the more notorious they become. They have, as Mark comments, what everyone else wants but can only dream of, and those benefits come at a high price: their ostracised status gradually becomes total isolation.
Eventually, Ruth and Mark let in some visitors: first Ruth's flighty daughter Angie, a former drug addict, with her young son Lucien and a band of hippyish travellers; and second, a small group of nuns. The nuns are the Sisters of the Rose of Jericho - this being a 'resurrection plant' capable of surviving long periods of drought, which comes 'miraculously' back to life when brought into contact with moisture. (It really exists, although apparently the name 'Rose of Jericho' is used for several species with the same attributes.) It isn't really clear where they have come from or how the group formed, but they (quite literally) worship Ruth, and advocate a totally female-focused form of Christianity which she starts to find persuasive; the men, they say, are poisoning the land. Their arrival is the beginning of the end. Mark is frustrated and desperate; he becomes embittered and violent. Ruth is torn between her devotion to Lucien, the son she never had, and her new-found faith, the ecstasy she discovers at worship with the Sisters. And through all of this there is Sister Amelia - calm, ruthlessly dedicated, and incredibly sinister.
What's most intriguing about the story - and here I can loop back to what I found so immediately compelling about the first few pages - is that in the present day, all of this is gone. Not only is Ruth alone, she is returning to The Well from a short stay in prison, and is to be kept under house arrest. It is from the vantage point of this situation that Ruth tells the story of this place, all of it seen through her eyes, and all pieced together around her new life: reacquainting herself with this house that's been both heaven and hell for her, getting to know her three male guards, forming an unlikely friendship with a visiting priest. The Well is Ruth's narrative, a patchwork of memories too painful to forget and those too painful to remember. It is a curious mixture of a story being told, a personal history being recalled, and a reminder being related to a close friend, or even to oneself; that is a person who already knows many of the most important facts. Ruth rations some of the details, and sometimes talks as if the reader or listener will naturally know what she is referring to. This bitty doling out of information can seem frustrating at first, but this is a book in which patience is rewarded, although in some areas - the nature of Ruth and Amelia's relationship, the questions surrounding Mark's behaviour with Lucien - ambiguity persists through to the end.
There's a passage I want to quote because I think it is a perfect example of Ruth's voice, but I can't because my copy is an uncorrected proof. If I remember, I'll come back here and add it after the book is published. This passage is nothing important in terms of the plot - it's just Ruth describing a sunrise - but it just seems like a very exact distillation of everything that makes her distinctive: it's so strange and idiosyncratic, and quite odd and a bit flowery but it just works. That voice, for me, was crucial to the success of the story, and I think it will be something other readers either love or hate. It is the biggest part of what makes the book so incredibly unique, but it probably isn't what many will expect to find behind this particular cover.
The Well slots in well next to a crop of vaguely similar books I've read in the past year or so, books I can't quite fit into any existing sub-genre, though slipstream and transrealism come the closest. They typically have an element of fantasy, and they typically focus on a handful of ordinary lives quietly attempting to carry on in the face of some disaster or significant environmental change, rather than exploring the science of whatever this disaster is, rather than attempting to depict a dystopian society in detail. A thread of this type of everyday realism runs through The Well. The 'magic' of the house and its environs is clearly evident, and we know the media and public are obsessed with it - but we're confined to Ruth's view, cut off from most of this speculation, just trying to hold her family together in much the same way as anyone would in the midst of any emergency. Later, when that falls apart, she is enraptured not by her extraordinary surroundings, but by the love and friendship offered by a group of women. The story bears similarities to a number of other memorable books by female authors, namely Sarah Perry's After Me Comes the Flood (set during a drought, clear religious influences and overtones, an otherworldly feel); Paula Lichtarowicz's The First Book of Calamity Leek (explores the effects of (unorthodox) religious belief, insular living and the damage done by intensely close-knit bonds within an all-female community); and Samantha Harvey's Dear Thief (one woman's personal testament, told in order to unravel the truth, with a marriage at its centre but a friendship as its pivotal, and most destructive, relationship).
The Well is perhaps done a disservice by its thriller-like cover and synopsis (and that bloody inane 'I loved this book!' quote, which I'm hoping to god doesn't end up on the final cover). But then, how could you accurately summarise this book? I've written well over a thousand words and still don't feel I've captured it at all. I'm certain it won't be to everyone's taste - it sits in a weird and wonderful niche between commercial, experimental, literary and fantasy fiction - but I couldn't get enough of it. I'll be keeping an eye out for it (and urging everyone to try it) when it's published in March.
TL;DR - The Well is comparable to lots of other books in various small ways, but ultimately stands on its own as something totally unique. It confounds expectations and is a stunning debut. ...more
I've been interested in Laura Lippman's work for a while, but I'm trying to avoid psychological thrillers at the moment, and as a result of that I'veI've been interested in Laura Lippman's work for a while, but I'm trying to avoid psychological thrillers at the moment, and as a result of that I've put the couple of books I have by her on the 'decided against' shelf for now. When I spotted this standalone short story - a Kindle Single type of thing - on NetGalley, it seemed like the perfect way to sample her style without having to commit to a full book.
While it's set in the US, Five Fires centres on a town with a bonfire tradition*: Belleville, Delaware, a nowhere place most people just drive through on their way to the beach. Every year, before Halloween, there's a bonfire in honour of the Belleville school's football game against their local rivals. The bonfire forms the nucleus of the story - everything revolves around an incident that took place at this event - but it's not one of the five fires of the title. Those happen in the present day of the story, in August, an oppressive, silent month which the teenage narrator, Beth, whiles away her time between a part-time job behind the counter in a deli and nights alone at home while her mother works late shifts.
Beth is a skittish, tricksy narrator whose voice jumps from subject to subject in such a way that it becomes obvious, albeit gradually, that something's not quite right. There is a stream-of-consciousness feel to her narrative which sounds... not exactly younger than she's supposed to be, but just somehow wrong. 'Off' in a way you can't necessarily put your finger on. Especially in her speech:
'Well, the vacant lot is where we have the bonfires in the fall. For pep rallies. And, and, for other things. Langley's is a seafood restaurant. It's owned by the Stone family. Daniel worked as a waiter there, modest as you please. He didn't need to work. But his family has what my mom calls good values. They believe in work. Daniel waited tables there in the summer. They have a really good fried oyster sandwich. My mom and I went there for her birthday once. But it was March, so Daniel wasn't there.'
This is mostly a collection of statements, not sentences that necessarily follow on from one another. In this example, Beth is talking to police officers, but the style is typical of her speech in various scenes and of her narration too. It's really disconcerting, almost quite disturbing, and the insidious creep of this uncanny feeling brought to mind the character of Merricat in Shirley Jackson's We Have Always Lived in the Castle.
This is a very short story, but its handling of suspense is masterful. I read it in one go, and then the next day I read it again, and while it's not quite the same once you know the twist, it stands up really well. The characterisation is strong; the revelations unexpected. Beth is a perfect creation, and the story as a whole retains a wonderful level of tautness throughout. I probably won't read any of the author's books in the near future, but I've certainly been left with a very positive impression of her ability to evoke atmosphere and shape a character.
* Only the next day, when I went to mark it as read on Goodreads, did I realise I'd read a story called Five Fires on Bonfire Night... It wasn't intentional, but it's a nice coincidence....more
I can't remember when and how I first became aware of this book, but I had always assumed - mainly, I suppose, because of the title, and the subjectsI can't remember when and how I first became aware of this book, but I had always assumed - mainly, I suppose, because of the title, and the subjects covered within the book - that it would primarily be about the deep web. In fact, only one chapter is really about that, and the rest of the book is actually about broader categories of online activity and behaviour encapsulated by the subtitle - 'inside the digital underworld'. Topics covered include trolling, political extremism, camsex, online currencies, buying drugs on the internet, child porn, pro-ana sites, and various ideologies and movements arising from either deification of the internet or rejection of it.
In the introduction, Bartlett talks about the 'Assassination Market' service (or rather, experiment) available on the deep web, but then emphasises that this is an extreme example of the 'dark net', a term he expands to include hidden content, pages not indexed by Google, members-only forums and the like. The introduction also positions The Dark Net not as a comprehensive account, but as the product of personal research - although it is also very neutral, to the point of not attempting to condemn any of the many deviant behaviours it describes (harrassment, racism, consumption of child abuse images and so on). Instead it acts as an impartial report of the facts.
Chapter one: Trolling - the history of flaming and trolling from the Arpanet to bulletin boards to Usenet, through to student websites of the late 1990s and Anonymous, 4chan and /b/ today. Chapter two: Extremism and the 'lone wolf', exploring the spread of (almost exclusively right-wing) politics online. Referencing the EDL and Anders Behring Breivik, Bartlett goes on to explore the idea that a) the internet is giving groups like the EDL much more of a platform, but b) it is also creating a large number of isolated individuals who are 'leaders' of this movement online but 'nobody' irl - his recurring subject in this chapter is a 'handsome, polite, attentive' British guy who runs a blog about 'White Pride' and has a following of thousands, but in reality is unemployed and largely friendless. Chapter three: Bitcoin, a short history of internet cryptography and the cypherpunk movement; guest appearance by Julian Assange. Unlike the rest of the book, some of this is quite technical (no, I'm not going to pretend I really understand the 'blockchain'), but it also mentions some of the political beliefs behind cypherpunk and crypto, and culminates with Bartlett visiting a hackers' commune in Spain. Altogether, very interesting (and probably the only subject I hadn't really read anything about prior to reading this book). Chapter four: Child pornography. Touches on the ways in which the internet has facilitated the spread of child porn, compared to its scarcity in the early 1990s (some quite shocking statistics here), and the distinction between real and virtual sex offenders. Bartlett examines child porn using the idea that it's always 'only three clicks away' from legal porn available on the surface web. Chapter five: Buying and selling drugs online. As I previously mentioned, there is only one chapter that really deals with the deep web, and this is it. It looks at the drugs market Silk Road 2.0 (which has just been taken down by the FBI) and similar services. Chapter six: Mainly focused on camgirl websites, but Bartlett's observations on camming also form the basis for a short discussion of online identities and the rise of the 'personal brand' on social media, the linked increase in 'presentation anxiety', various perspectives on online privacy, and the phenomenon of revenge porn. Overall, though, this is probably the least interesting chapter: much of it is focused on the financial side of camming and the hierarchy of 'tipping' from viewers - which doesn't seem like the most interesting angle to take on this subject - and descriptions of the sex itself are so bloodless they actually make it boring. Understandable that the author wouldn't have wanted this chapter to seem salacious, but it ends up being rather dull. Chapter seven: Pro-anorexia websites and those that encourage self-harm and suicide. Discusses the idea of 'behavioural contagion' - the idea of such sites leading to a rise in this behaviour as it's seen as a way to get attention and be part of a community - but also recognises that some sufferers have drawn strength from these communities, and used them as a form of therapy.
In the conclusion, Bartlett contrasts the beliefs of prominent members of two movements - transhumanism (those who predict and aspire towards the merging of human biology and technology - cryogenics, 'uploading' your brain, artificial intelligence overtaking human intelligence, and so on), and anarcho-primitivism (who oppose technology altogether and advocate a return to a type of pre-civilisation collectivism).
I'm surprised The Dark Net isn't more widely read - there's only a handful of reviews on Goodreads - and not just because of the subject matter, but because it's an extremely accessible and compulsively readable book. I've been struggling through another non-fiction book (which is no less accessible) for over a month now, and had been worrying that I was so accustomed to reading non-fiction in bite-sized internet chunks that my mind couldn't cope with a full book of it. The Dark Net dispelled that notion immediately - I read it with the same urgency I apply to compelling novels. That isn't to say it is especially brilliant as an in-depth study of the subjects it covers. There isn't really anything covered here that I haven't already been aware of through various articles and stuff on forums etc, but I still found it incredibly interesting (particularly anything about the history of the internet/its existence prior to my own introduction to it in the late 90s), and it's useful to have all these topics covered in one volume. Really, it's a primer rather than an in-depth academic text: the 'endnotes', containing extended quotes and numerous links and suggestions, take up more than a quarter of the entire book. There's plenty to explore here should you want to look into any one of these topics in greater depth.
I could happily have read a longer version of this book, or one that covered more subjects related to the 'dark side' of the internet - the weirder corners of fandom are conspicuous by their absence. But I think the best way to read The Dark Net is as a series of short essays, with the endnotes to each chapter as a goldmine of references, links, and further reading. If you're looking for a comprehensive, detailed study of these subjects, this is probably not the book for you, but it's fantastic as an introduction, and it also manages to be brilliantly easy to read while not being patronising towards the reader. Recommended. ...more
At the beginning of Beastings, I enjoyed the narrative for all the reasons I expected to: its rawness, the sparse and visceral language, and a cold and bleak and painful evocation of the English landscape, portrayed with greater emphasis on its harshness and wildness than its beauty. For several chapters it's near-impossible to tell what time period the story is taking place in: could be medieval times, could be a post-apocalyptic future. Adding to the folkloric feel, the characters remain nameless.
'The girl', having taken 'the baby' from a family she was working for, is on the run. Fleeing across open ground with few provisions, she relies largely on the shelter and food provided by nature in order to survive - she receives help from a handful of strangers, but she is mute, and so unable (as well as unwilling) to forge a connection with anyone she meets. In pursuit of her are 'the Priest' and 'the Poacher'. The Priest is a corrupt man, without conscience or pity, determined to capture the girl for reasons far beyond her abduction of the child; the Poacher simply hired to help him, with little investment of his own in their mission.
The girl's history is revealed in fragments as she remembers scenes from her life before this escape; more shards of pain than real memories, with barely a scrap of happiness to provide relief. The Priest's story, and his motivation, is made clearer during his terse conversations with the Poacher. None of the characters are spared any discomfort; violence is never far away. There's little punctuation, and speech intermingles with the rest of the text, enhancing the unique presence of the landscape in the story and constantly shifting the reader's focus back to simple instincts and actions. The title, 'beastings', refers to the first milk drawn from a mother's breast, but the word 'beast' and its variations appear frequently throughout the book, and the way the story concentrates on its characters' animalistic behaviour - whether performed out of necessity or by choice - is impossible to ignore.
Is it awful to admit I didn't like this book as much as I could have because I could not have cared less what happened to the girl and the baby? It didn't matter to me whether they were caught by the Poacher and the Priest, or whether they died or what. The girl and the Poacher annoyed me, and that only left the almost comically evil Priest. Scenes ostensibly demonstrating the girl's ingenuity failed to make an impact on me because she never seemed like anything more than a symbol; a foil of purity and good intentions to offset the maliciousness of the Priest. As the story wore on, I found myself hoping the Priest would survive and succeed purely because his presence provided the only spark of real interest among the characters.
I don't intend to discuss certain events towards the end - (view spoiler)[the girl's rape and magical insta-pregnancy (?!) (hide spoiler)] - in any detail. I'll just say I felt they were unccessary and I didn't see what message the author was trying to convey here.
Beastings is well-crafted; admirable in its use of stripped-down language and sharp, minimal dialogue. In several ways it reminded me of Katherine Faw Morris's Young God. The story may be very different, but the narrative is equally bare and muscular, and here again is the tale of a young, abused girl trying to survive on her own. Unlike Young God, this novel has a tragic ending, but it's similarly shocking, abrupt, desolate. 'Like an American Southern Gothic tale set against the violent beauty of Northern England', says the blurb - and it's accurate: but Beastings joins the ranks of books I admired rather than liked.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
1. The characters of Ice cross frozen dreamscapes in pursuit of a nameless, fragile girl who keeps coming apart and being put back together again. Drac1. The characters of Ice cross frozen dreamscapes in pursuit of a nameless, fragile girl who keeps coming apart and being put back together again. Draconian government forces and militaristic laws characterise this bleak, ice-filled world in which nothing is reliable and boundaries are mutable. The fractured and surreal story can be interpreted in any number of ways: a depiction of the inner conflicts involved in love/relationships, a political allegory (the Cold War?), a record of encroaching madness, a metaphor for the author's own heroin addiction. Nothing is real, or everything is. The narrator chases the girl he is obsessed with, an obsession he admits is inexplicable even to him and which focuses on objectification, ownership and control rather than love, with a goal that can never be achieved even when he captures her, but does she exist? Is she alive? Is she composed of fragments of his own character? And the same questions can be asked about his companion/rival/reflection, the charismatic, violent 'warden'. The shifting perspective of the all-seeing narrator moves through dreams, fantasies and flashbacks and constantly, relentlessly impresses the presence of a 'sense of unreality'. Urgent and hallucinatory, abstract to the last, Ice is a brilliant phantasmagoria, with meanings as multi-faceted and elusive as the narrator's quarry.
2. Unreality. '[From] The unreality of the outer world appeared to be an extension of my own disturbed state of mind... [to] My sense of unreality became overwhelming.... [to] All this was real, it was really happening, but with a quality of the unreal; it was reality happening in quite a different way.' Rainbow walls of ice. Slow (or snow) apocalypse. 'The moon's dead eye watching the death of our world.' There are no official sources of information. 'Certain sources of possible information were still available. Hairdressers. Clerks who kept records of transport bookings. Those fringe characters.' No signposts. Characters merging and dividing. 'She was like a part of me... I suddenly had a curious sense of contact with him, almost as though some personal link existed between us... I began to wonder if there were two of us... I seemed to be looking at my own reflexion. Suddenly I was entangled in utmost confusion, not sure which of us was which. We were like halves of one being, joined in some mysterious symbiosis. I fought to retain my identity, but all my efforts failed to keep us apart. I continually found I was not myself, but him.' Dilapidated buildings, everything destroyed. Past, present and future collapsing into each other. 'I had assumed he would remember me, but he appeared not to know who I was.' Nothing is certain. Violence and victimhood. 'Something in her demanded victimization and terror... With one arm I warmed and supported her: the other arm was the executioner's... It was impossible to distinguish between the violent and the victims.' Obsession as an end in itself. 'Between the two of us she was reduced to nothing; her only function might have been to link us together.' Red carnations. 'The edge of the forest was always in sight.' Singing lemurs. Dead planet. Repeated militaristic threat, yet all is easily transcended and escaped. 'It could have been any town, in any country.' Snow obliterating everything. Nihilistic essence. 'The past had vanished and become nothing; the future was the inconceivable nothingness of annihilation.'
'Afterwards [I] did not know what had happened, or if anything had.'
3. There is so much to examine here, but I don't have the time or energy to manage it right now, and the book has been dissected so thoroughly and effectively elsewhere - look at almost all of the top reviews on Goodreads, for a start. Needless to say, I will read this book again. (I don't really know what possessed me to read it at this particular time when I'm working on loads of other things and don't have time to assess it properly; it definitely deserves a deeper evaluation.) Needless to say pt. II, I am fascinated by Kavan: a novelist who radically changed her style and renamed herself after one of her own fictional characters following a suicide attempt and psychiatric treatment, she was a lifelong heroin addict; suffered from depression, and was treated at various clinics throughout her life; a painter and interior designer who bred bulldogs; a traveller who lived at various points in Europe, the US, Burma and New Zealand; and was fascinated by fast cars, which appear as motifs in many of her stories and novels, including Ice.
The foreword by Christopher Priest categorises Ice as slipstream fiction, but it transcends even that. The vast range of interpretations of the novel seen in just a sample of reviews shows how multifarious it really is. Its uniqueness lies in more than just a sense of notional 'otherness'.
I'm learning to be less bothered about hype. I've said over and over again that most of the hyped and praised and 'hotly anticipated' books I've readI'm learning to be less bothered about hype. I've said over and over again that most of the hyped and praised and 'hotly anticipated' books I've read this year have been thoroughly mediocre, and yet only recently has it occurred to me that of course they are: it's mediocre books that sell the most. Hype still gets to me, I easily get caught up in the must-read-this-first excitement, but I no longer expect it to actually mean a truly great book.
Disclaimer is a classic case in point - a much-talked-about debut suspense novel that sparked a bidding war and is already set to be translated into 20+ languages; you know the drill. In alternate chapters, it tells the stories of forty-something film producer Catherine and retired teacher Stephen Brigstocke, starting with Catherine's discovery of a book - apparently left on her bedside table - which, she finds, is about a part of her life she's managed to keep secret for twenty years. Convinced the author's revenge tactic will tear her family apart, Catherine becomes obsessed with finding out who has written it, and why. But what is this oh-so-terrible secret? And how are Catherine and Stephen, who becomes more and more of a sinister figure as the plot progresses, linked?
As happens so often with these novels, the 'secret', when it's revealed, appears at first to be mundane and really pretty ordinary compared to the desperate paranoia and fear that's come before it. But there is a twist, and that was something I hadn't expected (on the whole, this isn't really a twisty book, at least not in that manufactured multiple-cliffhanger way). Unfortunately, (view spoiler)[it involves a rape scene - I really thought I was going to be able to make it through a crime/thriller novel without one, but yet again, no. However, I did feel that the issue was handled very well at the end; Stephen's acceptance of Catherine's story, the comparison Catherine makes between Robert's reaction to the 'affair' then the rape, and her decision thereafter (hide spoiler)].
The biggest fault with Disclaimer is just that it isn't particularly well-written. There are advantages to the plain language (especially the fact that it doesn't go into detail about unnecessary things - no lengthy descriptions of what people had for dinner or dropping of middle-class brand names), but overall it's a bit flat, and the punctuation is awful, although that's something I am assuming (but can't be sure) will be amended in the published version.
However, the story really is extremely compelling. After the halfway mark, it becomes pretty much unputdownable. There is an unexpected elegance to the plot that makes it work it better than many similar books I've read. The character of Stephen, in particular, is realised and developed very well. Catherine remains rather distant, but I suppose this is intentional, to keep the reader guessing about whether she's supposed to be sympathetic or not.
There was something I found curiously nostalgic about this book. I'm not sure if that was because it reminded me of something specific, or because it reminded me generally of a type of book I used to read when I was younger. When I was in my teens I went through a crime phase and read loads of Agatha Christie, then moved on to stuff like Minette Walters and Barbara Vine - this brought memories of those books back to me, even though I can hardly remember any of the titles of those I read. Disclaimer will no doubt be marketed as a psychological thriller, but it doesn't have a lot of the typical characteristics of that genre as it's now understood. It is more of a suspenseful mystery, and if you take away the references to modern technology, the story could just as easily be set 50 or 60 years ago as in the present day.
Does Disclaimer justify its hype? In terms of the audience it's meant to attract, the answer is probably yes. It's gripping, tightly plotted and emotive, the type of story that will have people on the edge of their seats/staying up all night/recommending it to everyone at work, etc. Still, there's something a bit empty and soulless about it, and I doubt it will prove to be very memorable.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I didn't intend to read this book properly; I just wanted to sample a few stories to get a feel for the author's style, in preparation for a blog postI didn't intend to read this book properly; I just wanted to sample a few stories to get a feel for the author's style, in preparation for a blog post about ghost stories I'm in the process of writing. I did, however, end up reading all ten stories, although I skimmed over a few of them a little more quickly than I usually would. The edition I read, one of many available on Kindle (this is a public domain work, which you can download for free at Project Gutenberg) has the provocative and rather daft subtitle '10 extreme ghost stories for hardcore horror fans only'. Despite the fact that this was one of the first things I bought when I got a Kindle, that subtitle actually put me off trying it for a long time - not because I thought I was going to be terrified, but because I expected high melodrama and gore, neither of which are things I particularly value in ghost stories.
As it turns out, however, Blackwood's stories have much in common with other, similar tales from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Some feature descriptions of hauntings that might have been perceived as 'extreme' at the time, but are hardly traumatic by modern standards, while just as many are relatively subtle. My favourites were: 'A Haunted Island' - a man staying on a deserted island finds himself besieged by a terrifying vision in his own home; 'Keeping His Promise' - a student's old schoolfriend reappears in (almost comically) strange circumstances; and 'The Wood of the Dead' - a visitor from the city encounters an old man in a country pub, and learns that the stranger is considered to be a harbinger of death. Another one of the best is 'A Suspicious Gift', which is not about anything supernatural at all, but a neatly duplicitous crime story in which a man's acceptance of an unexpected windfall leads to unfortunate and gruesome consequences.
The most problematic, and least successful, stories are those featuring the recurring character Jim Shorthouse. Why Shorthouse reappears is unclear, as there is little to no continuity in his characterisation; his behaviour, reactions to the strange things he experiences, and even the timeline of his life don't appear to match up across the four stories he features in. This makes it annoying when a story features Shorthouse, because the continuity problems hold it back even if the story itself is good, like 'A Case of Eavesdropping', in which he overhears what seem to be terrifying events in the room next door. 'The Strange Adventures of a Private Secretary in New York', by far the longest and most imaginative story included here, has the potential to be really interesting, but it's blighted by blatant anti-Semitism, and ends so abruptly it feels like the author couldn't be bothered to finish it. 'The Empty House', which opens the book, is quite scary in parts, but it's also exactly the sort of over-the-top melodrama I feared I would find in these stories. 'With Intent to Steal', meanwhile, is rambling and overdramatic in the extreme.
This, though, is an early collection of stories from Blackwood - I believe it was the first thing he ever published - so it's not surprising that it sometimes feels amateurish. Perhaps I should have started with some of his later stories. I've just been looking at Blackwood's Wikipedia page, and some of them sound amazing, eg: 'The House of the Past - A vaguely psychological story expressed in supernatural terms about the relationship between memories, dreams and past lives.' 'A Psychical Invitation - A man's experimentation with drugs opens his mind to an attack by a supernatural force. The tale is based on both Blackwood's own experiments with drugs and his occult learning whilst in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.' 'Ancient Sorceries - A village in a Cathedral town in France, with an above average population of cats, turns out have in its midst a number of dabblers in the dark arts.' So yes, I will probably read more by the author, and I'm glad to have got the measure of his style. This collection was simply too uneven to be anything more than an average read overall.
List/order of stories in the edition I read: 1. The Empty House 2. A Haunted Island 3. A Case of Eavesdropping 4. Keeping His Promise 5. With Intent to Steal 6. The Wood of the Dead 7. Smith: An Episode in a Lodging-House 8. A Suspicious Gift 9. The Strange Adventures of a Private Secretary in New York 10. Skeleton Lake: An Episode in Camp...more
Based on a blog, Discovering Scarfolk is a horror-comedy in which the tale of a man's search for his mFor more information, please reread this poster.
Based on a blog, Discovering Scarfolk is a horror-comedy in which the tale of a man's search for his missing children is supplemented with 'found' evidence from the sinister town of Scarfolk, perpetually stuck in a macabre version of the 1970s with an ultra-draconian, and probably evil, town council. The story - ostensibly assembled by an academic with little prior knowledge of the main character's life - is illustrated with public information posters, product packaging, book covers and newspaper clippings, amongst other ephemera.
It's not surprising to learn that author Richard Littler is a graphic designer; all the illustrations here (many of which are also featured on the blog) are beautifully executed to the very last detail. The story, though, leaves something to be desired. The silliness that made me laugh out loud at the beginning soon overstayed its welcome; the book is too focused on the graphics to allow the plot to develop into anything you'd care about or be scared by. This is reflected in the blog, which started out as just images but now includes a lot more description around them. It's obvious the popularity of the images has forced the creation of a narrative and not the other way around.
Did I find this an entertaining read? Yes - but the hardback and Kindle editions of the book are both quite expensive, and given the paucity of actual content I think it's probably more sensible to simply read the blog....more
Really, I picked this to read because of a recent interest in South Africa, not because I was that interested in the specific story or really wanted tReally, I picked this to read because of a recent interest in South Africa, not because I was that interested in the specific story or really wanted to read a crime novel. I wanted something with a modern, urban setting, I didn't want it to be too difficult or distracting to read; but I also wanted it to be somewhat educational about everyday life, culture and society in an part of the world I'm unfamiliar with, but really interested in learning about. Crime fiction is often the best fit for such requirements, and so it was with this.
I expected the plot to be predictable, but actually, it wasn't; thinking about it, this is probably because - although I tend to lump them together - I've read quite a lot of thrillers but not as much crime. It was a relief to read something that had criminals straightforwardly acting like criminals, and police investigating them, rather than the 'can you really trust your husband/best friend' type of thing that's become the bread and butter of psychological thrillers. That said, I wasn't wholly engaged by everything that happened and sometimes lost the thread of the investigation, and the climatic scene was messy and a bit daft in a way I've often found 'action' stories (films as well) to be: every major character just happens to turn up in the same place at the same time, near-miraculous coincidences abound, there's a confusing shoot-out that's hard to follow, etc.
One thing I thought Mackenzie did really well was her portrayal of the relationship between Jade, the protagonist, and David, her childhood friend/the police superintendent/potential love interest. I can't put my finger on why, exactly, I just feel like it really captured the awkward and tentative back-and-forth of liking someone who probably likes you, but encountering obstacles and not being sure how to make things move forward. Jade's feelings were well-realised as a 'crush' without it ever becoming juvenile. This element also felt very well paced - the author didn't rush into making Jade and David a couple, and the development of their relationship seemed natural and believable.
I wasn't constantly compelled to go back to this and find out what would happen next: I found I could leave it aside for quite a while without feeling much interest in picking it up again. But now I've finished it, I find I'm curious about what's next for Jade, and feel I will probably read at least one of the other books in the series at some point....more
This is the story of Björn, the newest employee of 'the Authority' - an organisation which, as mysterious as it sounds, resembles the sort of very ordinary office found all over the world. Convinced of his own superiority to his co-workers, Björn immediately develops a plan for success, involving 55-minute periods of intense work and as little contact with his colleagues as possible. But it's only when he discovers 'the room', a small, beautifully furnished office which appears to belong to no-one, that his awakening really begins. In the room, he can focus perfectly on his work, become an improved version of himself. The problem is, nobody else believes the room exists.
The Room works on lots of levels:
– It's a satire of office culture in which the characters, and the workplace, are at the same time generic and completely recognisable. (The author bio at the beginning informs the reader that Karlsson has never worked in an office - pretty amazing given the merciless accuracy of his portrayal of this environment.)
– It's a psychological drama - we don't know (at least at first) whether Björn is mad, whether he's consciously pretending, or whether the room really exists and his colleagues are playing a cruel trick on him. His visit to the psychiatrist provides a real stomach-flipping twist.
– If you choose to read it this way, it's a mystery - what does the Authority do? Do its employees even know the answer to that one? If the room does exist, what reason do the other staff have for pretending it doesn't? This conundrum is one that's investigated by Björn himself, and forms part of the breakdown charted in the novel.
– It's a comment on workplace bullying and the way we respond to mental illness. When the staff of the Authority confront Björn, it reads partly as funny - there is an element to this setting, with its lack of detail, that's somehow unnatural, so the reader knows not to take what happens entirely seriously, and some of the details are explicitly comic (Björn shuffling around in his plastic shoe covers). But if you put yourself in his place, it's also horrifying: his fellow workers talking about his 'madness' in insulting terms right in front of him, speaking about him as if he's not there, becoming openly threatening and nasty. Another aspect of this: if Björn's soujourns to the room help him to do his job, make him more productive and a more valuable member of the team, does it matter whether they're real or not? How should the others balance their discomfort about Björn's activities - which, after all, are harmless - against the benefits they gain from allowing him to carry on? Again, this is a question the characters are forced to ask themselves and, by extension, a question the reader is encouraged to face too.
Björn is a brilliant character. He's unreliable on several fronts (lying to the reader and/or lying to himself?), incredibly pedantic, and his personality combines extreme awkwardness with extreme arrogance, producing an effect that's both awful and hilarious. He isn't supposed to be likeable, and other readers will no doubt have mixed reactions to him, but I couldn't help liking him. Maybe I sympathised with Björn because one way to read The Room is as a critique of individualism: his colleagues object to his behaviour not just because of its obvious strangeness, but because Björn acts alone and apart from the group. Is the story, perhaps, a cautionary tale about the dangers of daring to aim too high or 'think outside the box'? (Literally, in Björn's case.)
The Room is the first of Swedish author Karlsson's works to be translated into English. As far as I can tell, it was originally published as part of a volume of short stories, and that shows in the precision of its minimalist style. Which is not to say it's too short to count as a novel in its own right - it has 65 chapters. But each tiny detail is finely honed. Björn's brief, faintly sinister summary of his history - 'I have to admit that I didn't always see eye to eye with my colleagues', he says of his previous job, no doubt significantly downplaying whatever that situation was. His scathing pen portraits of workmates - 'pinned up around his desk... were loads of jokey notes and postcards that obviously had nothing to do with work, and suggested a tendency towards the banal'. The room itself - its neatness, its clean lines, its atmosphere akin to 'early mornings at school... the same relaxed feeling and limited freedom'.
The blurb for The Room describes it as Kafkaesque, a comparison that's often thrown about without having much real relevance to whatever it's attached to. The last book I read, The Spirit Cabinet by Paul Quarrington, came with a quote on the jacket likening it to 'a more expansive Kafka' - I liked the book, but that comparison is frankly ridiculous. In Ch'oe In-ho's Another Man's City, the influence of Kafka is made explicitly obvious - not least through the fact that the protagonist is known only as K - but I found the references too overt. The Room, however, really does deserve to be called Kafkaesque. The subtle surrealism of Björn's situation, the overwhelming and disconcerting power of the Authority and all its bureaucratic regulations, and Björn's persona - halfway between ignorant and knowing, looking for a way out of this labyrinth but going about it in all the wrong ways - all fit the term very well. The Room is more than just a homage, however: Karlsson's style and humour make it a strong story in its own right, quite apart from any influences.
A short, sharp, quick read that's nevertheless full of details ripe for analysis, The Room has the makings of a cult classic, and I'm really looking forward to reading more from Karlsson....more
Subtitled 'Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong', Evil Eye is a compact collection of stories which delivers exactly what it suggests: tales of romantic oSubtitled 'Four Novellas of Love Gone Wrong', Evil Eye is a compact collection of stories which delivers exactly what it suggests: tales of romantic or familial love with a macabre edge. The beginning of the first story reminded me immediately of Angela Carter's superb The Bloody Chamber, prompting me to start reading Evil Eye soon after I bought it (at 99p in one of the Kindle Daily Deals).
'Evil Eye' is a promising gothic tale about a young woman, her much-older new husband (she's his fourth wife), a visit from the husband's ex-wife (the first one), and an evil eye talisman. Unfortunately, it turned out to be, for the most part, incredibly annoying because of the protagonist, Mariana, one of the most passive fictional characters I've ever come across. Her husband, Austin, is portrayed as inattentive, insensitive, and prone to irrational annoyance over small things, but he isn't abusive; Mariana is unhappy with almost every aspect of their relationship, but never vocalises this or, apparently, even dares speak to him, and altogether acts more like his daughter than his wife; one wonders how they can possibly have ended up married in the first place. Naturally, there's a fairytale aspect to the story which partly renders these criticisms invalid, as the characters' traits are exaggerated to fit a template - the obvious influence is the Bluebeard story.
In the second story 'So Near Any Time Always', we meet a sixteen-year-old girl who acts, and by all accounts looks, much younger: she is preyed upon by a young man who seems to be specifically seeking an underage girl, a child, though she, being so naive, fails to see what is obvious to the reader. I found the childish narrator (Lizbeth) and the weird boyfriend (Desmond) near-unbearable at first, but you can't deny they are well-crafted characters. Desmond in particular, with his laughable 'intellectual' posturing, awe-inspiring to Lizbeth and pathetic to anyone else. The atmosphere of the story is extremely effective - the setting is rendered well (I could almost hear the rain), tension builds perfectly, the threat of Desmond's potential actions is palpable, and it all culminates in a great conclusion. 'So Near Any Time Always' feels much more like a complete story than 'Evil Eye'.
'The Execution' takes a very different approach. It's about a boy who plans to kill his parents, and the narrative voice is unique where those in 'Evil Eye' and 'So Near' felt very alike: it's jumpy, jarring and fractured, which better suits Oates' slightly irritating habit of putting every other sentence into a new paragraph. Some of the details of Bart's scheme feel a bit too self-consciously researched (the use of a code acronym based on a film title for the murder plan; the video game and music references) but there is, overall, a good combination of an entertaining, almost amusing, voice and real, visceral horror. (There's also a weird, darkly funny link between the aforementioned acronym and what seems to be Bart's physical condition, a link that, satisfyingly, is never actually referenced in the text.)
Finally, there's 'The Flatbed', a deeply harrowing story about a woman whose sexual phobia is revealed to be a result of abuse suffered in childhood. When her new lover, N., coaxes this secret out of her, he becomes obsessed with the idea of confronting her abuser, who she refers to only as G., and exacting violent revenge. I think this is the shortest story in the collection - although it may be that it seemed briefer because I found some passages so difficult to read that I just skimmed them. On the surface, there isn't much more going on here than the immediate action, but the more I think about it, the more I feel there are many hidden parallels between the two men the woman (whose name isn't made clear as she's referred to by several names in the story) is affected by. It is not, however, a story I would want to revisit in order to examine these parallels.
All the stories in Evil Eye have a dark ending. (view spoiler)[In 'Evil Eye', Mariana is (at least it's implied) driven to violence against Austin, the result of an idea planted in her head by his ex-wife, Ines. 'So Near Any Time Always' ends with Desmond committing suicide, after a period of stalking Lizbeth; she feels responsible for his death, and there's a real sucker-punch of a twist regarding his motivation for pursuing a relationship with her. (I thought this revelation was a bit... Point Horror, but if anything, that made me like the story more.) 'The Execution' is ostensibly reversed - it starts out with the horrifying detail of the murder, and ends quietly; but by that point the reader knows that Bart's fate is, for him, worse than anything he could have imagined. Confirming that it's the most deceptive story of the four, 'The Flatbed' appears to have the happiest ending, but there is a disturbing suggestion that the protagonist's current relationship has simply replaced the one she had with her abuser. Various hints point to the idea that her lover has similar traits, culminating in the final line, in which the woman applies a phrase often repeated throughout her childhood encounters with G. to the situation between her and N. (hide spoiler)]
Even though I disliked the characters, I'd read 'So Near Any Time Always' again for its wonderfully (or horribly) evocative and memorable atmosphere. The others, I was happy to leave behind. There's something to be said for the power of a story - like 'The Flatbed' - that instils you with such dread you struggle to finish reading it, but it can't exactly be described as an enjoyable experience; 'Evil Eye' was a bit of a flop for me, and I would have preferred a more dramatic ending to 'The Execution'.
While it initially reminded me of Carter, other reviewers have compared Evil Eye to Edgar Allan Poe and Daphne du Maurier: all the comparisons are apt, but somehow it ends up lacking something vital, and it doesn't have the perfect balance that makes the stories of these other authors so engaging. Though it sounds like a cop-out to say this, I think the main problem is simply that it's too dark in places and not dark enough in others - it's uneven. There are parts of the book I would give a lower rating, but overall it earns three stars because as a whole it's an interesting little collection, one of those books I imagine it'd be great to study in depth and compare with its influences. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
It's a ghost story. It must be, because it says so on the cover. Or is it? Well, it is, but that prominent subtitle is also deliberately misleading.
The protagonist of Springtime is Frances. A writer and academic in her late twenties, she's recently moved from Melbourne to Sydney with her new partner, Charlie, a much older man with a young son. She is disorientated by her new surroundings: in contrast to the ordered grid system of Melbourne, 'in Sydney the streets ran everywhere like something spilled'. She takes walks with her dog, Rod, whose imposing appearance obscures the fact that he's terrified of other animals. It's on one of these walks that Frances spots, in one of the gardens she frequently passes, a woman in distinctive clothes, and experiences 'a sensation that sometimes overtook her when she was looking at a painting: space was foreshortened, time stilled'.
Before this, there is an early glimpse of ghostly happenings to come when Frances remembers Charlie's mother, who, like hers, was French. She was 'a drunk' who stole from Charlie, but in the present day of the story she is dead: 'that meant Charlie was free of her, Frances believed'. The ominous suggestion inherent in this belief is obvious - it seems naive on Frances's part to assume this, and of course, the ghost story subtitle leads the reader to suspect that the continuing presence of Charlie's mother may well turn out to be literal.
The sightings continue, always when Frances is alone: each time she spots the woman, flitting through the garden with her own dog, her feeling is that 'the morning swayed, as duplicitous as déjà vu'. She can't quite pinpoint the house the garden belongs to - 'it merged with the sun in Frances's mind: it was something else that shifted about and wasn't always where she looked'. However, the story makes these experiences as opaque as the sightings themselves. It moves on, to talk about Frances and Charlie's complicated relationship, the menacing presence of his ex-wife, and Frances's difficulties in dealing with his son, Luke. At home, they receive mysterious phone calls which consist of nothing but a computerised female voice saying only 'goodbye'; Frances suspects they are somehow the ex-wife's work, but can't prove it.
The longest single scene, although it's fractured and scattered throughout the narrative, depicts a dinner party which sharply illustrates the tensions between Frances and Charlie, as well as Frances's feelings of not fitting, being conspicuously out of place. Talk turns to ghosts, and here de Kretser puts her cards on the table with a tongue-in-cheek flourish, as one attendee, a writer, theorises: 'ghost stories work up to a shock, but the modern form of the short story is different. When a loose, open kind of story came in, writing about ghosts went out'.Springtime is both that loose, open kind of story this character mentions, and a story about ghosts that works up to a shock, albeit a dulled one. It's at this point, wishing only to provoke another guest, that Frances is compelled to confess her own experience, and in the process, begins to feel frightened herself for the first time. The 'ghost' only becomes a real threat when it is spoken about, having hitherto only hovered around the edges of a story that is more about the difficulties of ordinary life and relationships.
When the secret of the ghost is revealed, it's benign, even mundane, though not without a twist of something macabre. If there is anything frightening here, it's the everyday things like Frances's uncertainty about Charlie, and their inability to talk to one another clearly about the things that matter; and while his mother doesn't hang around the couple as some sort of apparition, Frances sees echoes of her in Charlie, in the same way that she sees echoes of Charlie's ex-wife in Luke. An epilogue set eight years later shows that things - as we might expect - are much changed for Frances, but links with her old life remain. This underlines the spirit of transience that seems to be the book's major theme - the scene of Frances's sightings of the ghost can't be fixed in her mind, and her trust in Charlie fluctuates, as do her feelings for him, her belief in her work, and her certainty of her own place in the world.
While very short - probably too short, really, to have been published as a novella in its own right (although it seems to be available only as an ebook in the UK) - Springtime presents a beautiful, unexpectedly eerie portrait of believable and nuanced characters. 'What people don't pay attention to changes the story', says Charlie at one point (Frances is concerned he won't understand her research - she is writing about 'objects', small details, in eighteenth-century French portraits). And this is why it's so clever, as well as quite daring, that de Kretser's story is explicitly positioned as a ghost story. The reader is given certain expectations which are bound to colour their experience of the tale, what they do and don't take away from it. Personally, I wouldn't categorise this as a ghost story in the traditional sense, but as a self-contained short story and a character study, it is an excellent piece of work, with layers that demand to be unpicked....more
Sorry to Disturb (2009) was first published with the telling subtitle 'A Memoir' in the London Review of Books. Even without this hint, it's obvious tSorry to Disturb (2009) was first published with the telling subtitle 'A Memoir' in the London Review of Books. Even without this hint, it's obvious that the story is autobiographical - because the protagonist is a writer, and because (I already knew this somehow) Mantel lived in Saudi Arabia and has previously written a novel based on this period of her life (Eight Months on Ghazzah Street). The story centres on a persistent local man who knocks on the narrator's door and tries, in various ways, to insinuate himself into her life. His presence, real or imagined, becomes a symbol of the oppressive atmosphere the narrator feels closing in on her, the sense of always being observed and policed. Parts of the tale are constructed after the fact, with reference to the narrator's diary entries, which she uses to track the interloper's visits to her home. I found myself distracted by the memoir aspect - is this just a true story? But then, how true is any autobiographical story? (Or: how much of a memory, or a diary entry, is fiction?) And there was something that struck me as off about the final line: that use of 'frolicking' seemed to hit the wrong note. I liked the mood and sense of place created here but found the story itself uneven.
Comma (2010) I thought was brilliant, really perfect. Halfway through, one particular line gave me the very strong feeling I had read it before; turns out it was published in the Guardian, so I guess I must have read it back then, and I'm pleased to have rediscovered it. It is a perfect recipe of evocative elements: nostalgia and childhood friendship mixed with real dread and horror. It disarms the reader by pre-empting the notion that the narrator's friend is imaginary - this, despite initial appearances, is not the point of the story. There are lots of delicious details to be picked out of this one, and it feels perfectly formed. My favourite.
The Long QT (2012) was also originally published in the Guardian; before checking the credits, my guess was that it had appeared in a women's magazine. (It feels like one of those very short tales that show up in things like the 'story issue' of Stylist.) A philandering husband is caught red-handed by his wife, with melodramatic consequences, although the ending does make a neat joke of the opening line about how 'his marriage ended, decisively'.
Winter Break (2011) is another very short one, and creepy, almost a ghost story with its young couple in an unfamiliar country, the cool night, the growing sense of unease. Very Daphne du Maurier. However, while it has an unnerving twist, it just doesn't really do anything with that twist and ends flatly.
Harley Street (1993) I really enjoyed. It's not a plot-driven story, just a little character study of a Harley Street administrator, whose nature is quickly established through her judgmental portraits of fellow staff and her oft-repeated 'as I've said...'; her droll narration made me laugh out loud a couple of times. I read a review that criticised this story for being old-fashioned, but I thought that was the point of it (and it is the oldest story here - in terms of original publication date, at least). The narrator is old-fashioned, and prejudiced, and the joke is ultimately on her.
Offences Against the Person (2008) is an inconsequential snippet in which a teenage girl realises her father is having an affair. It didn't do anything for me.
How Shall I Know You? (2000) harks back to the unremittingly drab world of Mantel's 2005 novel Beyond Black. Although the main character here is, once again, a writer, there are many similarities with the lives of the professional psychic and her assistant depicted in Beyond Black - the depressing hotels, the weird, desperate audiences, a restless life on the road with everything always feeling unfinished, even the lurid nightmares the narrator suffers. The story is funny, but reminded me most of the kind of dark and grotesque humour found in TV comedy such as Nighty Night and The League of Gentlemen; it also put me in mind of DBC Pierre's recent Breakfast with the Borgias. While I thought it was well constructed, it reminded me of what I didn't like, or rather found exhausting, about Beyond Black, the relentless, grubby bleakness. There's also an ending that doesn't fit or feel necessary.
The Heart Fails Without Warning (2009) tells of two young sisters, one of whom is anorexic. Beautifully written, it's a series of short vignettes charting Morna's decline over six months: her younger sibling, Lola, is unsympathetic and often rude about her condition, but tiny moments illustrate their sisterly bond (when Lola touches Morna's shoulder blade 'she felt it for hours; she was surprised not to see the indent in her palm'). The ending leaves the question of Morna's fate open. I liked this one, although I did find it oddly difficult to tell the names Morna and Lola apart and kept forgetting which was which, but maybe this was deliberate.
Terminus (2004) opens with a woman glimpsing her dead father on a passing train, but the recurrent imagery of death and disaster ('bomb warnings' pasted up around the station, 'embalmed meals for travellers') is more symbolic than supernatural. I enjoyed the imagery of this, and the suggestions of a more richly imagined world in which this particular scene is taking place, I just wanted more of it.
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: August 6th 1983 was published in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago. I read it then, and although I didn't think it was brilliant, it interested me enough that I wanted to read more of Mantel's stories, despite the fact that I didn't love Beyond Black and have never been interested in the Thomas Cromwell books. Anyway, this story: despite the supposedly controversial subject matter and title, it isn't at all shocking. It's another one that clearly has an autobiographical basis: it is an alternate history, something that could, conceivably, have happened, and this gives the situation and characters the ring of authenticity.
The longer stories in this book I found, on the whole, to be the most successful, but I do tend to struggle with very short stories anyway (I think there's always a little bit of my mind that thinks anyone could write them). I loved the style and found beautiful lines in most, if not all, of the stories, but slightly awkward or ill-fitting endings seemed to be a common theme. As a collection, it's pleasingly varied: several stories that seem to be based on the author's own life, some that very plainly aren't, characters of all ages and professions and positions in society, a mixture of themes from adultery to ghosts. Recommended whether you've read Mantel's novels or not....more
Robert Aickman defined his own work as as 'strange stories', avoiding terms relating to ghosts, horror or the supernatural because his fiction tends tRobert Aickman defined his own work as as 'strange stories', avoiding terms relating to ghosts, horror or the supernatural because his fiction tends to be rooted in reality, with the exact source of the 'strangeness' often remaining ambiguous. They are frequently unnerving but rarely provide the reader with a clear resolution, which only serves to increase the effect.
This collection sets out its stall with the opening story, The Swords, which to me felt like a bit of a test; I can imagine a lot of people not making it past the beginning of it, and if I'd been in a different mood, I might have abandoned the book here myself. In a particularly distinctive, not exactly pleasant narrative voice, we are introduced to the protagonist, a young man (or a man remembering his youth) who promises to relate the story of his 'first experience' - although it seems to take him a while to get around to it, because first he talks about his job as a travelling salesman, and a visit to a circus in a strange, dank town. When he first meets the woman with whom this experience will end up taking place, the circumstances are nothing the reader could possibly have guessed at. 'The Swords' demonstrates Aickman's ability to take a seemingly ordinary scenario, something that might even be boring, and turn it into something unexpectedly bizarre and queasy.
In The Real Road to the Church, Rosa, a woman living alone on an island where she understands little of the local dialect, comes to understand that her house has a certain reputation - it's where the 'changing of the porters' takes place. This phrase means nothing to her until she meets a wandering cleric, who gives her some advice about how to manage the unusual location of her home, and this leads to a very odd confrontation. 'The Real Road to the Church' seems to inspire a whole spectrum of reactions, which perhaps tend to say more about the reader than the story - some find it depressing, others have said it's one of the most hopeful and upbeat of Aickman's stories. I didn't think it was depressing at all, but there is certainly an unsettling air to the tale, and it's true that almost any conclusion could be drawn from the ending.
Niemandswasser is a confusing story, and for me, the least successful in this collection. It's about a haunted piece of 'no man's land' in the middle of a lake - the brother of Elmo, the aristocratic protagonist, is injured there, and it's where Elmo will later meet his own fate. But stuff about the characters' wider family, the properties they own, their neighbours, and Elmo's totally ridiculously melodramatic response to the end of a relationship is all thrown in, too, and the end result was that it seemed a mess and I didn't really care what happened.
Despite the fact that it won the World Fantasy Award in 1975, Pages from a Young Girl's Journal is often derided in reviews of this book. Unlike the others, its events and the source of its evil are not ambiguous; it uses many themes and devices familiar from typical vampire stories and gothic fiction; it has a historical setting, and is written in the form of a diary. It owes something of a debt to Carmilla, and initially, as the narrator and her family arrive at a dilapidated villa to stay with a contessa and her young, disconcertingly intense daughter, I thought it was going to go in the exact same direction. However, it takes turns that are predictable and yet feel entirely new. At the beginning, the girl is so immature and pompous she reads like a sort of female Adrian Mole; I laughed out loud a few times at some of her choices of words, and at the hilarious repetition of 'farcical'. But her voice changes a great deal over the course of the story (though subtly enough that it doesn't seem different in any obvious way from entry to entry), with the end result that the shift in her character and power becomes palpable. An exceptional example of well-worn themes updated and manipulated to fantastic effect - I immediately wanted to read it again.
The Hospice is both very good and extremely disturbing. After the historical setting of 'Pages from a Young Girl's Journal', it also represents an impressive shift in tone, showing the versatility of Aickman's style. And it is a perfect example of the ambiguity of these stories, as nothing is ever really explained and the ending is rather abrupt after such effective building of tension. On the drive home, a man named Maybury finds himself out of petrol and attacked by a 'cat'; seeking refuge for the night, he stumbles across the deeply sinister 'Hospice'. There follows some of the most nightmarish, dread-filled imagery I've come across in any story - one can imagine this being turned into a very powerful film.
The Same Dog has a great deal of promise, but doesn't come to anything much in the end. A man remembers a childhood meeting with a sinister dog, which left him ill and led to the disappearance, and apparent death, of his friend Mary. In adulthood, he returns to the scene of the incident and encounters - you guessed it - the same dog. The most disturbing thing about this, I thought, was the fact that the descriptions of the protagonist and Mary's behaviour as very young children was described in such a sensual way that it almost seemed to imply a sexual relationship between them, or at least a sexual charge even if they didn't understand what this was at the time - another example of the general aura of oddness and uncomfortable suggestions pervading these stories.
Meeting Mr. Millar might not actually be about anything weird; it might just be about very mundane, though probably illegal, goings-on in a London building. It's hard to tell. The narrator, an editor who's having a rather slow-moving affair with a neighbour's wife, certainly seems to have an overactive imagination, but it's never revealed what exactly it is that the peculiar Mr. Millar - the occupant of a downstairs office in the same building - is up to. (Aforementioned neighbour's suggestion of some kind of time travel is the most intriguing and unnerving thing in the story.) Of course, what happens to Millar in the end is horrible by anyone's reckoning.
The Clock Watcher details the life of a man whose wife has an obsession with clocks. At least, it seems like an obsession, though the events that unfold imply that her very existence relies upon them. There are similarities between this and 'The Swords' - the narrator has a similarly, er, 'unique' voice and, if anything, is even more unlikeable, with blatant displays of racism and sexism peppering his story. It's also similar in that the 'strangeness' relates entirely to the woman - the man is left to observe helplessly, ultimately being abandoned. The fact that the wife is German, and the story takes place in the aftermath of WWII, adds an extra dimension of meaning and suggests the whole thing can be seen as an allegory.
My favourite stories by far were 'Pages from a Young Girl's Journal' and 'The Hospice'. Both of them were genuinely excellent, but the others were such a mixed bag, the overall experience was average. There are definitely things I love about Aickman's style, and unlike many reviewers who have had lukewarm reactions to the book, I consider that ever-present ambiguity to be a strength. If his other story collections contain tales as good as the two I loved, I'll certainly read them, but the problem is that this can't be guaranteed... so if I do get round to them, it probably won't be for a while. ...more
So much fun! I picked this out to read on a train because I was struggling to concentrate on anything 'heavier', and although I wasn't expecting muchSo much fun! I picked this out to read on a train because I was struggling to concentrate on anything 'heavier', and although I wasn't expecting much from it, I found it immensely enjoyable. I really liked the first couple of books in Quinn's Empress of Rome series, but found the third dull: this one reminded me what I enjoyed so much about those first two. It also confirmed my suspicion (also discussed in my review of Karen Maitland's The Vanishing Witch) that I'd rather read unashamedly trashy historical fiction than the type that tries to be serious and falls flat due to lack of research/authenticity. With a book like this, you don't really care if the characters (for example) use modern figures of speech, or if Italians in the 15th century use puns that only work in English, because it's just like watching a highly entertaining historical soap opera.
The Serpent and the Pearl follows a tried and tested formula: it's loosely based on real events (here the rise of the Borgias in 15th-century Italy), it uses a variety of narrative voices (Giulia Farnese, the mistress of Rodrigo Borgia; Leonello, a dwarf who becomes her bodyguard; Carmelina, a cook in the Borgia household) and it is packed with twists and moments of suspense, usually at the end of a chapter. Quinn is great at writing strong, interesting female characters you can't help but like, but this perhaps isn't that unusual for a female author of this type of fiction. What she's also great at is writing men who should be completely detestable, but are somehow imbued with such charisma and magnetism that you are nevertheless drawn to them. She clearly knows something about the sexiness of power, and how to translate that to the page: her male characters may not be likeable, but they are always completely compelling. At the beginning I hated Giulia's relationship with Rodrigo, and couldn't see that changing: skip forward a few hundred pages, and I came to root for it so much that I was desperate for them to be reunited.
There are occasional flaws that do stand out, despite the enjoyability factor of the book. The characterisation can be heavy-handed at times - we know Carmelina's a cook, no need for endless references to food/recipes/Santa Marta (patron saint of cooks and servants) in every sentence. And unlike the Rome books - which were part of a series, but each worked fine as standalone novels - this is a very open-ended 'to be continued' sort of story, and you need to read the next one to find out what becomes of the characters. Which means I have to read the next one at some point... because dammit, I really want to know what happens. However, this also means the chapters become a bit repetitive towards the end as the author stretches out the story, building up to a cliffhanger ending.
The Serpent and the Pearl left me with the same indulgent feeling of satisfaction as eating a bag of donuts or binge-watching a whole TV series. I'd recommend it to anyone who's enjoyed Quinn's Rome books, and to fans of Karen Maitland, Kate Furnivall, Robert Harris's Cicero novels, etc. ...more
I had absolutely no intention of reading this - McEwan is not a writer whose past books have impressed me as much I expected them to (I've read EnduriI had absolutely no intention of reading this - McEwan is not a writer whose past books have impressed me as much I expected them to (I've read Enduring Love, Amsterdam and On Chesil Beach and rated them all averagely). I just started reading a preview to see what it was like, and was so swept up in the narrative I had to continue reading the book.
This is a simple, short, elegant novel about a female judge, Fiona Maye, who is called on to make a quick decision in an urgent case: she must decide whether a seventeen-year-old boy should be forced to have a blood transfusion that will save his life. The boy, Adam, and his parents are Jehovah's Witnesses, and have thus far refused the treatment, although Adam, being a few months off his eighteenth birthday, is technically still a child and so Fiona has the power to overrule their decision. At exactly the same time, Fiona's husband, Jack, asks her permission for him to be able to have an affair with a younger colleague (a dilemma identical to the one faced by the protagonist of Siri Hustvedt's The Summer Without Men). In five parts, The Children Act explores the consequences of the decisions Fiona makes in both situations.
Many of the events on which the story focuses - (view spoiler)[Fiona's decision to force Adam to have treatment; Fiona and Jack's reconciliation; Adam's death/suicide (hide spoiler)] - are either easy to predict, or obviously signposted. I didn't find anything in the plot surprising, but I did find the book elegantly written, compelling and perfectly paced. I thought the parallels between the court case and the affair question were obvious, but that isn't the same thing as thinking they were heavy-handed. In fact, I found McEwan's handling of both the case and Fiona's marriage very well-balanced. In both cases, both sides are represented well; nobody comes off as necessarily wrong.
I know the portrayal of religion has been an issue for many other readers, that much is evident from scanning the reviews here, but I can't personally say that I found anything about that aspect of the story problematic. It seemed evident that the religious issues discussed were intended to apply only to the characters in the story; I didn't really feel the author was trying to make any wider points about religion. In the same way, it's clear that Fiona's regret about her own childlessness is specific to this character, not that the author is implying such feelings should apply to all women. As for Adam, while many others have found him unbelievable, his character worked for me. As a naturally intelligent boy who has led a sheltered, restricted life, his combination of sarcastic wit and childlike guilelessness felt quite natural. There are, of course, moments in which the story steps outside what could be considered realistic, as when Fiona visits Adam in hospital - and there is something transcendent about all of the scenes involving music - but I really liked how these were woven into a narrative very much couched in extensively researched legal detail.
I did find one thing odd: rape is mentioned twice in this book, and both times in the context of a man being falsely accused. In one of these cases it is even said that the police didn't investigate evidence the sex was consensual because 'they had targets to meet in rape cases'. Given actual statistics about false accusations vs. successful prosecutions, this seemed like a strange inclusion to me. One case, maybe, but two in such a short book with a plot which has nothing to do with this type of crime anyway? That said, this probably stood out to me for personal reasons while, as a non-religious person, I didn't subject that element to an enormous amount of scrutiny.
I keep coming back to the word 'elegant' when considering this novel. That's how I'd describe it in a single word. I liked it far more than I would have guessed (based on both my opinion of the McEwan books I've previously read, and the idea of the story itself).["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Way too young for me, but good fun and a nice palate-cleanser. Jackaby is a paranormal historical detective story, set in a 19th-century American portWay too young for me, but good fun and a nice palate-cleanser. Jackaby is a paranormal historical detective story, set in a 19th-century American port where a runaway English girl, Abigail Rook, meets an eccentric investigator, R.F. Jackaby. The much-quoted claim that this is 'Doctor Who meets Sherlock' is actually pretty accurate, and the author's grasp of witty, quick-fire dialogue is excellent. The characters and their interaction are by far the most interesting bits; the paranormal stuff is a bit pedestrian, and my eyes glazed over during a few of the action scenes, but then, I am not the audience for this book. With a strong and funny heroine/narrator and a plot that focuses much more on friendship and adventure than romance (thankfully there is no romantic relationship between the two leads), I wouldn't hesitate to enthusiastically recommend this to younger readers....more
I really had no idea what to read first in 2015. I actually felt like I had the reader's equivalent of writer's block, especially when reading others'I really had no idea what to read first in 2015. I actually felt like I had the reader's equivalent of writer's block, especially when reading others' blog posts and tweets about how the first book of the year should be some significant, symbolic choice that would set the tone for the year to come. I eventually chose The Minotaur almost randomly while reorganising books on my Kindle, feeling it would strike some balance between the 'light' sort of stuff I actually felt like reading, and my vague aim to read a greater range of books (those published prior to the last couple of years, those written by authors I haven't read before). (In any case, I ended up finishing Poor Souls' Light first, even though I started it after this one.)
The story begins with Kerstin, the narrator, bumping into an old acquaintance while on holiday. This is Ella Cosway, a member of the formidable family Kerstin came to know in the 1960s, when - aged 24, recently arrived in the UK from Sweden, and newly qualified as a nurse - she spent a year working as carer to Ella's brother, John. After this introduction, the majority of the book is told as a flashback to that time, albeit always from the perspective of Kerstin's present-day self, which results in a lot of foreshadowing, a lot of 'of course, I couldn't have known then...' sort of stuff.
The Cosway family consists of matriarch Julia (usually referred to simply as Mrs Cosway), four middle-aged daughters, three of whom - Ida, Winifred and Ella - live at home, and John. The latter, Kerstin's 'charge', is vaguely defined as 'mentally ill' and sometimes referred to by the family as schizophrenic. The other daughter, Zorah, is a wealthy widow who occasionally descends on the family home, Lydstep Old Hall, to hold parties and bestow expensive gifts. With John's care dominated by Mrs Cosway, Kerstin finds herself acting as more of a live-in companion to the sisters, observing their life in the village of Windrose. The place and its inhabitants seem perpetually suspended in a much earlier time, with everything revolving around the church, village gossip, and the excitement among unmarried women whenever a new man turns up - it's all much more Jane Austen than swinging sixties. In the midst of this, Kerstin is a fish out of water in more ways than one.
Kerstin reminded me so much of someone I used to know, even the specifics of many of her conversational asides and the things that interested her about other people, that she almost instantly came to life for me and remained a strong, vivid, very real presence throughout the story. How much of this was down to Vine's characterisation and how much was due to me making that personal connection, I'm not sure. Once the comparison was in my head, I found it difficult to detach my perception of Kerstin from existing ideas about the person I couldn't help imagining her to be.
The Minotaur may be widely described as a gothic thriller, suspense/mystery etc, but readers expecting it to have the pace typical to the modern incarnations of those genres might find it a letdown. The story does gradually build to a catastrophic event, which is clearly signposted from the beginning, and it's full of references to gothic novels and sinister symbols, but the bulk of the book involves Kerstin simply observing the Cosways' lives and their family politics. The slow burn made it fascinating to me, and I actually really enjoyed reading about the family, but I can totally understand why some other reviewers have dismissed it as boring: the narrative can be repetitive and occasionally lapses into dullness, sometimes feeling as if it's been deliberately stretched out to fulfil a required word count. Kerstin repeats, and repeats again, her observations on members of the Cosway family; some of these facts (Winifred wears too much makeup, Ella has dirty nails) are stated so many times that they feel burned into my memory. (However, I'm not sure whether this is more a deliberately engineered feature of Kerstin's character than padding to make the story longer. The fact that she lacks the obvious eccentricity of the Cosways doesn't mean she is beyond reproach, and she sometimes comes off as quite petty.)
Slow-moving it may be, but I found The Minotaur absorbing. As a portrait of a 'dysfunctional' family, it's as carefully detailed as an intricately embroidered tapestry. A dramatic finale wasn't even necessary for my enjoyment of the book to be complete, so when it did come, I was relieved to find it didn't disturb the equilibrium of the rest of the narrative. Not for everyone, I wouldn't recommend it universally, but this was a good book to start the year off for me....more
Super-short novella, more of a short story, with about 20% of the Kindle edition taken up by the introduction and glossary. It's good, though, and theSuper-short novella, more of a short story, with about 20% of the Kindle edition taken up by the introduction and glossary. It's good, though, and the brevity fits the narrative, since the narrator is a child. Tochtli is the son of a Mexican drug baron, living an isolated life in a 'palace' where he has his own zoo, a private tutor and a vast collection of hats. He knows little of the outside world, but his every whim is catered to; in the second chapter, Tochtli, his father and a companion/henchman travel to Africa to hunt the Liberian pygmy hippopotamus, an animal Tochtli has decided he wants to add to his zoo. But, despite the protagonist's privilege and his exposure to violence and corruption, this is still a story about a lonely child trying to understand his surreal, limited world. The translation is excellent, too - this really doesn't feel like a book that's been translated from another language, all the more impressive given that creating an authentic childlike voice is hard enough in any language, let alone when trying to render the nuances and colloquialisms of another. Tochtli is surprisingly endearing, but the ending - (view spoiler)[his chilling nonchalance about receiving the heads, compared to his devastation when the animals are killed (hide spoiler)] - reminds the reader that the experiences of his young life will not be without consequence. An excellent quick read, and a great introduction to the author....more
When I first noticed this book getting shelved as young adult on Goodreads, I assumed it was just because the protagonist is a teenager, and that people were making that typical mistake of thinking teenage character = YA. It's being published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, a literary fiction imprint, and doesn't appear to be categorised by them as YA. But I did notice that between the book being listed on NetGalley and listed in Orion/W&N's catalogue, the inevitable 'x meets x' comparative description in the blurb has been amended from 'Children of Men meets The Handmaid's Tale' to the rather more YA-skewed 'The Hunger Games meets The Handmaid's Tale'. And now I've read it, I do feel it is probably accurate to categorise this as a young adult novel, whether it's intended as one or not.
The Ship begins with a few chapters of world-building, establishing a dystopia that's reasonably detailed in its creation, but probably not designed to be subjected to much analysis. It's a future version of the UK, partly recognisable - people still use the internet (on tablets referred to as 'screens'), but access is heavily restricted; ownership of an identity card is the only way you 'exist' as a citizen; those without are subject to government culls. Nature is virtually nonexistent, thus food is incredibly scarce (cue a bit of clumsy preaching about the damage previous generations did to the environment; thankfully this doesn't dominate the narrative). The reader is only shown London, with little evidence of life really existing beyond the capital. Parts of the city are underwater, others burning, and places familiar as tourist attractions (parks, the British Museum, St Paul's Cathedral) are filled with the dispossessed.
The narrator is Lalage Paul, a privileged and cloistered sixteen-year-old living in a heavily secured flat with her mother; her father, Michael, who has an influential role in the government, is frequently absent. Lalage enjoys the luxury of relatively plentiful (tinned) food, clean water and a fixed home, but at the expense of any kind of freedom - she has never had a friend and rarely leaves the flat, except to visit the nearby museum, now stripped of most of its exhibits, with her mother. For years, Michael has promised that they will one day leave on a ship, equipped with home comforts and plentiful food, and it's the Paul family's eventual departure on this ship - leading a group of 500 hopeful emigrants - which, naturally, marks the start of the real story. Here Lalage finds herself a reluctant escapee, literally adrift, and kept in the dark; neither her father nor anyone else on board will be direct with her about where they are supposed to be going. In an emotionally involving narrative, she is continually torn between a desire to return to London and help others, and the hypnotic pull of life on the ship. She meets a boy named Tom, and first love distracts her; but all the time there are sinister undercurrents, particularly around the increasingly messianic figure of Michael.
Lalage is a good character, but inescapably an annoying one. As a teenager, she is very well-drawn; believable, sympathetic and infuriating all at the same time. She has led an extremely sheltered life, and that is communicated in her development - she is naive to an extent that wouldn't be plausible if she hadn't been so sheltered, and although seemingly quite intelligent, she is slow to realise very obvious things, to a point that can be frustrating for the reader. Her approach to her relationship with Tom is immature in the extreme - she doesn't trust him, sometimes doesn't seem to even like him, yet at the same time she fantasises about the two of them having a fairytale happy ending, repeatedly states that she wouldn't care about anyone else if only he would love her forever. For Lalage, the order and peace on board the ship is monotonous; to those who have lived in chaos, it is joyful, and each party struggles to accept the other's point of view. The reader is trapped in a queasy and often dispiriting push-and-pull, mimicking the movement of the ship, between Lalage's desire for a freedom she doesn't understand and the adults' need for stability. The Ship constantly reminds us that the teenager who thinks the world's against them isn't in the right; but the adult who's patronising towards them isn't in the right either.
Ultimately, what makes this work is that it's hard, indeed almost impossible, not to be on Lalage's side. Is she an insufferable spoilt brat at times? Yes. But what she faces - from her megalomaniac father who won't even allow her a few hours to (view spoiler)[grieve for her mother (hide spoiler)]; to creepy Tom, who's so featureless he may as well be a robot, and made me shudder every time he popped up; to the maddeningly calm and condescending people of the ship - is far worse.
It lacks the action of The Hunger Games, and there is little meat to the romance, but The Ship will probably play best to teenagers because they will more easily be able to accept Lalage as a heroine and her point of view as 'right'. I found it a captivating read, yet quite a depressing one, and sometimes, though I'm sure deliberately, a repetitive one. Part of me felt more could have been done with the premise, that there was something missing and the last chapters were a letdown; another part of me was impressed by the way this was handled, with the reader's disappointment designed to mimic Lalage's, setting up a cliffhanger ending that could perhaps make this the first entry in a series. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
How to be both contains two stories, one (Eyes) about a fifteenth-century artist, Francesco del Cossa, and one (Camera) about a modern-day teenage girHow to be both contains two stories, one (Eyes) about a fifteenth-century artist, Francesco del Cossa, and one (Camera) about a modern-day teenage girl, George, designed to be read in whatever order the reader desires. The ebook edition I read had Eyes first (or you can skip to the middle and read Camera first, as the stories mirror each other, while the order of the sections is randomised in physical copies). I was pleased about this - Eyes may be a bit harder to get into, but it's fascinatingly different, and if I'd started with Camera I would have probably assumed the story was more ordinary than it is. The book does rather demand to be read twice, Eyes-Camera and then Camera-Eyes or the other way around, since the stories reference each other and almost overlap; cf. discussions within the book about a finished fresco overlaying the original, and about stories running concurrently, figuratively written on top of each other.
Francesco's story is mainly about art, George's mainly about grief, but there are many, many parallels, both big and small, between the two - I think it would spoil the book to say what they are; a number of reviews I've read have revealed some of the big surprises, which makes me glad I hadn't read any reviews before I started the book. The stories are about how the past affects the present, they are about gender and sexuality, as well as the usual literary themes of loss, the passing of time, how we tell stories (/create art), etc. Unsurprisingly, some things are left unfinished and open to the reader's interpretation: (view spoiler)[is Francesco (incorpo)really observing George or is the Francesco narrative George's (or someone else's) invention? What's the truth about Lisa Goilard? (hide spoiler)] Smith's style is playful and clever - it does a lot of wonderful things with language and meaning (this is particularly evident in the George story, which frequently employs clichés and then turns them inside out - and in the title, which itself has several meanings - and in the disconcerting and hilarious occasional use of modern phrasings in the Francesco narrative) but at the same time it isn't challenging to read.
So far I've only read one other Ali Smith novel, 2011's There but for the, and for me, How to be both was much more successful. I found There but for the too much of a typical literary novel: while it addresses many of the same themes, How to be both is more original in terms of form and style, and it just - I can't really describe it in any way other than to say How to be both made me feel happy where There but for the made me feel a bit bored.
(I wonder if which story you get first affects which character or narrative you feel most attached to? Most reviewers seem to have read George first and preferred George as a character. I definitely felt a greater attachment to Francesco and was really quite sad when I reached the suggestion that (view spoiler)[her narrative was invented by George (hide spoiler)]. Though I did, also, really like George/her story - more than I expected to, actually, I wasn't much looking forward to reading about yet-another-teenage-girl-character. And her narrative made me ache with jealousy in its depiction of what it's like to grow up in an intellectual family - the conversations her parents have with her at age 15/16, oh to have had that privilege! - which was both good and bad.)
It's probably silly to say this when I'm unlikely to read any of the other shortlisted books, but I really hope this wins the Booker. It's definitely better than Howard Jacobson's J and strikes me as a worthier winner than the rest of the nominees.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
This was something different from what I'd expected; having somehow, I'm not sure how exactly, acquired the impression that Saki's stories were focuseThis was something different from what I'd expected; having somehow, I'm not sure how exactly, acquired the impression that Saki's stories were focused on the macabre and leaned towards horror, I found them much gentler than anticipated. In fact, they are more satirical and humorous than anything, poking fun at the upper-class country set, with an occasional nod towards darker themes. They often involve adults being pitched against children or animals/some representation of nature - battles which the children or animals invariably win. There are some recurring characters which lend many of the stories a sense of being part of a wider narrative - I'd happily read a whole novel about Clovis. Favourite stories from this collection were 'The Open Window', 'The Schartz-Metterklume Method', 'The Music on the Hill', and 'The Hounds of Fate' - something of a deviation from the style of the others, which I thought worked rather well. ...more
I openly embrace the label of bad feminist. I do so because I am flawed and human. I am not terribly well versed in feminist history. I am not as well read in key feminist texts as I would like to be. I have certain... interests and personality traits and opinions that may not fall in line with mainstream feminism, but I am still a feminist. I cannot tell you how freeing it has been to accept this about myself.
I loved Bad Feminist. This is a collection of essays that feels like coming across a particularly brilliant blog and obsessively reading back through pages and pages of posts, elated to have found something so smart and relevant and readable. Throughout this book, the author comes across as so likeable and brilliant I can't imagine how you could read it and not want to be her friend. I was making notes from the introduction onwards; after a few chapters, I'd followed Gay on Twitter and Tumblr; I came away from the book with a reading list. If I could easily find other non-fiction books as engaging as this, I'd read a hell of a lot more non-fiction.
I was originally going to write a review that would link my appreciation of this book with some of my own opinions on modern feminism, online feminism, and the reasons I've become reluctant to participate in online dialogue surrounding feminist issues. But the more I read, the less relevant this seemed. While this collection may be framed as a feminist book, it is actually much broader than that in terms of the subjects covered. True, Gay writes from a feminist standpoint, but a minority of the essays here are actually about feminism. They also take in issues of race, class, culture, politics and education as well as more personal topics.
My favourite pieces in the collection were the pop-culture-focused ones in which Gay examines topics such as the representation of people of colour in film, or 'unlikeable' female characters in contemporary fiction. I like that her references are only occasionally classics: more often she analyses popular novels, blockbuster movies, well-known TV shows. 'Girls, Girls, Girls' discusses, unsurprisingly, the hit US series Girls; in 'I Once Was Miss America', Gay revisits her childhood obsession with the Sweet Valley High series, segueing into a hilarious assessment of the recent 'adult' sequel to those books; in 'Garish, Glorious Spectacles' she looks at various representations of women in modern culture, from novels to reality television. One of the best is 'Not Here To Make Friends', an essay on the importance of 'likability' in characters, mainly female characters, in fiction. In this one I highlighted the following passage, not because it makes any especially salient points, but because I could have written it myself, and when I read it I had one of those delightful moments of feeling as if the author had read my mind.
I am often drawn to unlikable characters, to those who behave in socially unacceptable ways, say whatever is on their mind, and do what they want with varying levels of regard for the consequences. I want characters to do bad things and get away with their misdeeds. I want characters to think ugly thoughts and make ugly decisions. I want characters to make mistakes and put themselves first without apologizing for it.
I came away from this essay and 'Garish, Glorious Spectacles' in particular with a reading list made up of novels I either hadn't heard of or had previously dismissed. I loved these essays so much, I know I'll read them again and again, and they made me want to read more pop-culture criticism, and aspire to write this sort of thing myself. She makes it look easy, though it patently isn't.
The downside of a collection like this, including a number of essays previously published elsewhere, is that the quality is inevitably going to be inconsistent to a certain degree. There were a couple I wasn't interested in (mainly the Scrabble one, to be honest), and one or two felt like something had been tacked on to the end of an existing piece to make it more relevant to the feminist theme. There are certainly parts of this book that are worthy of five stars, but I can't quite give the whole of it five stars; but, having said that, there are very few faults I can find with it.
Bad Feminist is a lot of things: funny, moving, thought-provoking, intelligent, relevant, and extremely honest. It's easy to read and amusing and insightful; I hope that means it will be very popular. No doubt, because it has 'feminist' in the title, it will be put under the microscope and pulled apart in certain corners of the internet; but I really like the fact that it is emphatically a personal book, that Gay wears her 'bad feminist' credentials, as outlined in the quote at the start of this review, on her sleeve. The notion of being a 'bad feminist' - a person who is always still learning, who enjoys some things that are deemed problematic, who doesn't care about some things she should care about, and cares too much about others - is something all feminists can surely relate to. And in spite of the prefix 'bad', I, like the author, find it a very positive and freeing concept. ...more
The Driver's Seat is a weird, evasive story in which we are introduced to a chameleon-like protagonist named Lise. In an opening that is instantly unnThe Driver's Seat is a weird, evasive story in which we are introduced to a chameleon-like protagonist named Lise. In an opening that is instantly unnerving, the first scene sees her raging at a shop assistant for daring to suggest she should buy a stain-proof dress - rather than seeing this as a positive, she loudly berates the girl for implying she would spill food on her clothes. Despite having led an ordered, somewhat mundane life - she's worked in the same office for sixteen years - Lise seems to enjoy making a scene and either observing or imagining the aftermath, a pattern of behaviour that repeats itself throughout the story. The book is about a chain of events that unfolds when she takes a holiday in an unspecified location, constantly changing her voice, attitude and demeanour as she encounters a number of odd characters who she repeatedly abandons, moving on to the next strange situation, looking - she keeps telling people - for a man who is her 'type', whatever that may mean. But Spark tells the reader early on that Lise is ultimately murdered, and the mystery of who and how (particularly as Lise always seems to be into control) drives the plot towards a shocking conclusion. I had actually guessed Lise's aim early in the book, but I was still compelled to read on to see if I could come to understand the character and her motivations. However, Lise remains a mystery - she is unreadable and the narrative is unapologetic about that. It's detached, vaguely surreal, and the indistinct nature of the settings adds to its air of unreality. A quick, disconcerting read with a dark heart; I was pleasantly surprised by the sheer strangeness of this novel. ...more
I enjoyed this a lot more than Sherlock Holmes #1, A Study in Scarlet, at least at the beginning. The unexpected shock of the drug use provides a neatI enjoyed this a lot more than Sherlock Holmes #1, A Study in Scarlet, at least at the beginning. The unexpected shock of the drug use provides a neatly subversive opening, and the mystery unfolds with such excitement and intrigue that throughout the first half, I couldn't put the book down. Unfortunately it's all a bit downhill from there; the resolution is too much telling and not enough showing, the implicit racism is impossible to avoid, and Watson's relationship with Mary develops too quickly for it to be relatable. I still intend to read later installments in the series, but I'm in no great hurry to do so....more