Monday, 30 March 2015

Book review: Early One Morning by Virginia Baily

Sometimes you start reading a book, and know within a few pages that you've got something special in your hands. Virginia Baily's Early One Morning is one of those books.

In 1943, on a street in Rome, two women lock gazes. One is Chiara Ravello, on her way home from running a risky errand. The other, unnamed, is being forced onto a truck on its way to a concentration camp. With the latter is her young son. As the two women look at each other, Chiara makes a split second decision, and claims the boy, Daniele, as her nephew. Thirty years later, in Britain, a teenage girl uncovers a secret which leads her to Chiara. Together, the two must face up to how Daniele has affected their lives.

Baily's genius is that she makes you feel not just for Chiara, who we see as a young woman and when she is much older and worn down, and for Maria, who is lost and trying to rediscover who she is, but also for Daniele, who we barely see. In fact, we don't see Daniele as an adult ourselves, and the time we spend with him as a child and teenager is minimal, and even then it's all through Chiara's eyes (and occasionally other people's). But somehow, I still felt I knew Daniele enough that my heart could hurt for him. His faults are front and centre in the minds of those who know him, but Baily also makes Daniele's vulnerabilities clear, creating a character who draws our sympathy, as well as eliciting complicated emotions from the other characters.

Early One Morning starts during the Second World War, and gives an interesting perspective on the conflict. We see soldiers who have run away from battle, prisoners on trains, families who have been ruined by war, and of course Daniele. Instead of showing victims from the battlefields, Baily shows us the everyday victims of the war, and their suffering is just as awful. Chiara and her family must carry on living their lives as normally as they can, even though absolutely nothing is normal.

Baily gives us a story about family, blood and that which we make ourselves, and Chiara has both. As we delve into the past and find out about Chiara's parents and sister, we see why she is so determined to protect Daniele, even sacrificing others who are close to her. I don't want to spoil it, but discovering what has happened to one of Chiara's family members is just so, so devastating. 

Early One Morning is a sweeping story, played out in two continents and two different times, each charged with equal emotion. It isn't a book that breaks your heart. It's a book that chips away at your heart with a tiny hammer until you're left a shattered mess, and only Baily can piece it back together again.

Early One Morning is out in the UK on July 23, 2015.

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

Saturday, 21 March 2015

Folio Prize 2015: shortlist reviews

The second Folio Prize for Fiction will be awarded this year, and here are my thoughts on the shortlist.

Monday, 16 March 2015

Book review: Headscarves and Hymens - Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution by Mona Eltahawy

I thought I already had enough anger in my body at all the injustices done to women around the world, but while reading Mona Altahawy's Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution, I discovered that at 5ft 2ins my body can hold a lot more rage than I thought.

Eltahawy wrote an essay after being sexually assaulted in Tahrir Square while covering the Egyptian Revolution, an essay titled Why They Hate Us that ticked off quite a few people. Now, in this book, she expands on the topic of that essay, taking a deeper look at how the Middle East is largely home to societies built on sexism and misogyny, and how men use religion to control women's rights, women's minds and women's bodies.

Headscarves and Hymens mixes the intensely personal - Eltahawy's experience of getting groped while on Hajj and her struggle with deciding to lose her virginity are among the stories included - with statistics and stories of women she has met. This is part autobiography, part investigative report, part call to arms. All come together to form a heartbreaking look at a group of people treated as second class citizens just because of their gender. I say heartbreaking, because there are stories in this book that made me shut my eyes after reading them, hoping that because I couldn't see the words on the page, the horror of what they described would go away.

Monday, 9 March 2015

Book review: Attachments by Rainbow Rowell

I'm not sure how she does it, but I don't think there's an author out there better at putting into words thoughts and feelings than Rainbow Rowell, and in Attachments she does it again.

It's 1999 and friends Beth and Jennifer, who work at a newspaper, exchange emails across the newsroom throughout the work day. Shy IT guy Lincoln, a few floors below in the same building, has the job of reading flagged emails, and as he goes through Beth and Jennifer's emails, he finds himself falling for one of them.

Attachments perfectly encapsulates the world when people first started using the internet. Just like in Landline, Rowell combines nostalgia with a fantastic story that somehow doesn't feel dated even though one of the central comedy points in Attachments is how the approaching millennium might muck up all computer systems (remember that?!). It's a book that I think feels relevant even if you have no concept of dial-up internet.

The way Attachments is written, we mostly only see Beth and Jennifer through their emails, while we actually spend time with Lincoln. Despite this, I still felt like I knew Beth and Jennifer really well - I laughed with them, cried with them, got frustrated with them. And because of that, you can understand why Lincoln feels like he knows the women too, and why he falls for the iteration of one of them that he sees. If Rowell can make us, the reader, feel like we know and can sympathise and empathise with Beth and Jennifer, it's not so far-fetched to think that Lincoln can feel strong emotions for the pair as well.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Book review: The Martian by Andy Weir

Here are some things I did not expect a novel about an astronaut left by his teammates on Mars after disaster strikes to be - funny, witty, sarcastic, fun.

Here are some things The Martian, a novel about an astronaut left by his teammates on Mars after disaster strikes, is - funny, witty, sarcastic, fun.

Andy Weir's book follows Mark Watney, who is the astronaut I've mentioned left on Mars by his teammates. He's stranded after the crew of his Mars mission, Ares 3, has to leave the planet in a hurry when a storm strikes, and Mark's suit is pierced by a stray antenna. Assuming there is no way he can have survived, the crew flies away. Only Mark, through a series of bizarre events, is still alive, and instead of giving up he starts planning how he'll survive until the next mission to Mars arrives. And when NASA discovers he's alive, they mount a mission to rescue him that captures the attention of the world.

The Martian is funny from its opening line ("I'm pretty much fucked"), which shocked me and then delighted me. I was a little apprehensive about reading this book because I thought it might be really depressing and kind of scary to read about a guy stranded on his own with no hope of surviving. But actually The Martian is full of humour and of hope - Mark is a character who draws you in with his pithy comments, his can-do attitude, his ability to survive the worst crap Mars can throw at him, his resourcefulness, and his intelligence.

Monday, 2 March 2015

Book review: The Liar by Nora Roberts

If you count yourself a reader and don't know who Nora Roberts is, then I'm guessing you've probably been living under a rock for a while.

Roberts is pretty prolific, generally producing a standalone and a trilogy every year, plus the books she writes under her pseudonym J. D. Robb, but her novels are always quality over quantity. 

Her latest standalone is The Liar, a thriller mystery about Shelby Pomeroy, who decamps back to her parents' house with her young daughter Callie when her husband Richard dies. Richard's death revealed that he was a liar and a cheat, whose fortune was built on a stack of debts that Shelby has now taken on. As she works out how to support herself and her daughter, Shelby meets the handsome carpenter Griffin Lott, but also has to face up to the fact that Richard's death doesn't mean she is free of him.

In Shelby, Roberts has created a likeable character who I rooted for from the moment I met her. She's got faults - her naivety about Richard and the way she gave in to him made me want to shake her. I think Roberts is well aware of that fact - I think Shelby's best friend Emma Kate is a stand in for the reader, sharing and conveying our thoughts and feelings, and we get to know Shelby as Emma Kate re-learns her best friend.


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