A fun little novel, I tossed up for a good ten minutes or so whether to give it 3.5 or 4 stars and eventually decided to round it up (think of 4 Stars
A fun little novel, I tossed up for a good ten minutes or so whether to give it 3.5 or 4 stars and eventually decided to round it up (think of it as a 3.75 if you like). This was a bit of an impulse buy – I went into Waterstones to pick up another book, had a quick browse through their special offer’s tables, marked this down as something that looked interesting, and left, walked halfway down the street, turned round, and went straight back into the shop. My wallet’s not particularly happy with me about it (I had to buy a third book to get the ‘buy one get one half price’), but I’m very glad I did. Impulse buys can always be a bit hit or miss (We, the Drowned and War with the Newts were both brilliant, The Sunday Philosophy Club was a steaming pile of shit I couldn’t even finish) but I like to make them when I have the spare cash. There’s just something about picking up a book you’ve not heard anything about that I really love. And although I didn’t fall in love with this book, I am very glad that I picked it up. I really enjoyed it and it’s probably a book that would have completely passed me by otherwise.
It’s a short, cute, little novel set in 1980s France. An accountant treats himself to a fancy meal while his wife and child are away and is stunned to find that his neighbour on the next table is the President, François Mitterrand. Eating as slowly as he can, so that he can bask in the moment, Daniel watches the President and his dining companions leave, only to discover that Mitterrand has left behind his black felt hat. Choosing to keep it for himself rather than return it, Daniel leaves the restaurant with his new hat on his head and a newfound sense of self confidence. Suddenly he’s talking back to his superiors at work, eating breakfast with very important men, and being promoted to regional director. He attributes all this to the power of the president’s hat, and when he loses it himself, he is determined to get it back.
The story follows the hat’s various different owners as it passes from person to person, changing all of their lives for the better. From a woman in a nowhere relationship to a washed up has-been perfumer, the hat seems to have some power to bring back confidence in those unhappy with their situation in life. It is, in some ways, almost a selection of linked short stories, and with limited page time all of the characters have to be painted in quite broad, shallow strokes. Daniel’s quest to reclaim the president’s hat provides a much needed bookend to the story and adds a sense of narrative drive that stops the book from feeling too aimless.
It’s a fun little book and a very easy read – I was surprised just how quickly I got through the (admittedly small) page-count. The writing flows easily and gives you just enough information to contextualise events – the 1980s in France are certainly unfamiliar territory for me at least – without getting bogged down in historical detail. For those who remember the 80s (I’m an ’88 baby, so I don’t) I imagine it’s also a nostalgic look back at a ‘simpler time’, where men still wore hats everyday, television only had so many channels, answerphones still used cassettes, and illicit love affairs were only just beginning to be arranged through online message boards. Laurin weaves in real historical events throughout the narrative and presents the story in the epilogue as something that ‘could’ really have happened.
I’m going to disagree with the ‘Reading Group’ suggestions at the back of my copy and say that this isn’t really a book I want to ask lots of probing questions about right now. Whether the hat really is magic or not doesn’t particularly matter to me. It was simply an enjoyable, refreshing, and rather charming little summer read. And probably a book that I will return to for a reread at some point too, it's certainly quick enough to get through....more
I’m still not entirely sure what I think of this book. It’s one of those books that sometimes gets quite patronisingly described as ‘charming';3 Stars
I’m still not entirely sure what I think of this book. It’s one of those books that sometimes gets quite patronisingly described as ‘charming'; a short, well-written and introspective ‘coming of age’ novel touching on several big themes, but that ultimately has no plot to speak of and only the most sketched out characterisation.
The narrator, Minou, is twelve (possibly a bit older – acts a lot younger). One year ago her mother disappeared – the titular ‘vanishing act’ – from the small island they live on. A year later the dead body of a young man washes up on shore and Minou starts to recall her childhood, her mothers disappearance, and the events leading up to it. And that’s really about it – Minou thinks and occasionally writes, but nothing actually happens save in the flashbacks and at the end of the book everyone remains in pretty much the same position they were in the beginning.
Not that that is necessarily a bad thing, some of the best stories can be the more introspective ones, but I don’t think, even internally, Minou went through enough of a change to make a very satisfying narrative. Although the reader learns that a lot of Minou’s perceptions of herself from the beginning of the book are wrong (she is not a rational philosopher like her father but a creative dreamer like her mother) I remain unconvinced that Minou herself ever realises this. In fact I might go so far as saying that most of the more interesting themes in the book are the ones that, while obvious to the reader but the narrator is (and remains) almost oblivious to.
Although no time period is ever explicitly identified, the mentions of ‘the war’, which Minou knows very little about and learns even less about over the story, indicate that Minou’s parents are both survivors of World War II. Perhaps the exact time period was left vague to emphasise the timeless nature of war and allow the reader to imagine it as any war they wanted. It is the after effects of war – Minou’s father’s determined search to find the ultimate philosophical ‘truth’ to cope with his experiences, her mother’s love for beauty and colour and emphasis on feeling rather than thinking – that are important rather than the war itself. But, with references to Minou’s father ‘hiding in a cupboard’ indicating he was a Jew in occupied Europe, I think it would have been a lot more meaningful if the conflict had been identified a little bit more. As it is it’s just ‘the war’ and never intrudes for too long on Minou’s thoughts – though serves to make her father the most interesting and tragic character of the novel.
What Minou is more interested in is recounting the little domestic scenes between her parents and the small events of the island (it’s so small the only other two inhabitants are a priest who loves to bake and a heartbroken stage magician who makes a living making boxes for sawing women in half) that reveal every other character, and particularly her mother, to be tired and ultimately tiresome stereotypes. Maybe I’m meant to find the ‘quirky impulsive woman who wants to be free’ an interesting concept, but Minou’s mother reads too much like the character in a children’s book to really read any further depth into. She’s quirky and beautiful and feminine and always wears dresses and loves to paint. She has wild red hair and rowed to the island on a boat accompanied by a golden bowl and a pet peacock! Everything about her just serves to make her seem ever more like a fairytale archetype and less like a real person. Which, when the story revolves around her, is kind of unfortunate.
But the book never aims at realistic character study. Minou’s narration is always the narration of a child – who sees the world in simple (and sometimes simplistic) ways and does not always understand what it is she is observing. In that way the characterisation of her mother makes sense; the way Minou sees her is just as influenced by her father’s stories of her as her own memories. At least it at the beginning. As Minou examines her childhood more does emerge but, however well written the book and however well mastered the childhood-perfective, the mother’s fate still follows an ultimately clichéd trajectory.
Ultimately The Vanishing Act is good, for what it is. It’s a quick one day sort of read that is an enjoyable way to spend a single afternoon, but nothing really all that special. The characters, seen through the eyes of a child, remain simplistic and unexplored, and not very much happens. But the writing, if you enjoy naive child narrators, is good and there are interesting themes in there too, if you’re prepared to dig down a bit more than Minou ever does.
So three stars. I liked it, and I can think of a few people I might recommend it to, but that’s about it. A short, forgettable, breather sort of book to fit in nicely between either more heavy going or more action-packed novels....more
How to rate this book… Gone turned into one of my favourite finds of last year, I pretty much devoured the first five books in the series back-3 Stars
How to rate this book… Gone turned into one of my favourite finds of last year, I pretty much devoured the first five books in the series back-to-back and am eagerly waiting for the paperback release of the final installment. I would happily rate the series as a whole in the 4 to 4.5 star bracket. But it’s one of those series that is somehow more than the sum of its parts and each individual book falls more within the 3-3.5 range for me, with book one starting a bit bumpy and taking me a little while to get into. So I’m going to try to ignore hindsight and rate according to my first reaction on finishing the book. So 3 stars (I liked it but nothing special).
Trimmed down to its very basics, Gone, is a modern, sci-fi, teen-fiction version of Lord of the Flies - children without adult supervision descend into anarchy. It’s brutal and it’s nasty and has all the graphic violence and emotional reactions to it that The Hunger Games should have, but doesn’t.
Set in a seaside Californian town in the fallout zone of a nuclear power plant, one day all the adults, all the older children, everybody above the age of fifteen, simply disappears into thin air. The narrative follows several characters, but primarily the hero Sam, as they try to adjust and adapt to a world without adults and uncover the mystery of how and why they disappeared. And there’s a lot more weird stuff going on than just the adults disappearing.
Now I say it took me a while to get into this book and, I’m afraid, that was partly because I found the writing in the first few chapters quite poor. It’s third person limited, but somehow it read as if it should be first person. It felt almost as if it had originally been written in first person and then simply had the pronouns switched. I have no idea if this is the case or not, but it felt odd and jarring for a couple of chapters until the point where either I settled into it or it stopped happening. I’m going to assume the later because I didn’t have any problems with the narrative voice in the rest of the series.
The main protagonist, Sam Temple, is from the reluctant hero mould. He’ll step up when it’s needed, but he wants to slink back into being a normal teenager the minute the crisis is over. At the start of the story he’s known as ‘school bus Sam’ because of the time he took over the steering wheel when their bus driver had a heart attack. But reorganising society and order over a townful of fourteen-year-old and younger kids who just want to eat junk food and play computer games is a lot harder than steering a school bus and, understandably, Sam doesn’t want that responsibility. And with his birthday coming up he has other things to worry about - nobody knows what happens when you turn fifteen.
Step in Caine (and if you can see where this is going you’ll know why I rolled my eyes at this point) a charismatic boy from the sinister Coates Accademy, a private boarding school for ‘troubled kids’, who rolls into town with an entourage of supporters and a determination to become sole leader of the FAYZ (Fallout Alley Youth Zone, as the kids have started calling it) and rather unpleasant methods of establishing and cosolidating this control.
While I really enjoy this series I found the first book just a bit much in places. The initial set up was good, I liked most of the characters, I liked the fact that they had and are dealing with real teenage issues not just the weirdness of their situation, I loved that the cast and the setting was as multi-racial as I expect a town of that size should be, that there were characters who were autistic, anorexic, or depressed but who weren’t reduced down to just that one stereotype. That’s the sort of stuff I want to see more of, much more of, in not just teen fiction, but all fiction.
What I didn’t like, reading it the first time without knowledge of the later plot, was when the writer threw in a whole kitchen sink full of weird at around the half way point. It still seemed just a bit too early for all of that. I would have preferred a slower burn with the weird; reveal the X-Men style mutations some of the kids have (if it’s in the blurb it’s not a spoiler!), but maybe hold back most of the other really weird shit for book two, or have it as an end-of-book reveal/cliffhanger.
Still, if you enjoy teen-fiction and you don’t mind it nasty and gory and morally grey, I would recommend the Gone series....more