Monday, 30 June 2014

Perfect summer reads 2014

Summer - the sun is shining and you're looking for something to read on the beach/on the plane/in the park/in the garden. Here are my top summer reads, some out already, and some coming out in the next couple of months. Most importantly, all are perfect for the hot weather.

1. The Storms of War by Kate Williams
Billed as Downton Abbey meets Atonement, this First World War-set novel is the sweeping first book in a series that, if justice is to be served, will go on to do big things.
Out July 2.

2. Landline by Rainbow Rowell
Rainbow Rowell's second adult novel, Landline, has a tinge of nostalgia perfect for a hazy summer day. Through its ups and downs it'll sweep you away like a warm breeze.
Out July 31.

3. The Secret Place by Tana French
Intrigue, murder, and the vagaries of teenage girls - Tana French brings those ingredients and more together in The Secret Place, the most perfect crime novel I've read for some time. 
Out on August 28.

4. Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little
If you like your news in short sharp snippets and you like you celebrity gossip with plenty of commentary, Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little is the perfect book. Its narrator is full of snark, and its premise will have you guessing to the surprising end, so get your sunglasses and paparazzi face on.
Out on August 14.

5. The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman
Forget everything you know, or don't, about boxing and delve into Anna Freeman's The Fair Fight, a swashbuckling novel about female fighters, feminism and standing up for yourself.
Out on August 28.

6. Her by Harriet Lane 
Chilling enough to help keep you cool through the hot summer months, Harriet Lane's Her is addictive and filled with tension that builds and builds to a horrifying climax.
Out now.

7. Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
Surprisingly, for a book with an 82-year-old protagonist, Emma Healey's Elizabeth is Missing will have you on the edge of your seat from the beginning.
Out now.

8. The Pink Suit by Nicole Mary Kelby
For fans of fashion, icons and history, The Pink Suit by Nicole Mary Kelby is a brilliant, easy-to-read novel about one of the most famous outfits in memory.
Out now.

Review: Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

There are big books, and then there are books that are big before they're even released, and Emma Healey's Elizabeth is Missing is one of the latter.

Bought by Viking in a hotly contested auction (I met one of the unsuccessful bidders recently, who more than a year on is still sad they didn't win), I haven't heard one bad thing about Elizabeth is Missing from anyone who's read it.

Maud, 82, is getting forgetful. Living alone, the only people she regularly encounters are her carer, and her daughter, Helen. Even then, she sometimes forgets who they are, or what they're doing. And she always forgets that she's made herself a cup of tea, and is constantly puzzled about the rows of cold tea at the bottom of her stairs. Maud does know one thing though, and that is that her friend Elizabeth is missing. No one else will believe her, but Maud's investigations, written on countless pieces of paper, means she knows Elizabeth is definitely missing. But how will Maud find Elizabeth?

I wasn't sure at first how I'd warm to an 82-year-old narrator with whom I had nothing in common, but Healey has created Maud with such a wonderful voice that I found myself immediately drawn in. Maud is an unreliable narrator, but not a classic one - she's not unreliable because she's hiding things from other characters or from the reader, but because her brain is letting her down in some respects. Maud's repetition of things she's forgotten but we know could be annoying, but instead Healey uses that repetition to add layers to the novel, subtly building up the evidence which, if only we were clever enough, would help us to solve the mysteries within (all those objects, all those clues). Maud wants nothing more than to get to the truth, and her struggle to get there is both fascinating and sad. 

Talking of sad, I found my heart twisting slightly every time Maud's condition worsened. Healey injects some humour in to the novel, with Maud's obsession with tea and peaches, but Elizabeth is Missing is also a portrait of someone who is losing their memory, and of the ways in which that affects them and the people around them. For Maud, I felt sad because she so clearly was able to understand at times what was happening, and then at other times was so lost. For Helen, I was sad because she was losing her mother, while not physically losing her. At times, I was frustrated at Helen for not acting more to help her mother, but it's clear through the glimpses we get of her that Helen is finding it difficult to come to terms with the changes dementia has wrought in Maud, and when she does finally act it's with consequences that rapidly help solve the central conceits of the novel.

Obviously, the title of the novel shows the focus is on finding Elizabeth, but Healey weaves in a secondary narrative which is as intriguing, if not more, than that of the present day. While Maud is unable to remember parts of her day-to-day life in the present, she has a perfect memory of her younger years, and particularly of the time her sister Sukey went missing, never to be seen again. Here, Healey paints a picture of a post-war family, adjusting to life in peacetime, travelling the line between nostalgia and modernity, while also presenting a second mystery.

Maud may be the unreliable narrator, but with the missing Elizabeth and the missing Sukey, it is all the other characters who are untrustworthy. Wonderfully, Healey crafts her story in such a way that at one time or another I suspected that just about every major character was involved in one or other of the disappearances. While I did solve one mystery pretty much perfectly, the surprise twists in the last quarter of the book were things I never saw coming. They were so cleverly done, and fit so well, that had Healey been in the room while I was reading, I'd have given her a standing ovation.

Elizabeth is Missing has been nicknamed Gone Gran. As much as I love Gone Girl, which reinvented the unreliable narrator/domestic thriller genre, I think Elizabeth is Missing is a more sophisticated book, because it reinvents the genre again. It's stunningly written, and will give you palpitations, and it's worth every penny (and I believe there were a lot of them) that Viking stumped up for it.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Viking. This did not affect my review.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Review: The Silent Wife by A.S.A. Harrison

Oh, the domestic thriller. Once you've read Gone Girl, you've read them all, right? Wrong. Because A.S.A. Harrison's The Silent Wife offers up a whole new chilling and delicious take on the genre.

Jodi and Todd's marriage looks idyllic from the outside, but from the inside things could not be worse. As Jodi heads towards becoming a murderer, and Todd heads towards imminent death, Harrison explores how the couple got to the point they are at, with the run-up reaching surprisingly far back.

The Silent Wife is unusual in that you know how it's going to end from the very beginning - Todd will die, Jodi will kill him. Where in any other novel those actions would be the most exciting part of the novel, in The Silent Wife the best bit is the build up, and the reader's intimate view of the destruction of a relationship.

Jodi, despite being an insightful, clever, well put together (in all aspects of her life) woman (and Stepford Wife-esque person), actually lives in a dream world. I'd go so far as to say that most of the time she's delusional. It's interesting getting to a know a character who is so willfully ignorant of what is happening in front of her, even as she's acknowledging Todd's wrongdoing (although she never acknowledges her own stunted emotional growth).

And Todd's not much better. The phrase "having his cake and eating it" was invented for him. In fact, Todd is a more extreme, less funny, uglier, darker version of Roald Dahl's Bruce Bogtrotter - while Bruce ate one massive chocolate cake and got lauded for it, Todd keeps going, gorging on chocolate cake after chocolate cake and never expecting to get fat.

For two grown-ups, Jodi and Todd have all the emotional awareness of toddlers, made even more ironic by the fact that Jodi is a psychologist. Her job is to listen to people and help them, but even in that Jodi just skims the surface, like in so much of her life. After one bad experience with a client Jodi chooses to just see people with "easy" problems, and see them in her own home, surrounded by her own beautiful, very superficial life. Both Jodi and Todd place great importance on physical appearance (their own, others, their surroundings), yet another sign that they prefer not to delve into life's uglier layers - if they did, perhaps they wouldn't have got into the mess they did.

Harrison's book, however, does explore the layers of Jodi and Todd's lives, with interesting revelations. As we hear more about Jodi's past and her relationship with her family, it's clear there is something hidden very deep that is at least partly responsible for Jodi being the way she is today. And as we learn more about Todd's past, we wonder how Jodi could ever have fallen for him the first place, until we cycle back to Jodi's past, and then it's a vicious circle.

Vicious circles are core to The Silent Wife, in which many actions come back round to haunt people who don't learn from their mistakes, or who don't pay attention to them. "Ignorance is bliss", to use a second well-known phrase in one review, is something that Jodi (and Todd) like to live their lives by. In the end, it definitely doesn't work out for Todd, but for Jodi, it's more complicated. The journey to their separate final chapters will make your heart quicken and miss beats, but it's worth it to see two characters so unlikeable yet so addictive to read about get their comeuppance.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Headline. This did not affect my review.

Monday, 23 June 2014

Review: The Walk Home by Rachel Seiffert

I've been thinking a lot recently about the term "women's fiction" and what is meant by it - is it fiction where the protagonist is a woman, where the author is a woman, which deals with "female themes"? Why does such a term exist?

One publisher who tackles the term head-on and without mercy is Virago, which publishes great books by women, but which couldn't be classed as women's fiction, since the term is meaningless and would do Virago's selection of work down.

Coming to Virago's incredibly strong list (Virago is Maya Angelou's UK publisher) this year is Rachel Sieffert, a Man Booker-shortlisted author. I confess I'd not read her previous novels, The Dark Room and Afterwards, so I had few expectations or ideas about what I was getting.

In The Walk Home, set in Glasgow, "now or thereabouts", a young man called Stevie gets a job on a construction site a few miles down the road from his family, but none of them know he's back. In the early 1990s, Stevie's parents Graham and Lindsey meet and move to Glasgow to be close to Graham's parents.

The Walk Home is not a book where something happens, and then is resolved, and there is an ending, but it is a book about something happening, and the consequences of that. It's a book about how the past can haunt families, even without their consciously realising that the mistakes of the people before are what is damaging the present.

In the present, most of what we see of Stevie is through the eyes of Polish construction manager Jozef, an immigrant to Glasgow whose life is affected by his move to a strange country, his ties to his family and his struggle to fit in with the culture he's left behind, and the culture he's moved into. Jozef's story mirrors the story of Stevie's mum, Lindsey, who moved from Ireland for a better life, but finds that it catches her up in Glasgow in ways she never imagined.

We don't spend an awful lot of time with present-day Stevie, but we do spend a lot of time with Stevie as he grows up, and our relationship with him is built on what we know about his upbringing, which shaped him into the human being he is today. His relationships with his parents and grandparents are key to this, but so are the relationships of the people in his life to each other - they affect him just as deeply as those he is directly a part of.

The most fascinating character in The Walk Home is Graham's maternal uncle Eric, whose past life choices have affected the dynamic of his whole family. From his sister Brenda, to his nephew George, to Lindsey and then finally to Stevie, Eric acts as a warning, a threat and a comfort all in one.

Love is at the centre of The Walk Home - love between siblings, love between a husband and wife, and most importantly love between parents and their children. That last one is at the heart of what happens to and forms each character - starting from how the love between Eric and his father was not enough to sustain their relationship, going through to Brenda and Lindsey creating a mother-daughter love, to Stevie being abandoned by his mother despite his love for her.

The only thing I found awkward about The Walk Home was the Glaswegian accent used for the speech. Reading it, I found it very difficult to hear in my head, and it was only occasionally I could hear the right voice. Most of the time, I just gave up and read it as it would have been without the dialect.

Apart from that, The Walk Home was a moving read. Sieffert has captured a portrait of a family affected by love and loss perfectly, and despite how sad it is, I'm left with hope at the end of the novel that the walk home will be completed.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Virago. This did not affect my review.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Review: The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith

This time last year, hardly anyone knew who Robert Galbraith was. The Cuckoo's Calling was just another crime novel, and its sequel, The Silkworm, should have passed off in the same way.

But then it was leaked that Galbraith was in fact J.K. Rowling - yes, THAT J.K. Rowling - and the publication of The Silkworm became a huge event.

I was lucky enough to get my hands on an advance copy of The Silkworm (while I was still two thirds of the way through reading The Cuckoo's Calling) and read the book in just under five hours. Luckily it's pacy with good characters and a compelling storyline, so my speed read (conducted at work, on a train, at midnight at home, then on another train early in the morning) was relatively painless (I'll admit to being a little bleary-eyed at work afterwards).

The Silkworm is the second book featuring war veteran and private detective Cormoran Strike. Having successfully discovered the murderer of a model in The Cuckoo's Calling, Strike's fortunes have changed - he's got plenty of well-paying clients and is no longer sleeping on a camp bed in his office. When a tearful woman turns up at his office, Strike finds himself delving into the case of an author who has gone missing after writing an unpublished book skewering everyone he knows. And when that author, Owen Quine, is found brutally murdered, the case takes a darker and more dangerous turn.

Rowling is on fine form here, starting the novel with Strike meeting a sleazy tabloid reporter - in just a few pages Rowling makes clear her already well publicised feelings on the hacking scandal. It seems as though The Silkworm will follow the path its first chapter sets out, but instead Rowling chooses to focus on an industry much closer to home: publishing.

As he finds out more about Quine's novel (titled Bombyx Mori - silkworm in Latin), Strike finds himself caught up in the world of publishing. As someone who's been working in the publishing industry for around eight months, I loved every bit of Strike's inauguration into a world so foreign from those he has previously encountered. He meets an agent, an editor, the head of a publishing company, and numerous people lower down the totem pole. While there are no easily identifiable figures from the world of UK publishing (at least, I can't see any), it's clear Rowling has taken stereotypes of publishing folk and used them to form her characters. So we have an eccentric battleaxe of an agent whose office is a mess of books, an editor who is all about books and not business and has turned to drink, writers whose egos are huge and who need mollycoddling, and a managing director who is cold and thinks about the bottom line first. For all her examination of publishing though, Rowling best sums it up when Strike says: "They love their bloody lunches, book people." Why yes, Strike, we bloody do!

The mystery at the centre of The Silkworm is one that kept me guessing right until the very end, when Strike arranged a showdown with the murderer(s). It's clever, because there are only a certain number of people who could have killed Quine, so you have a narrow pool to guess from, but at any one time one of them could have done it, or none of them could have done it, or a few of them could have done it.

However good the murder mystery is, The Silkworm is mostly as good as it is because Strike is such a complex and likeable character. He's stubborn, and can be stupid and a bit clueless emotionally at times, but you can't help but want to read more about what he's thinking, and you can't help but be awed at how clever his mind is at joining together the dots.

The Silkworm is better than good when Strike is interacting with his assistant Robin. The pair's relationship has deepened since The Cuckoo's Calling, and they're on a much more even footing than they were in the first book. Both understand each other a lot more, and have fewer secrets. But as their relationship develops for the better, Robin's relationship with her fiance gets worse, which gives an interesting dynamic to the story. I like that this is a love triangle without being anything like a love triangle - the mutual respect and friendship between Strike and Robin are better than any cliched encounters.

A year ago (yes, I'm back where I started), no one could have suspected that Rowling could write one good crime novel. The Silkworm proves that she can't - she can write at least two good crime novels, and if she carries on in this vein, the Cormoran Strike series will be talked about with the same enthusiasm that her Harry Potter novels are talked about. And we'll be doing that talking over lunch.

•The Silkworm is released in the UK on June 19.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Sphere. This did not affect my review.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Fim review: The Fault in Our Stars

How to review The Fault in Our Stars without breaking down into a puddle of tears at the memory of the film - that's the tough question.

What's not a tough question is whether or not the film is good, because it is. Phew.

Adhering closely to John Green's novel of the same name, The Fault in Our Stars (let's just call it TFIOS from now on) follows cancer sufferer Hazel Lancaster (Shailene Woodley), who is forced to join a teenage cancer support group by her mother. There, she meets Augustus 'Gus' Waters (Ansel Elgort), who had one of his legs amputated after getting cancer, and finds herself reluctantly falling in love.

Woodley is excellent as the sarcastic, witty Hazel. I know people have said this before, but Woodley just has this face you want to watch, it's so full of expression and she uses all of it to get a point across. TFIOS is told through Hazel's point of view, and Woodley creates a Hazel true to the book, and who you want to hear from.

Wearing a tube connected to an oxygen tank that she carries around with her at all times, Woodley makes you manage to simultaneously forget that Hazel is always literally carrying the weight of her cancer with her, while also making you constantly aware that she's not a typical teenager. However, while Hazel is not a typical teenager, she is a normal one, and her cancer only heightens that - she rolls her eyes at her mum's behaviour, sulks at not getting her own way, and is overly dramatic when her mum tells her that she's depressed. In the midst of a story about two teenagers with cancer falling in love, Woodley's Hazel can make you belly laugh.

Elgort is a great Gus, with his charm and cheekiness. He's good looking, but not too good looking, and has a smile that could light up the sky. Elgort is at his best during one-to-one scenes with Woodley, when he's playing to a group his Gus occasionally veers into supreme cheesiness and cockiness. On the whole though, he's easily the 18-year-old boy every 17-year-old girl should fall in love with, because he's sweet and kind and intense but not too intense.

I loved watching Hazel and Gus's journey, metaphorical and literal, which took them, as in the novel, to Amsterdam to meet Hazel's favourite writer, the reclusive and mean Peter Van Houten (played as both comedic relief and villain by Willem Defoe). Seeing both Hazel and Gus change over the course of the film alternately made me feel hopeful, and desperately sad. There were parts that made tears well up in my eyes that I really didn't expect (the restaurant scene in Amsterdam, Hazel climbing all those stairs with steely eyed determination), and parts that made me laugh that I didn't expect (Van Houten being a complete arse, the guy who leads the support group). TFIOS is a rollercoaster of emotion, which is what makes it such a great film.

The other thing that makes it a great film is the relationships it explores. Of course, there's Hazel and Gus, but there are plenty of other relationships that stab at your heart and make you feel. Hazel's parents (played by Sam Trammell and Laura Dern) are funny and loving, and Dern is responsible for one of the most heartbreaking interactions of the film. Hazel and Gus's separate friendships with Issac (Nat Wolff - probably the best male actor in the film) are nuanced - each gets something different from Issac and gives something different to him - and as a trio they're fabulous. And Van Houten, the most antisocial character in the film, who acts as a counterpoint for all the emotion filled relationships we see, is also unexpectedly revealed as a man to whom relationships are important.

TFIOS is a gorgeous film, and the reason it's gorgeous is because it's full of heart and because you care about all the characters on screen. But, as a warning, you're not going to be okay after seeing this film. Okay?

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Review: The Pink Suit by Nicole Mary Kelby

We almost all of us know how the story of the pink suit ends - its wearer covered in blood, screaming next to the dying body of her husband, the president of the United States of America.

In The Pink Suit, Nicole Mary Kelby presents a fictionalised (although based on some facts) version of the run up to that day in Dallas, through the eyes of Kate, a young seamstress at Chez Ninon, Jackie Kennedy's chosen tailors.

From the rooms of Chez Ninon, through fabric and patterns and sewing techniques, we read as the pink suit is made and worn. And travelling along its path is Kate, stitching not just seams in a skirt and jacket, but also the seams of her life as an Irish immigrant in New York City.

The Pink Suit takes an iconic outfit, and fills in gaps I never knew I had about how it came to be. Kelby's depiction of the battles to get the suit made - the back and forth with Chanel, the struggles of such a difficult if beautiful fabric, the intricate hand sewing required - is detailed and fascinating, opening a window to history that most people forget exists.

Of course, while the making of the suit is central to the story, its creation is also a metaphor for Kate's life - cut from foreign cloth, headed to America to become part of the American Dream, moulded to expectations, finally worn comfortably as a challenge to others. As Kate's life comes together, and as she falls in love, the suit starts to move with her, rather than the other way round.

Kelby's novel takes unexpected twists and turns. While the First Lady is central to the plot of the suit, she's never (by my memory) referred to by name. The White House is nearly always called Maison Blanc, adding a slight air of unreality to proceedings, which is only heightened by Kelby's depictions of the owners of Chez Ninon, two slightly mad old ladies who love fashion but seem to live in a dream world (although they can be pretty perceptive at times). And that day in Dallas is handled so differently from how I thought it would be, which came as a pleasant surprise.

Every chapter of The Pink Suit kicks off with a quote about fashion from one of a number of influential people in the business. While the quotes are about clothing and looks, many are also about the strength of people and inner beauty helping to create fashion. They added a lovely element to the book, as well as showcasing that fashion is more than just about clothes.

The Pink Suit is a beautiful novel, as beautiful as the object of its title. Its pieces - the fashion quotes, the sections on dressmaking, the story of Kate, our knowledge of the Kennedys - come together to form a deceptively simple novel, which fits together perfectly, with no sign of visible seams.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Virago. This did not affect my review.

Monday, 9 June 2014

Review: The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman

It seems fitting to read the story of a female boxer at a time when it seems like women are once again trying to negotiate their path in society and fighting for equalities we thought had been sorted long ago.

Of course, in Anna Freeman's The Fair Fight, the fighting the women have to do is, in many cases, physical, and leaves very visible scars.

Growing up in her mother's brothel, Ruth escapes life as a prostitute by instead becoming a prize fighter, under the patronage of the cold Granville. Meanwhile, Perry finds himself the head of his privileged family after a series of unthinkable tragedies, while his sister Charlotte battles her way out of numbness and into life. And Perry's friend George, hapless and always on the wrong side, tries to make his fortune and rise to the top.

The Fair Fight is told through the eyes of Ruth, Charlotte and George, three people who initially could not be more different, but who are brought together through circumstance and end up having a lot in common.

Freeman creates powerful, sympathetic characters, whose pain you feel even when they bring it upon themselves. Ruth's physical prowess is mirrored, eventually, in Charlotte's mental strength, while George ultimately and unfortunately proves to be the weakest of the three.

While you can feel almost every punch Ruth throws and receives (showing Freeman's great skill with words), it's Charlotte who I loved the most, and who I rooted for throughout. A victim of society, illness and her own family, she had the furthest to go of the two female protagonists, and the furthest to fall. Watching her grow over the course of the book was thrilling, nervewracking, and definitely rewarding.

The Fair Fight is Freeman's debut novel, but you would never guess by how accomplished the writing is. You're thrust into the world of Bristol in the late 18th century from the opening page, with its unfamiliar language - pug, cullies, the fancy. Freeman doesn't stop to explain any of the terms, trusting that her reader will guess at the correct meaning, and she's right. It doesn't take long to figure out the meaning of certain terms, and it takes even less time to love the language and setting and be swept up in the world of the book.

Freeman's book stands out for being just a great story, but also because it's historical fiction for a modern audience, because it's well written and engaging, and because the world it creates lives around you while you're reading.

The Fair Fight is release in the UK on August 28, 2014.
How I got this book: From the publisher, Weidenfeld & Nicolson. This did not affect my review.

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Review: Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

How important is art? If civilisation collapsed, would reviving or keeping art alive be as important as doing the same for, say, science?

In Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic novel set in North America after a flu has wiped out 99 per cent of the world's population, Emily St. John Mandel looks at the question of whether survival is enough, or whether we need more in our lives to help us live.

Twenty years after the Georgia Flu changes the world - no more societies, no more borders, no more air travel, no more - a group calling themselves the Travelling Symphony perform concerts and Shakespeare to a series of settlements. Landing in a town they've visited before, the group are confronted with a new threat, a man who claims to be a 'prophet'.

Station Eleven is gloriously crafted, starting with the death of famed actor Arthur Leander (note the clever Shakespeare connection) on the eve of the Georgia Flu crisis, and skipping forwards and backwards between the Travelling Symphony and the world before it collapsed. We're introduced to a series of characters - as well as Arthur, we meet his first wife Miranda and his best friend Clark, we get to know Jeevan, who was warned about the flu just in time and whose actions have a ripple effect he doesn't know about, and finally there's Kirsten, a girl when the Georgia Flu hit, and now an actress with the Travelling Symphony. The narrative style moves you swiftly from one place to another, with Mandel giving just enough glimpses into the old and new worlds that you have a full picture of life both before and after.

There is a focus on relationships (particularly in the sections in the past) - the things that bring people together and the things that make those relationships crumble. Mandel explores what it is that keeps people connected, despite the oceans and lifetimes dividing them. And she also explores how one decision or one action can have far-reaching consequences, illustrated in this beautiful but tragic passage, where Jeevan thinks about his brother Frank, and traces back the steps that lead to Frank being shot:
"...Frank standing on a stool on his wondrously functional pre-Libya legs, the bullet that would sever his spinal cord still twenty-five years away but already approaching: a woman giving birth to a child who will someday pull the trigger on a gun, a designer sketching the weapon or its precursor, a dictator making a decision that will spark in the fullness of time into the conflagration that Frank will go overseas to cover for Reuters, the pieces of a pattern drifting closer together."
In the present, Mandel continues to explore connection, but also the importance of art (in a world where art is "pure" and not tainted by fame), the way different people interpret the same works, and the value of memory and remembering. 

One of the Travelling Symphony's caravans is adorned with the slogan "survival is insufficient", from a Star Trek episode which no longer has meaning to many alive in the present day, but the message of which is central to the work of the symphony. As the symphony travels around the "country" (no borders, remember?), they choose to perform plays by Shakespeare, whose themes of love, war and more are as relevant to the post-Georgia Flu world as they were when the Bard wrote them. And the eponymous Station Eleven, a setting for some comic books which are a central part of the story I don't want to spoil, are interpreted in two completely different ways by two people, with dire consequences for some. Art is used for both good and bad in the book.

Mandel also makes sure to focus on memory and remembering. While there are many who can't remember a pre-flu world, they are still surrounded by it creations - the cars on the roads that no longer work, the houses that are crumbling before their eyes, the aeroplanes sitting on the airport runways. The value of remembering (illustrated most in the works the Travelling Symphony performs and in the Museum of Civilization) is balanced against the need for people to accept what has happened and move on, not be bowed down by ghosts. Mandel writes about this dilemma with such beauty, best illustrated in the story of how one group of people, spared from the flu, changed and adapted. 

Station Eleven is, in many ways, a love letter. It's a love letter to the earth and the civilisation we know now and that we take for granted in many ways - the earth and civilisation that is the past in Station Eleven. It's a love letter to the resilience of humankind, and its ability to cope with the end of the world. And it's a love letter to creativity and art, one framed within a beautifully written piece of work.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Review: If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go by Judy Chicurel

If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go by Judy Chicurel is a novel that reads almost like a collection of short stories, set in the summer of 1972 in a working class community on Long Island.

Narrated by Katie, the stories within This Beautiful focus on a group of young people, all trying to navigate their futures, all in some way affected by the Vietnam War.

Let's talk first about that title, which clocks in at 17 words and 75 characters. I think it's absolutely magnificent - it's a story all of its own, without any further explanation needed. When an explanation does appear in the book, the title becomes even more poignant. I don't think every book should have a title that will take up more than half a tweet, but for Chicurel's novel it really works.

Once you're past the title, what you're faced with in This Beautiful is a series of haunting tales about a group of people undergoing huge change. Some parts read like vignettes, others short stories, and they all come together to paint a portrait of a town scarred by war yet on the cusp of something new.

Katie takes us through Long Island, introducing us to her school friends, Mitch the Vietnam War vet who lost a leg and spends all his time drinking, the local drug dealers, Luke the Vietnam War vet she's in love with, and more. Set in the summer between Katie's leaving school and starting college, every story Katie tells and person she introduces us to is in some way a manifestation of what she herself is going through - trying to find her place, work out who she is and what she wants from the future.

As a novel with the Vietnam War close to its centre, there is an awful lot of talk about death, and to counter that, an awful lot of talk about birth. Many of Katie's peers are becoming parents, and Katie frequently references wanting to get married and have children herself. Becoming a mother is seen in some ways in the novel as the ultimate validation, at other times as a punishment for certain behaviours, and at others as a completely unwanted thing.

This Beautiful is not a conventional beginning, middle and end kind of book, so don't expect everything tied up neatly in a bow. The closest I've come before to something like This Beautiful is Tim O'Brien's The Things We Carried, a series of interlinked short stories about a platoon of soldiers who served in Vietnam. This Beautiful seems to tell the other side of the Vietnam story, focusing primarily on those left behind (and occasionally those who returned home). This Beautiful is painful at times (quite a lot of the time), but it's also quite hopeful in some ways - the stories of people getting out and making a success of themselves are few, but the ones that work do have realistic happy endings. Chicurel's novel will leave you feeling a bit raw, but you know you'll have read something special.

If I Knew You Were Going to be This Beautiful I Never Would Have Let You Go is out in the UK on October 30, 2014.

How I got this book: From the publisher, Tinder Press. This did not affect my review.


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