Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Book review: Alice and the Fly by James Rice

I'm terrified of spiders, but my fear doesn't control my life or my actions or my mind, like it does for Greg, the protagonist in James Rice's devastating debut Alice and the Fly.

Teenager Greg has severe arachnophobia, rich parents, no friends, and a crush on a girl at school, Alice. As his fascination with Alice grows, Greg nurtures his love for her and tries to combat the debililitating fear he has of spiders.

Alice and the Fly is beautifully told, especially so given its serious and sometimes dark subject matters. Rice somehow manages to make the book uplifting in parts, despite the tragic events that unfold.

But it's Rice's intimate examination of mental illness that deserves the most praise and attention. Told by Greg, Alice and the Fly both offers an insight into the mind of a teenager suffering from mental illness, while simultaneously making the reader realise just how difficult it is to ever understand what someone suffering from arachnophobia is going through. That doesn't mean, however, that you shouldn't try to understand, something Rice conveys through Greg's parents, who clearly love their child but don't know how to help him, and in some ways have given up.

Monday, 29 December 2014

Book review: The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

Some love stories are meant to be told over and over again, and Laura Barnett takes that and twists it slightly for her debut novel The Versions of Us.

Eva and Jim meet at Cambridge in 1958 when she swerves on her bike to avoid a dog. That remains the same in each of their lives, but what happens afterwards changes in the three versions of their lives, together and apart, that Barnett tells. Through marriage, divorce, children, affairs, jobs and more, we follow Eva and Jim from that first meeting in 1958 through to the present day - in three different versions.

The Versions of Us is easily described as One Day meets Sliding Doors, but that would be simplifying how intricately plotted and told this novel is. Barnett almost (I have read a very early proof on which there is a tiny bit of work to be done) seamlessly weaves together three stories, connected by major milestones - birthdays, deaths etc - but otherwise completely different. Barnett takes the small things that make a life and uses them to create three rich worlds.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Book review: Summertime by Vanessa Lafaye

The mark of a really good book is how long it stays with you after you've finished reading it.

I first read Vanessa Lafaye's Summertime in March 2014, and when I shut my eyes I can still recall with perfect clarity one of its final, most brutal, upsetting scenes. But more on that in a moment.

Summertime is set in 1935, in a small town in Florida. The town is divided by race, while just outside the borders of the community is a settlement of veterans, heroes from the First World War who have been failed by their country on their return home. As tempers and tensions rise in the hot weather, a hurricane of devastating power approaches, intent on destroying everything in its path.

While the characters of Summertime are fictional, the hurricane it depicts, the racial tensions, and the fact that soldiers back from war were forced to live in prison-like camps, are all very, very real. Yet it's a period in American history that is largely hidden. Summertime exposes that period and its horrendous events - that the soldiers who fought in the war for America were then abandoned, and during this hurricane were left to die. Another mark of a great book is that it makes you want to learn, and Summertime makes you want to go away and learn more about this hurricane, these men, and this world.

Monday, 22 December 2014

Book review(s): Poison, Charm, and Beauty by Sarah Pinborough

Fairytales are for children, right? Wrong, if you go by Sarah Pinborough's retellings of Snow White (Poison), Cinderella (Charm) and Sleeping Beauty (Beauty).

I'm assuming I don't have to recount the basic plot points of any of those three stories, and I can't really expand on how Pinborough changes them, and adds to them with other fairytales without spoiling the stories, so let's just hope straight to the review part...

Pinborough's books are definitely for grown ups, although the core elements - princesses, princes, massive castles, adventure - are all there. What isn't there is that clear line between good and evil, which is one of the many things that make the books far more adult than most fairytales. Instead of an easy categorisation of good and evil, Pinborough presents everything in shades of grey, along a scale, meaning you feel sympathy for so-called bad characters. Top of the list here is Lilith, Snow White's stepmother, who rather than being a jealous harpy is a multifaceted character whose nature has been formed by terrible experiences in earlier life. It's easy, in Pinborough's world, to understand why she does bad.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Five books to read in 2015

What to read? That's always a question I'm grappling with, because there's so much good stuff out there. If you don't have time to browse bookshelves, here are five adult fiction books that should absolutely be on your radar for the first half of 2015 (links in titles go to publisher pages).

1. Summertime by Vanessa Lafaye
Based on a true event, Summertime explores racial tensions, a segregated society and the treatment of veterans against the backdrop of a community hit by the tragedy of a hurricane. Summertime is a great story, but more than that, it educates you about a horrible time in history that's been almost completely hidden away.
Out January 15, 2015, from Orion

Gale's story is about a privileged man who leaves his cushy lifestyle in London to farm a homestead in Canada in the early 20th century. But A Place Called Winter is not a typical story about a man finding himself, from its opening it's something completely unexpected and filled with layers upon layers of excellent storytelling.
Out March 26, 2015, from Tinder Press

The story of one woman's unhappiness has the potential to be grating, but instead it's compelling, and full of tension and shocking and heartbreaking moments. Plus, the way in which Essbaum uses language is absolutely brilliant, and Hausfrau is the kind of book you can read again and again, and each time see news things in. (Also, this book's cover is just beatiful.)
Out March 26, 2015, from Mantle

Covering six days during the 1992 LA riots, Gattis presents a fictional account of some of the crime that took place away from the main rioting. Telling the stories of gang members, innocent bystanders, emergency service personnel and more, All Involved is shocking storytelling, compelling and like nothing I've read before.
Out May 7, 2015, from Picador

Three beautiful, complicated, moving love stories about the same couple. Eva and Jim meet the same way in each of the three versions of their lives, but what follows in each is very, very different. Not only is this a stunning book, I'm also in awe of Barnett's craftsmanship, as she weaves together three tales virtually seamlessly.
Out June 4, 2015 from Orion

Monday, 15 December 2014

Review: Mobile Library by David Whitehouse

I love books, so it stands to reason that I love books about books, like David Whitehouse's Mobile Library.

Twelve-year-old Bobby lives with his horrible dad and his dad's girlfriend, waiting for his mum to come home. Needing protection from the bullies at school, Bobby befriends Sonny, who is soon taken away from him. Just when he needs friendship and love the most, he meets Rosa and her mum Val, who is a cleaner in a mobile library. The books in the library provide Bobby with an escape, but he, Rosa and Val soon need to use the mobile library to physically escape, heading off on an adventure of the type you only read about in books.

Mobile Library is an absolutely charming book, full of flawed but loveable characters. Its central storyline is just one part of the book, Mobile Library is also an homage to great books and the escape they provide. Whitehouse's story is about the power of stories and about believing in the impossible (it might not always work out, but sometimes the impossible can come true).

Bobby is a wonderful protagonist, at once a sweet, hugely naive child and a wise old man, albeit not in age. He's appealing because he's a good kid dealt many bad hands, and when he finally finds people who appreciate him and love him unconditionally, you're genuinely happy for him. Val and Rosa provide Bobby with what is missing, and he also fills a gap in their lives, of brother, of friend, and of protector. 

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Film review: Snowpiercer, dir. by Bong Joon-Ho and starring Chris Evans, Tilda Swinton and Song Kang-Ho

Forget what you know about heroes, because Snowpiercer is going to remake your image of what a hero looks like.

It is almost 20 years after an experiment designed to stop global warming instead resulted in the earth being frozen over. Now, all survivors live on a train - Snowpiercer - which hurtles its way round the earth, between the snowdrifts. But society has not banded together to survive, instead the haves live luxury lives at the front of the train, while the have-nots live in squalor at the back of the train, surviving on a diet of brown, jelly-like bars and a taste for equality and revenge. Led by Curtis (Chris Evans) the have-nots decide to stage a coup, get to the front of the train, and destroy the class system forever.

I can't begin to tell you just how good a film Snowpiercer is, and how much it pains me that it hasn't received a cinema release in the UK. This is, undoubtedly, one of the best films released this year. Beautifully shot and directed by Bong Joon-ho, Snowpiercer is painful, violent and bleak, and brilliant with it.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Film review: The Hobbit - The Battle of Five Armies

And so it ends, not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a sense of bittersweetness after 14 years spent in Middle Earth.

The Hobbit - The Battle of Five Armies does exactly what it says on the tin. It's a battle between five armies - the dwarves, the elves, the humans, the goblins and the wargs. 

The film opens with Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) destroying Lake-town as Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) attempts to guide Kili (Aidan Turner), a couple of the other dwarves and bard's children to safety. Bard (Luke Evans) manages to escape from his prison cell, and as the city goes up in flames and Smaug swoops overhead, he goes face to face with the dragon. It's an explosive opening, full of drama, tension and oh my goodness moments, and paves the way for an action packed film.

The heroic Bard decides the only way the people of Lake-town will find shelter is if they visit Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) in the Lonely Mountain and claim the gold he promised them. But Thorin is not so willing to keep to his oaths, and has instead descended into madness as he hunts in the treasures of the Lonely Mountain for the Arkenstone, a gem shaped by one of Thorin's ancestors.

Bard and Thorin are deliberately set out as opposites, with Evans playing the hero convincingly. It's just a pity that he disappears towards the end of the film, with the story of the men ending way too early and being sacrificed for some of the more impressive looking battles. Meanwhile, Armitage's Thorin is loathsome, although we do see glimpses of the charming and likeable dwarf. His redemption arc isn't really an arc though, it's like one of the giant eagles came in and picked him up when he was at rock bottom and yanked him in a vertical line back up to being a good person. It's kind of sudden, but you can forgive it.

What I can't really forgive is the awful love triangle between Thoriel, Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Kili. It's boring, detracts from the action of the film, and is not at all believable - there's little passion between Kili and Thoriel, and Legolas' pining creates a character that is completely out of sync with how we find him in The Lord of the Rings. In The Lord of the Rings the love story between Aragorn and Arwen is beautiful, in The Battle of Five Armies the love story is a drag.

And the reason I've mentioned director Peter Jackson's other J R R Tolkein trilogy is because it's constantly referred to in The Battle of Five Armies. And not always in a good way. It works when we see Saruman staying behind to deal with the fall out after Sauron attacks Gandalf, who is being rescued by Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) and Elrond (Hugo Weaving). But it doesn't work when Legolas flips onto the back of a giant thing in a mirror of flipping onto an elephant in The Return of the King, or when Thranduil (Lee Pace) directs Legolas to go find Strider. The hints are in your face, and distracting because they're so obvious.

But really, I've spent too large an amount of space complaining, because I actually loved the film. The battle scenes are so beautifully choreographed I almost gasped at times at just how stunning they were. Yes, it's all very safe and there's no blood, but the scenes are still just gorgeous. And the CGI is absolutely brilliant too. 

And I can't believe I've got this far without mentioning Bilbo (Martin Freeman) who is the real heart of the film. He, rather than Bard, is the true foil to Thorin. Where Thorin is loud and mad, Bilbo is quiet and sensible. The pair's clashes are filled with tension, while the quieter moments between the two are touching and so filled with friendship that the conclusion of their tale brings a tear to the eye.

The Battle of Five Armies would have had to perform miracles to have been as good as the conclusions to The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and it didn't. It remains in the shadows of the mountain that is The Return if the King, but that doesn't mean it's not a good film. It's a great film, with some fantastic, jaw-dropping moments. And for those people who have grown up watching Jackson create magic on screen, it is a fitting, loving finale to a great series of films.

Review: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

A family drama, a whodunit, and an examination of racial politics in the 1970s, Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng is many things, and successfully so.

Lydia is the favourite middle child of Marilyn and James Lee. Clever, a hard worker, she looks set to fulfil her mother's dream of becoming a doctor. Then, one day, Lydia goes missing. And soon, she is found dead in a nearby lake. Each member of her family deals with Lydia's death in different ways - Marilyn is determined to prove Lydia was a happy teenager who did not harm herself, James puts himself on a path that could destroy his marriage, Lydia's brother Nathan is convinced Jack, who is sort of the boy next door, is responsible for what happened to Lydia. But it's Hannah, Lydia's younger sister, who is the most observant and knowledgeable of all.

At the centre of the novel is Lydia, who dies right at the beginning, but whose presence haunts us as much as it does her family throughout the book. You can draw comparisons between Everything I Never Told You and The Lovely Bones, but unlike that novel, Lydia has no voice of her own (and what happened to her is a lot less clear). Instead, we get to know Lydia through her family's memories of her, and some flashbacks, but none in the first person. That Ng has managed to create such a strong sense of character for a character we never meet in the present is stunning.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Fiction books of the year 2014

It's that time of year when books of 2014 round-ups are appearing everywhere. I might not have the prestige of a national newspaper, or the fame of a top writer, but hopefully my choices will throw up a few books to add to your to-read pile. Most of my choices are, by complete coincidence, by women. Here goes...

Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel
If I had to pick favourites from my books of the year, this would be one of them. A beautiful, literary post-apocalyptic tale about art, the interpretation of it, memory and community, Station Eleven is as close to perfection as you can get in book form.

The Enchanted by Rene Denfeld
I read this book months and months and months ago, and when I think about it, it still feels as though someone is squeezing my heart. This would be the other book I'd pick if I was picking favourites of my favourites, because even though it's harrowing and painful, it's also utterly brilliant.

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
I'm not a funny book type of person, but Dear Committee Members is not just funny, it's witty and moving and a little bit sad. And it's also written entirely as letters, all by one person, which shouldn't work. But it does.

The Storms of War by Kate Williams
Epic family drama against the background of the First World War, Williams covers feminism, love, desire and more in the first instalment of this series. Forget Downton Abbey, pick this up instead.
The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman
I'm not picking books by women on purpose (even though 2014 has been dubbed by many as the year of reading women), but there was just so much out there this year written by fabulous women. Not only is The Fair Fight written by an uber cool woman, its focus is also women who are busy breaking glass ceilings. This book kicks butt all around.
The Secret Place by Tana French
Yes, this is a crime novel, but it's also a novel about teenage girls and the secret world they inhabit. French had me guessing the murderer until the very end, and also impressed me with how good she is at getting inside the mind of teenagers.

Dear Daughter by Elizabeth Little
This is also a murder mystery, but of a completely different kind to The Secret Place. I loved the snarky narrator, the pop culture references and the sheer whodunnit-ness of it. This is a novel for right now, and it's fun with it.
Her by Harriet Lane
This book is a master class in how to do psychological thrillery type fiction, and that ending still has me stunned.
My review

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
Who knew a story about an old woman trying to track down her friend would have me on the edge of my seat? Healey's book is moving, and packs as much of a punch as any thriller. It's also a beautifully illustrated novel.
My review

The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
A book by a man! That's not why this book is on my list though. It's here because it's a zombie novel that manages to not be about zombies at all, but about humanity and the places it can be found. Absolutely brilliant.
My review


Monday, 1 December 2014

Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

I get the train to and from work every day, but I can't say that I pay much attention to what's happening outside - I'm too busy reading (and sometimes sleeping, shh).

And I think Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train is the perfect book to read while commuting, for reasons that are sort of obvious.

Rachel gets the train to and from work every day, and every day the train stops at red lights in the same place - opposite a house that is home to a beautiful young couple. Rachel has given them names, and careers, and lives vicariously through her imagined version of their perfect lives. And then one day, things are not so perfect. The woman in Rachel's perfect couple goes missing, and the man is under suspicion, and Rachel thinks she knows something about what happened.

The unreliable narrator is in vogue right now, but Hawkins injects a welcome shot of something different into Rachel. She's definitely an unreliable narrator, but Rachel wants more than anything to be reliable. She knows people don't trust her, and she knows she's give them no reason to, but she also knows that she's not cried wolf before about something like this. Accompanying Rachel as she struggles to work out what she knows about the missing woman, and how she knows it, is fascinating. Hawkins has created a character full to the brim with faults, but despite that Rachel is sympathetic and likeable, and I rooted for her all the way through.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...