Some stories feel thinner than the paper they’re printed on. Without disrespect to the work that goes into crafting a novel, sometimes reading certain Some stories feel thinner than the paper they’re printed on. Without disrespect to the work that goes into crafting a novel, sometimes reading certain books can feel like nothing more than following words across paper. A perfunctory effort for a temporary experience - there’s nothing really holding me to the story.
Then there are stories that make me forget I’m reading, that draw me in beyond the paper and ink and binding. Stories that I both absorb and am absorbed into - an experience that feels strangely symbiotic and completely organic.
It’s the quietness of Sara Zarr’s writing that completely undoes me. There’s a quality of stillness about it that lends her stories a kind of gravity. The language is clear and uncluttered, yet sometimes devastating in its emotional honesty. Zarr writes about the kind of things that feel almost seismic to us internally, while making barely a ripple in the world at large. She builds stories around relatable sentiments and all too common events – lives fragmented by pain, grief, abuse, and held together with fragile threads of hope and redemption.
There is something very sincere about the undemonstrative way Zarr crafts raw, poignant moments in her prose – and while you don’t always notice the impact at the time, it emerges like a bruise once the book is closed. The themes are universal, but the execution feels deeply personal and heartfelt.
How To Save A Life weaves together the dual narration of Jill, grieving for her father, and Mandy, a pregnant teen seeking a better life for her unborn child. Their lives converge when Jill’s mother makes the decision to adopt a child – with life changing repercussions for all involved.
Both voices are exceptionally well-realised, essential for such a character-driven story. And while there is some crossover of events between the perspectives, they remain distinct and true to each character.
Jill and Mandy’s respective style and tone of narration are indicative of the type of people they are, often revealing more through implication than explicit “telling”. In this sense, both Jill and Mandy felt very real, and I cared about them and their situations. Even at Jill’s most thorny and closed off, her most deliberate slamming of figurative doors in the face of those who would reach out to her in her grief, I felt for her. Even at Mandy’s most conflicted and (seemingly) obtuse, my heart ached for her and I wanted her to find the love and life she deserved.
The supporting characters, Robin, Dylan, Ravi, even Jill’s father Mac, also felt carefully crafted and had real presence in the story. I appreciated the way of that each of the characters were important in their own right, and not merely tokens or props for the plot. Despite their smaller roles, particularly in the case of Dylan and Ravi, they gave a certain richness to the texture of Jill and Mandy’s story, another layer of context to the bittersweet blend of pain and hope.
The plot and pacing of the story are largely propelled by the conflicts of the various characters, both internally and with each other. Interestingly, for a book that’s not totally plot-driven, I didn’t want to put it down. The character’s motivations and interactions with each other were so compelling that I carried the book around with me, torn between wanting to inhale it and wanting to savour it. (And also out of fear that Zarr was going to shatter me at the end. I won’t say if that happened or not).
I haven’t provided much of a synopsis of the plot – and while its obviously fundamental to the overall tone of the book – I feel that the true strength of How To Save A Life lies with the characters, and the sheer emotion they evoke while reading.
I’m awed by Sara Zarr’s beautiful and subtle way with words, with the quietly powerful story she has written. This was a book I won’t forget. ...more
4.5 stars (Brace yourself for the gushing - apparently my brain was having a fire sale on similes and adjectives.)
Books like this make me feel so grat4.5 stars (Brace yourself for the gushing - apparently my brain was having a fire sale on similes and adjectives.)
Books like this make me feel so grateful that I am a reader.
Imagining that I was born without a propensity for reading and/or taught to love it tends to put me in a panicky tailspin, at the thought of all the characters, places and emotional experiences I would have missed, had I not been so inclined to pick up a book whenever possible.
And as far as emotional experiences go, this one was like a small wrecking-ball swinging though me.
”His mind was flooded.
He’d seen pictures of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and that’s how he felt. His life was now underwater and, even if the tide somehow receded, everything that he had was now damaged beyond repair.”
“I’ll Be There” is a powerful and unsettling read, particularly throughout the early descriptions of Sam and his younger brother Riddle’s life on the road with their mentally unstable father, Clarence.
Told in third person omniscient, the story at first feels slightly detached, as if the reader is being held at bay to watch as the characters and plot unfold. However, this particular style is employed to great effect as the characters each form a thread of the story, pulling tighter and tighter into a delicate snare of words; a little noose constricting around the heart.
Honestly, there were parts of this book when I had to shut it and remind myself it wasn’t actually happening, because I felt like I was trying to breathe with a weight on my chest. I wanted to reach into the pages and make everything okay.
When Sam encounters Emily Bell at a college-town church, they experience a moment of connection which will change the direction of their lives. From this point, and through his contact with Emily and her family, Sam begins to become visible after a lifetime of remaining unseen. He begins to form connections, experience a part of life he has never known. Juxtaposed with Clarence’s mounting paranoia and lurking menace, the tension ratchets up steadily. Small, tender moments are incised with sharp shadows of foreboding.
The gradually interlocking sections of the story, while gritty and harsh, are also shot through with something kind of.. magical. (Which, judging from reviews, will either sit well with you... or it won’t).
I don’t mean to infer that this is magical realism – this story is nothing if not all too possible in terms of Sam and Riddle’s brutal childhood – but there is something almost fable-like in the way it is written. (If I think of a better word, I’ll come back here and edit).
Stylistically, the book reminded me in parts of the 2006 film ‘Stranger Than Fiction’, in terms of the narration and the sense of overarching purpose, the fragments that snap together to form a fractured, yet beautiful whole. Personally, I really liked the slightly whimsical element to story that tempered the darker themes and events.
The plot did take a direction I was not expecting, but once I had adjusted to this particular choice I settled in and let the story take me where it would, strictly realistic or not. (I find that I’m prepared to suspend my belief on a case-by-case basis – generally, this is illogically determined by how much I love the characters and the writing.)
Due to the style of the prose, and the spare dialogue, we never get completely close to the characters. We don't exactly live in their world, or walk in their shoes. Instead, we are shown small snapshots and glimpses into their lives. In spite of this, I still felt heavily invested in them. If anything, the fleeting insights into Riddle’s thoughts, his drawings, Sam’s attempts to keep his brother protected and Emily’s tenacious hope had me in a kind of chokehold, and I grew to love them.
I would like to have seen more of the interactions between Sam and Emily. The way in which their connection was described was well suited to the overall tone and style of the book (alluded to, rather than explicitly spelled out) – but I kind of wish Holly Goldberg Sloan had given them more on-page moments and dialogue. Regardless, the portions of the book where they were together and their respective feelings were tender and bittersweet.
One of the elements I particularly loved was the use of colour throughout the story. I am intrigued about the recurring orange motif, the colour appearing with increasing frequency throughout the climax of the novel. Beyond the possible significance, which I’m still wondering about, it also ties in beautifully with the cover art.
I wish I could be more articulate about why I loved this book so much. The writing, deceptively simple, yet quietly and devastatingly expressive, has left me feeling woefully inadequate to the task of reviewing it.
All I can really say is that reading 'I'll Be There' was an experience both painful and precious. It’s exquisitely written, moving, harrowing, heartbreaking.
And I loved it.
If I could sum up I’ll Be There with a picture, it would be this one (from tumblr). Dark, beautiful, hopeful:
I don’t think I can write a review for this book. I feel neither equipped, nor inclined, to make an evaluation of A Monster Calls based strictly on itI don’t think I can write a review for this book. I feel neither equipped, nor inclined, to make an evaluation of A Monster Calls based strictly on its literary style and merits. (Therefore, if you’re looking for an analysis of the plot, characters etc – you will be better served with another review).
So I’m writing a response instead. Or, I will attempt to.
I have a difficult relationship with books that deal with the subject of death and grief.
Occasionally, I find a book that is moving and resonant - and I will both love it and feel jealous of it, for being able to articulate things I never could. Books that somehow translate raw emotion into words, that create a mirror out of ink and paper, reflecting back things I know to be deeply true and real (to me, at least).
Then there are the books that make me feel like my emotions are being traded on, manipulated, cheapened. Reducing it to fuel for an angsty teen plot line. Presuming my tears can be bought for the cost of a $19.95 paperback.
I can distinctly recall watching a film recently and walking out completely dry-eyed and practically spitting with rage at the distinct feeling that grief was being commercialised on. That such an incredibly personal experience and the accompanying emotions could be held to ransom by an overwrought, histrionic movie.
Yes, I took it personally. Because it was personal.
A couple of months before I turned fifteen, my father died. It was sudden, an accident. We’d had dinner as usual. He was working nights and left soon after. I hadn’t said goodbye to him because I was annoyed about something. Less than two hours later, he was dead. I could tell you exactly what clothes I put on after my brother told me I had to get out of the shower and get in the car. I could tell you exactly which Renoir print hung in the white, soulless room we were herded into at the hospital. I could tell you, word for word, the first thing my Mother said after we were given the news.
What I can’t tell you is what happened after that. Well, after a time, things came back into focus. But there is a great chasm in my mind that covers the rest of that night and the following days and weeks, as if my brain realised I couldn’t bear it and filled that space in with darkness so I wouldn’t see any of it.
Now, it feels almost like a presence, something that has grown with me in a strange, symbiotic way over the years. Mostly, these days, it’s a shadow, lying quiet and dormant, but making itself known by shading my memories, colouring the way I speak and act all this time later. At other times, it is a thick, solid wave, filling up my body so that I’m afraid to speak, terrified that I might unleash a torrent I can’t stop. That I might be overwhelmed, suffocated, drowned in sadness.
I strongly believe that grief and death are deeply personal things that no one experiences in exactly the same manner. And I suppose that this is why some book and film interpretations make me so upset, that they somehow think they can package up the experience and present it to you, neat and orderly. ”Here is the sadness you ordered! Here are the steps you will pass through! You should cry.. wait for it…now!” The reality, I believe, is so much more complex than that. So, when people tried to reach out to me, touch me, say “I know how you feel,” – I wanted to lash out at them. To scream that they had no idea what I was feeling. All I wanted was silence. Someone close by, not to interpret my pain, but to bear witness to it along with me.
A Monster Calls is many things - beautifully written and stunningly illustrated amongst others. But what struck me the most about this book is that it was so terribly honest. It bravely spoke of things that are often harboured in our deepest, darkest centres – far under the surface of our outward manifestations of pain. The things that are kept locked away by fear. Things that go unuttered because we worry that saying them aloud might make them real, and somehow define us in some horrible, irrevocable way.
Although this book did make me cry at it’s conclusion, I think in this case it was partly out of relief. The ideas expressed in this book, and very words uttered by the monster, allowed a weight to come sliding off my shoulders. I felt as if a personal truth had just been recognised and validated, in a very tender, respectful manner. Permission to accept that the thoughts I had pushed down as shameful and selfish, were just that: thoughts. Just one or two thoughts out of the millions I have had, but ones that I chose to hold on to and punish myself with for years.
I have not read another book that expressed so much understanding of what this is like. I have not read another book that felt this empathetic – it doesn’t just acknowledge your pain, it is a shared experience.
A Monster Calls is a special book, one to be absorbed, internalised and held very, very tightly.
I hope that it others are able to connect and love this book, to feel it leave an indelible print on them once the covers are closed.
I know that I did.
Again - apologies for the overly personal tangent this review took. But I'm afraid I simply couldn't find a way to write about this book without my own experiences seeping in. (If time lends me some objectivity, I might come back here and edit to make this a little more helpful.) ...more
I gave up on trying to untangle my emotional reaction from my critical thoughts, all hopelessly snarled together with lingering question marks, and just lay staring into the dark. The story refused to seep quietly into my consciousness, to be filed away neatly into a mental catalogue: good writing, interesting characters, believable dialogue etc, etc.
Instead, it kept twisting around in my mind, scenes replaying and looping. Possible interpretations were bound up messily in my own personal experiences and beliefs. Vera, Charlie, Ken, Jenny – they were characters, but I realised that over the course of the book they had become real to me. And their stories wouldn’t let me sleep.
How much of who we are is unconsciously pre-determined? I don’t mean this in a “destiny” or “fate” sense. Rather, how much of us is shaped by genetics, deeply hardwired into our blood and bones and minds? How much by the environment we live in everyday, the people who surround us? And how much by our beliefs – the things we hold to be so fundamentally true about ourselves that they become in effect self-fulfilling prophecies? Do we write our own futures by making the choice to accept certain assumptions or opinions of others, without questioning whether in fact they are true?
I couldn’t stop wondering about Vera and Charlie’s friendship – and why it played out the way it did. As the story unfolds through a series of viewpoints, flashbacks, flowcharts and interludes from a talking pagoda, there is a growing sense of inevitability. Each part of the story, each event, each nail Charlie’s coffin, to be blunt, almost seems to be set in inexorable motion by the events immediately preceding, by the choices the characters make. And yet how much of this might have been different – if someone spoke up, if someone changed their mind, if someone decided not to believe the thing they’d been told all their lives? Would Vera and Charlie’s lives and relationship have taken a different path? Or was this outcome always bound to happen, by virtue of persistent human nature?
At the end, I was overwhelmed with sadness for all of them. And yet I still felt a sincere appreciation for this story, a love for it because it was so honest and real. Because few books manage to convey how very possible it is to love someone and hate them all at the same time, for the people closest to us to inflict the worst kind of pain.
Prose-wise, Please Ignore Vera Dietz is effortless to read. Thematically, it’s not. The voices, particularly Vera’s, are exceptionally genuine and I found myself connecting to her much more than I expected I would. While she is a mostly undemonstrative character, choosing to lay low and will attention away from her, the raw pain and conflict is palpable in her words. The sadness bleeds through, leaching from a well of betrayal, abandonment, misunderstanding and hurt.
”And so, for all six years she’s been gone, I have $337 to show for having a mother. Dad says that thirty-seven bucks is good interest. He doesn’t see the irony in that.”
Needless to say, I really loved the writing in this book – it was poignant without pretention, emotive without being heavy.
“Because with Charlie, nothing was ever easy. Everything was windswept and octagonal and finger-combed. Everything was difficult and odd, and the theme songs all had minor chords.”
For a story that tackles death, abuse and alcoholism amongst other things, for the most part King takes a remarkably even-handed approach that feels open and not gratuitous. (There are some other messages (view spoiler)[around pet ownership (hide spoiler)] in the novel where I felt perhaps King may have been speaking more to her personal opinion – and they came across rather more awkwardly.) I’m loathe to apply the term gritty here, because to be honest I think what King is showing us is simply reality (in terms of the issues it addresses, not the anthropomorphic landmarks, stripper dream sequences and pickles), and the reality is that life isn’t polished and smooth. That tragedy happens all the time. Often, right next door.
From reading other reviews of Please Ignore Vera Dietz I had foreknowledge of some of the more unusual aspects of the story (narrators who shouldn’t physically be able to speak etc) so I didn’t find these elements distracting. If anything, I think I had mentally prepared myself for much more “quirk”, so I was pleasantly surprised by how much I felt myself connecting to the story. I even came to view the speeches from the pagoda as something of a comforting, solid presence in the story amid the increasingly unsettled events and emotions surrounding it.
Where I found Please Ignore Vera Dietz wanting was in its resolution. I was happy with where the story left most of the characters, but I felt it was a little unrealistic in its timing – what had been a festering wound seemed to heal a little too quickly to be totally believable. I definitely think that the characters would have reached this point eventually – but not with the apparent ease and swiftness with which the book seems to present the situation.
Finally, I have to agree with one of my readalong partners-in-crime and say that there is a quite the aura of a cult classic around this book. The execution is slightly unusual, but the story strikes at the heart of intensely relatable and moving subject matter. This may sound contradictory, but this book broke my heart and I loved it.
Thanks to my lovely readalong ladies, Shirley Marr, Lisa O and Maja! ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
On finishing The Spectacular Now I feel hollowed out and slightly sick – not because the ending was bad but because as much as I didn’t want it to, itOn finishing The Spectacular Now I feel hollowed out and slightly sick – not because the ending was bad but because as much as I didn’t want it to, it ended in probably the most realistic way it could.
Part of me wants to gouge whatever scraps of hope I can from the close of Sutter’s story, hold onto the hints that things can and will eventually change, because not doing that hurts so much. I want to pretend that last chapter doesn’t exist, but in way, it’s that last chapter that makes this book what it is. It’s that ending that makes me acknowledge what I don’t want to see; this is the real world and sometimes things are devastating and not everyone gets a happy ending. There’s no emotional montage, there’s no countdown to the big romantic climax – there’s some tie off, but the ends are left bloody and uncauterised.
That, I believe, is what prevents this from being another “issues” book, another dire warning on how bad choices can screw up a life. I think this book trusts the reader to drawn their own conclusions. And because of that, I think it’s a more realistic portrayal of addiction – it’s not a black and white story. We see the patterns of desctruction and the harm Sutter causes to himself and those around him, but we also see the charisma, the charm and the highs that perpetuate the cycle. It’s sympathy and abhorrence all wound up in a complicated tangle of being able to relate and yet being a helpless oberserver as events escalate toward the conclusion.
I can’t state enough how the relationship between Sutter and Aimee tore at me. Tharp wrote this part of the story so powerfully; I felt anxious and helpless as I read, knowing where it was going and wanting to close my eyes to it, yet knowing there was no other way it could go.
There were so many scenes in between them – Aimee’s vulnerability and complete lack of guile, (view spoiler)[ Sutter telling her to shut up, Aimee’s confession of what happened to her when she was 14, Sutter’s eventual cognizance of what he will do to her (hide spoiler)] - just tore me up inside. I absolutely believed these two people, and how they interacted. Sutter’s actions - whether selfish, compassionate or simply misguided -felt authentic. That he would carry out his final decision in the manner he chose too was awful but ultimately understandable – I believed that he would do that and that he would feel it was the best way he could do it.
Tharp’s subtley in portraying Sutter’s downslide was handled well. He keeps us firmly in Sutter’s point of view, but allows us glimpses of the altering perspectives around him, the way others begin to perceive his behaviour. These voices, on the fringes of Sutter’s awareness, balance out his wilful blindness. We’re made aware of his own downward trajectory by the changes in the people who surround him, or who used to surround him. Tharp manages to convey the seriousness of what’s going on without slipping out of Sutter’s voice, and without beating the reader over the head with heavy messaging.
The weakest part of this story for me was the plotline with Sutter’s father. I feel like this was truncated in order to fit within the confines of the novel, and not strictly realistic in terms of how quickly and fully Sutter’s moment of realisation hit. It’s a minor quibble though, it’s not the circumstances I don’t buy, but rather now they are neatly shoehorned into the climax of the book.
If I put aside my hurt, raw feelings about the ending of this book – I can be objective and realise that it’s brilliant. Sutter is an accessible and compelling narrator – even while being appalled at his actions it’s easy to remain engaged by him, taken in by his easy charm. It’s the kind of writing that sinks its hooks in without realising that it’s happening. You get caught up in the rhythm of Sutter’s voice and the warp of his perspective. So much so that even while I suspected all along this book and I were not going to ride off into a sunset of happiness, I still felt sucker punched at the end.
So perhaps the most powerful thing about this book is not just it’s unapologetic honesty, but that when it delivers it’s final blow, it’s not the one you’re expecting. But it’s the one that’s the most real. So it hurts the worst.
* * * * * Oh shit, that ending. I feel like someone has dug out my insides with a blunt spoon. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
If Finnikin of the Rock was a story about a divided and displaced nation’s journey towards healing thei(Scroll down if you'd prefer the tl;dr version)
If Finnikin of the Rock was a story about a divided and displaced nation’s journey towards healing their collective psyche, Froi of the Exiles is about a people broken apart by hatred, the wound in their history left to fester, and seep suspicion and fear into the cracks between them. A faceless, malevolent presence in Finnikin of the Rock, this is Charyn’s unveiling as more than simply “the enemy” of Lumatere. It’s an insight into a land burdened by suffering and grief, and the darker side of human nature.
While Finnikin of the Rock covered more ground in one sense of the word, with a quest that lead its characters into the far corners of Skuldenore, Froi of the Exiles is a novel on a vaster scale in several ways. This story is more complex, with an intricate web of a plot, and it unfolds new dimensions to Marchetta’s fantasy world and the resident characters. Froi of the Exiles plumbs depths of the world only hinted at in Finnikin of the Rock: the detail is richer, each small element is vital and serves a larger purpose in the whole. The themes are pushed further, and by extension the characters are more nuanced, forced to develop in often unexpected, yet organic, ways.
Given the serpentine nature of the plot and the level of intrigue present, at times this is a difficult story to keep hold of. It twists sharply, resists being pinned down, turns in surprising directions. Yet it never feels loose or uncontrolled. There was always a sense, as I read, that Marchetta was driving this story exactly where it needed to go, regardless of how difficult a course she charted. The entire story is characterised by a sense of weight and momentum, that it’s being inexorably drawn to some powerful, inevitable conclusion.
This is an extraordinarily strong book, and probably one I’ll have to read again to fully appreciate the intricacies of the plot, but I believe that its greatest power lies (as with Finnikin) in the characterisation and relationships. Marchetta does not go easy on her characters, providing them with convenient justifications for their actions or plot developments that open up handy loopholes. Instead, she forces them to wrestle their inner demons, with all the brutality and desperation that hand to hand combat entails.
Which brings me to Froi. (Froi!) For those who have read Finnikin of the Rock, you’ll be aware of the fact that Froi attempts something abhorrent in the first book. So it speaks to Marchetta’s skill as a writer that she is able to develop this character - his shame, his humanity, his convictions - in such a way that makes him deeply compelling. There are plenty of easy roads Marchetta could have taken in bringing Froi back as a main character, effectively glossing over his backstory. But I think that would have taken away from the thematic power of the novel, and been disingenuous to the character himself. Instead, by exploring the darker side of Froi’s nature, she creates a character so conflicted, and so authentic, it actually makes me ache.
”Although a voice inside had chanted to stop that night, Froi would never know if he would have. And he wanted to know. He wanted to say the words, ‘I would not have gone through with it.’ But he’d never know and that was his punishment.”
That passage punches me in the gut every time, and it’s small moments of crystallised thought such as this that make Froi’s growth throughout the novel, redefining the terms on which he lives his life, so real and heartbreaking.
But it’s not only Froi that Marchetta is unafraid of putting into morally ambiguous and unsympathetic positions, flaws exposed. Almost every character in the novel has to fight for something, has some excruciating internal journey to travel. Lucian, Beatriss, Trevanion, Lirah, Gargarin, amongst others – all carry with them some kind of pain, and have been or must go through something that will alter them irrevocably. While not always (if at all) providing tidy resolutions, there’s something rewarding about accompanying these characters on their journeys. There is a redemptive nature to their growth, and an acknowledgement that people are rarely all good or all evil, and all are capable of both inflicting pain.
And then, Quintana. Oh, Quintana. I’m not sure there is a character I’ve felt so fiercely about recently. She is my spirit animal. Neither clichéd fantasy princess or “kickass heroine” in a physical sense, Quintana is an alloy of contradictions: vulnerability, humour, grief, rage, intelligence, insanity. She’s tenacious and a little bit feral. She’s passionate and cold. And though this is largely Froi’s story, the chemistry of these two characters, the way they crash together on the page, is pretty captivating.
I won’t brush off the fact that this isn’t a light book, in terms of the content. Be warned that there’s all manner of brutality in this story: rape, torture, infanticide – Marchetta takes Froi of the Exiles to some very dark places. Reader thresholds for this type of subject matter will vary, naturally, but I feel it’s worth mentioning that it didn’t read gratuitously to me. The inclusion felt purposeful, important to the story being told.
On the other hand, it would remiss of me not to note that this book worthwhile things to say on the issues of religious tolerance, racism and cultural prejudice. Just as she does not flinch from showing both the repugnant and the admirable in her characters, Marchetta also shows the cruelty humans are capable of, along with their capacity for forgiveness and absolution.
Underpinning this very involved and intense novel, however, is the very human desire to belong somewhere. To have a sense of home, of family, and connection. And that this can sometimes be found in the most unlikely of places.
tl;dr: This book is a beautifully complex, emotional wrecking ball. It’s brilliant.
P.S. Thank goodness I held off from reading this until now. I think a year long wait for Quintana of Charyn might have completely cracked me.
* * * * * I can't even, people. I just finished and everything hurts.
”On the night of my eleventh birthday, Vivienne told me that I was cursed. It was her gift, she said. When she was gone the Brown women’s curse would”On the night of my eleventh birthday, Vivienne told me that I was cursed. It was her gift, she said. When she was gone the Brown women’s curse would pass to me and, if I ever knew which way death would come, I could run hard in the other direction.”
Seventeen-year-old Friday Brown is a runner. Her whole life has revolved around escape: moving from town to town with her Mother, never staying too long in one place, abandoning the past and trying to outpace a cursed future. After befriending a strange boy called Silence, Friday falls in with a group of street kids lead by charismatic matriarchal figure, Arden. When they end up in an outback ghost town, Friday must challenge everything she believes to be true about family, and fate.
Friday Brown was easily my most anticipated release of 2012. It will also likely be my favourite. I had high expectations, and Vikki Wakefield exceeded them. As much as I loved All I Ever Wanted, in Friday Brown Wakefield’s style has developed and deepened, resulting in a novel that is thematically resonant and complex.
Something Wakefield does beautifully, with both All I Ever Wanted and Friday Brown, is write perceptively about the concept of identity and its fluid state in young adulthood. Mim (of All I Ever Wanted) and Friday are both teenage girls who question and redefine themselves – Mim through the challenging of her rigid system of rules, Friday through the stripping away of everything she believes has given her life context. Without her mother, without the stories she has grown up with – who is she? When the only family she has ever known is taken away, does she know herself at all?
This idea of discovery, of identity as evolving rather than static, overarches the narrative. Friday, who eschews forming relationships due to the accompanying responsibility, is also a vulnerable character who has an inherent need to belong. Initially reluctant to forge meaningful connections with others, she is drawn to the sense of envelopment in Arden’s patchwork family. However, as the full extent of Arden’s manipulative nature is gradually exposed, Friday begins to reclaim herself and determine her own path.
There is a recurring motif of duality and comparison threaded through the Friday Brown; the novel itself is broken into two sections, ‘The City’ and ‘The Dust’, to form the whole of Friday’s journey. This tendency to contrast is repeated in various forms: the mother-figures of Vivienne and Arden, the fug of stale, recycled air in a car and the first breath taken in the outback. Vengeance and mercy, harshness and love. The truth versus a truth. And ultimately, good and evil. The entire story builds to a moment of definition for Friday, a power struggle not just between characters but also within herself, a moment of choice with irrevocable consequences.
Yet this is far from a simple novel. It’s complex and layered, unflinchingly honest in its portrayal of grief, homelessness and the abuse of power. The characters are flawed and contradictory, not always sympathetic. They are, however, compelling. It’s the relationships that fuel the tension of the novel - the shifting allegiances, fragile bonds of trust, sense of family and the undercurrent of manipulation. Wakefield crafts the relationships carefully, and it’s the authenticity of the connections, and the emotional investment in them that her writing inspires, that drives the novel to its powerful finale.
There’s an almost gothic element to Friday Brown, particularly in the second half of the story that unfolds in the ghost town of Murungal Creek. There’s a pervasive unease to the scenes that take place here, shadowed by Friday’s curse and the mounting tensions among the group, pared back both physically and emotionally. It’s also here that Wakefield’s imagery and use of the elements as symbolism come to the fore, in a tense, heart-wrenching conclusion.
Honestly, I’ve been intending to review this book for a long time, but each time I opened the document I end up just staring at a blinking cursor. I was overwhelmed by the desire to say everything, and not knowing how to express anything. I love this book that much. I still think about it. About Arden. About Silence. About Friday. About home and family and questioning everything you ever believed about yourself.
It’s beautiful and devastating, and I highly recommend it.
Glimpse is the third Carol Lynch Williams book I’ve read, and my first experience with her verse. I had suspected from the eloquently spare s3.5 stars
Glimpse is the third Carol Lynch Williams book I’ve read, and my first experience with her verse. I had suspected from the eloquently spare style of The Chosen One and Miles From Ordinary that the author would handle verse effectively, and that theory was borne out by the pared back, sharp poetry used to tell the story in Glimpse.
It’s abundantly clear that Lynch Williams isn’t afraid of tackling complex, even controversial topics, having covered polygamy, child abuse and mental illness in my previous reads. However, to her credit – and again aptly demonstrated in Glimpse - the focus is kept firmly on the characters, preventing the story from getting mired down in the difficult subject matter.
That’s not to say that Glimpse isn’t a heavy book – because it is, in a way. There were sections of this story I found extremely hard to read and a couple of times I just had to close it for a moment and take a breather. But it’s always evident that the characters are foremost, and that Lynch Williams is telling the story that’s true to them.
The blurb of Gimpse references a big secret held by Hope’s older sister, Lizzie. This secret has resulted in Lizzie’s lock down in a mental health facility. Yet it’s not the reveal of this secret that wields the power of the novel, because it’s pretty clear early on in the story what the secret is and what’s really going on. I think most will quickly read between the lines of Hope’s narration, well before the novel makes a black and white statement on the subject.
The strength of Glimpse rather lies in the fact that as the reader, we are with Hope as she becomes cognizant of what has happened to Lizzie. This dissonance between our understanding and Hope’s is extremely powerful, as we carry the burden of truth for the majority of the story and have to watch as Hope (who is 12/13) has to shoulder it for herself. The scenes in which Hope’s comprehension of events click into place are actually harrowing to read. I felt sick on her behalf. And that’s where much of Lynch William’s skill as a writer lies – using her confronting topic to depict a brutal dual loss of innocence for the sisters: for Lizzie in the events themselves, for Hope in her dawning awareness and being pushed into a position no child should be forced to occupy.
The contrast in their respective experiences of childhood/adolescence is thrown into sharp relief by Lynch Williams’ use of scenes depicting Hope’s friendship with Mari. While Hope’s home life is visibly dysfunctional, she and Mari spend their time talking about boys they like, dying their hair, idolising a male pop singer. It’s this almost halcyon view of Mari and Hope’s journey through puberty that makes the overarching story of Lizzie, Hope and their mother that much more gruelling. While Hope thinks about playing spin the bottle and kissing a boy, readers are uncomfortably aware of how this compares with Lizzie’s reality, and what has been taken from her.
I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to call this story chilling. The complete abuse of authority (and pretty much every other kind) is frighteningly not unrealistic. And while the characterisation of (view spoiler)[Hope and Lizzie’s mother (hide spoiler)] is less dimensional that of the other characters, I think that’s to be expected given the limitations of Hope’s viewpoint. She’s a young protagonist, who has somewhat normalised her situation. She’s occasionally shockingly nonchalant about (view spoiler)[her mother’s prostitution (hide spoiler)], though it’s clear she is beginning to develop insight into her situation, especially as it impacts herself and, most horrifyingly, Lizzie.
Given the emotional toll this novel exacts from the reader, the ending is not exactly a triumph of epically heart-warming proportions. It left me feeling bruised. But that’s okay. Because it also feels real. It left like the right place to leave Hope and Lizzie, and it offers hope in its resolution. Just a glimpse of it.
* * * * * Intense. Review to come..["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
"And all the time the same question flails around my head, like a hawkmoth round a light-bulb: Is it possible to keep loving somebody when they kill"And all the time the same question flails around my head, like a hawkmoth round a light-bulb: Is it possible to keep loving somebody when they kill someone you love?”
C.J. Flood’s debut, Infinite Sky, is a novel that is at once both understated and emotionally devastating; a story that unfolds gradually with a quietness that belies the impending tragedy.
The prologue hangs like a shadow over the following pages of the novel. It is made clear from the start that this is a story marked by death, but by withholding the identity of the character to die, Flood maintains a sense of compelling disquiet. We know grief awaits us, yet we don’t know for whom, or why. It’s an approach that works for this book, allowing the plot to progress at an unhurried pace without sacrificing any of the tension required to keep the story engaging.
This is a coming-of-age story, but Flood’s approach to Iris’ development is refreshingly frank and unsentimental. At thirteen, Iris is attempting to adjust to a life in which her mother has left the family, her father is drinking and distant, and her brother Sam is becoming increasingly altered and withdrawn. Flood is subtle in her depiction of each character’s response to their changed circumstances: she shows it in the neglect of their home, in Sam’s muted anger, in Iris’ habit of wearing of her Mother’s abandoned clothes.
In addition, and partly in response to her mother’s departure, Iris is feeling increasingly alienated from her friend, Matty. Bristling under the well-intentioned, if heavy-handed, pity of Matty and her mother, Iris becomes more aware of the nuances of their friendship, the shifting dynamic between them. Though secondary to the central plot, Flood also writes these elements of the story with insight and skill.
It’s against this backdrop of emotional upheaval that a family of Irish Travellers set up camp on the Dancy’s land, and Iris finds an unexpected friend in fourteen-year-old Trick. After some initial wary observation, Iris and Trick’s interactions develop from tentative sympathy to something deeper: a closeness that’s both friendship and first love intertwined. Yet Flood never allows this relationship to become overly romanticised or unrealistic, nor does she trivialise it. With an excellent grasp of her characters’ experiences and ages, Flood writes their bond with restraint, allowing Iris’ self-consciousness and Trick’s cognizance of local prejudice to shade their growing closeness.
Flood’s handling of the issue of discrimination and racism is particularly adroit, conveying the complexities of the conflict honestly, and without judgement. Her depiction of the local attitudes towards Travellers is unflinchingly candid; she doesn’t shy away from the slurs and assumptions that accompany the arrival of Trick and his family, nor does she paint an idealised picture of them. Rather, Flood presents the various sides of the issue with impartiality, striving instead to accurately present a situation where the many shades of grey prevent black and white judgement, or definitive allocation of blame.
When the various conflicts – both internal and external – reach the inevitable climax, Flood has created a situation that is intensely distressing. But there are no easy villains here. Each of the characters shares some culpability in the outcome, yet this isn’t a story that is trying to moralise to readers. Rather there is something heartbreaking about the very believability of this story, that these kind of actions and attitudes are both realistic and common.
Yet it’s Iris’ opening question in the prologue that lingers, and I appreciated Flood’s choice to tackle the complexities of grief and guilt when the situation is far from clear-cut. The novel asks us to consider difficult questions - and while it doesn’t necessarily provide the answers - its strength lies in acknowledging that these questions exist. That in life, and love, and death, sometimes there are no easy answers....more
Few books manage to make me feel this way: cut open and broken and completely overcome.
It’s difficult to talk about“Love doesn’t always look nice.”
Few books manage to make me feel this way: cut open and broken and completely overcome.
It’s difficult to talk about Kuehn’s debut in detail without revealing significant plot points; and I do feel this is a book best experienced as it is structured, that is, allowing the story to unwind from Andrew/Win gradually. His narrative is one of violence and blood and glimpses in between shadows, trauma layered deep in shame and visceral pain. His story emerges in fragments between the past and present, reality and dreams, relentlessly gaining clarity until its devastating climax.
Kuehn has written a brilliant novel. It is confronting, yet empathetic. Heartbreaking, but affirming. It’s not an easy story to tell - Kuehn delves deep into disturbing places – but it is compelling and evocative. Through the use of rich imagery, the symbolism of chemistry and Win’s distinct cognition, Kuehn has written a novel that spurns straightforward classification. It seems to be one thing, but becomes another – not because Kuehn is being purposefully evasive or coy, but because this is the story that is true to Win. We read it as he experiences it, as it emerges from the recesses of his mind and body: raw, dark, and animal.
There are various forms of conflict in the novel, but the central source is from within Win himself, and what he believes to be inevitable. The present day thread of the story deals with Win’s acceptance of his imminent change: that his Ego and Superego will be devoured by his ferocious Id, that what is at his core is monstrous. It’s this internal wrestling of what a person believes themselves to be, and what they want to be, that forms the crux of the novel. For Win, his deep-seated convictions give this battle an element of finality, that his metamorphosis is not only brewing, but inescapable.
For all its twisting decent into horror, Charm & Strange is a compassionate novel, and while it doesn’t offer all the answers, it does extend a glimpse of hope. Even more than that, it provides a voice of understanding. And for readers who can connect with Win’s experience, the importance of this can’t be overstated. Much has been made of “darkness” in YA, but (to paraphrase Patrick Ness), “not engaging with darkness in fiction is abandoning teens to face it alone.” Charm & Strange is an important book because it offers support and solace to those who may feel beyond reach.
Kuehn’s writing is strong – she has created a complex, challenging novel in beautifully rendered language that is compelling and true to Win’s voice. There is a depth of emotion and pain articulated in the story without it feeling forced or consciously manipulative.
The novel tackles serious content respectfully, while being authentic to the experience of its teenage characters, who are flawed and complicated. Although not a lengthy book, Kuehn develops her characters well, choosing to show (rather than tell) the reader who they are through powerful scenes and flashbacks. There is a lot covered here, even outside the central premise of the novel, much of which Kuehn chooses to allude to rather than explicitly state. This is particularly effective in the early stages of the novel, where the reader needs to tease out the meaning from passages that seem to take a nebulous form between contemporary and paranormal.
Charm & Strange is an intense novel, darkly psychological and unsettling. It takes the reader on a troubling journey, and arrives in a profoundly moving place.
An advance reader copy of Charm & Strange was provided by the publisher via Netgalley. ...more