Wednesday, September 10, 2014

For Review: Goose ~ Dawn O'Porter

Goose is the sequel to one of my favourite books of last year - Paper Aeroplanes. This book takes place a few years after the previous one and sees best friends Flo and Renee in their final year of high school. They have plans to do well in their exams, leave the island of Guernsey together, and to grow up happily at university together. However, they quickly discover that being eighteen isn't all happiness and light. The result is another funny, tender, bittersweet novel about friends, relationships, and growing up.

With both girls uncertain about the future and hurting because of troubled pasts, Flo and Renee begin to gradually grow apart. To deal with their current conflicting feelings, Flo finds herself discovering faith in God, while Renee becomes involved in a problematic relationship with an older man (who calls her 'babe', which is very gross!). The chapters are divided itno sections told from each of the girls' points of views to show both of their stories in a way that is beautifully intimate. While some of their thoughts can be somewhat repetitive, largely their narrations are refreshingly thoughtful and private. This is the kind of book I wish I'd read when I was a teenager, full of genuine thoughts and worries about periods, sex, and relationships. Both Flo and Renee go through the important questions of when they should be having sex, and who that should be with. They both have very different attitudes to their relationships with men, but they are both young women who recognise that they have right to look after their body, and that sex is something that should happen on their own terms.

Renee, however, goes through some intense and some rather depressing episodes with her new older boyfriend before she is able to make such mature realisations about herself. Every teenage girl worries about their relationships and the roles they should play as part of that. My teenage years are long behind me, but O'Porter really makes those worries and concerns vivid. That said, much of what Renee goes through isn't just confined to being an eighteen year old. Her boyfriend Dean is disgusting, and not just because he calls her 'babe' all the time. He's slimy, and shares some horrible views about women and sex, judging Renee along the way. Her relationship with Dean is only one part of her story, though, alongside falling out with Flo, looking after her elderly nana, and a heart-broken aunty and pet goose.

Meanwhile, Flo is seeing a man that doesn't return her attentions and affections because he devotes himself his faith above all else. That, and she's struggling with feeling lonely, particularly when she worries about leaving for university on her own. What O'Porter portrays so well with Flo is the idea of faith, and of discovering God. I've read many young adult/coming-of-age novels that have involved young people falling out of love with God, of teenagers that reject any concept of religion as they have 'grown out' of it. Instead, in Goose, Flo is exploring Christianity for the first time, which is both strange and exciting for her. There are parts of the faith and ways of understanding faith that are too overwhelming for her, and too involved, but there are also many parts that she accepts, and that ultimately help her to move on in her life. I applaud O'Porter for presenting a teenager enjoying their faith, and for showing the difficulties that many religious young people face - both with what they believe, and the way they are treated for it.

As with Paper Aeroplanes, Goose packs a lot of issues, problems, hilarity, and emotion into a relatively few pages. It's exciting to watch the two young women living their lives, being eighteen year olds, and heartwrenching to see them make mistakes. But they learn from them, and that is all part of the journey of growing up. There are apparently two more books about Flo and Renee yet to written, and I'm already very much looking forward to reading more about them and learning about what they get up to next.

Hot Key Books: 2014;
228 pages.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

For Review: First Time Solo ~ Iain Maloney

1943, and Jack Devine leaves his home farm in Aberdeen to embark on his journey to become an RAF pilot. He takes his trumpet with him, too, and soon finds himself forming a jazz band with a few friends. In First Time Solo, the threats of World War II simmer in the background, but the focus is on Jack and his new friendships, particularly with violent Communist Glaswegian Joe. As the novel progresses, so do Jack's abilities as a pilot, while tensions grow between the small group of friends.

Initially, I struggled with Jack's first person narration. Throughout the novel, when he was thinking to himself, the style was too staccato and disjointed in a way that was quite frustrating. Thankfully, in the scenes involving flying or his friends the prose becomes much more readable. Jack and his friends perform music together, go out drinking together, get in fights, meet women. World War II, then, appears much more as a backdrop for a story about a few friends rather than a driving force for the novel. Violent cursing Joe was the most interesting of the characters, I felt, with the most colourful personality of the group. He's unpleasant to the point of ostracising himself, ruled by his anger more than anything else. Because of how protagonist Jack's inner monologues were narrated, I did struggle to get a real grasp of his character, but he seemed like an alright kind of guy.

A tragic incident surrounding Joe and his sworn enemy Clive was the most compelling part of the story. The rest, as I say, was Jack trying to find his feet in this group of friends between playing music and flying solo. At one point, Jack finally agrees to go with his friend Terry (another of the slightly more engaging characters) to a brothel. Jack has just spoken to some musicians from New Orleans, so thinking about that, he chooses a black prostitute. But while he's in bed with her, he starts thinking about slave music, so he leaves. Perhaps I missed something there, but that particular episode left me feeling rather uncomfortable.

By the end of the novel, Jack is on his way to be a pilot in the war effort. Then it just ends. I'm all for open endings, but it felt as though there should have been a little something more to make it an ending, rather than just an end. Unfortunately, I finished the book without any particular feelings towards Jack, or his fate.

First Time Solo was interesting so far as a look into how RAF pilots were trained in World War II, and this was the aspect that I took away most from the book. That, and horrible violent Joe, who again was interesting because he could be unpredictable - the plot lines involving him were the most enjoyable to read.

Thanks to Freight Books for providing this book for review: 2014;
212 pages.

Tuesday, September 02, 2014

For Review: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage - Haruki Murakami

I'm a massive Murakami fan. Did I mention that yet? If you missed it, you can find my ravings about that time I met Haruki Murakami over here. Highlight of my year. Seriously. So yes, my copy of Colorless Tsukuru was signed by Murkami himself, and we exchanged a few words as he did so. (All the fangirling is all here). So, on to the review of Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. FYI I find it very difficult not to slip a 'u' in Colorless, but that's how it's spelt on the book, so I'll keep it that way.

Given the epic extent of 1Q84 (both by size and by content), Murakami has this time written something sleeker that is as 'realist' as he goes. Tsukuru Tazaki grows up in his teenage years in a very close knit group of friends who all have names suggesting colours - Ao, Aka, Shiro, and Kuro. One day, however, at the age of twenty, all of his friends suddenly decide not to be in contact with Tsukuru any longer. There's not hint at any reason for this - they just stop returning his calls, pretend not to be around when he wants to see them, and they don't even show up at his father's funeral. The result is a lonely Tsukuru who struggles to make and maintain any relationships with friends or girlfriends. As his feelings grow towards his new girlfriend Sara, Tsukuru realises that he is so distraught with the break up of his group of friends that is affecting his relationship with her. And so, he embarks on a journey to figure out the truth of what happened - none of which I will share here, because spoilers.

This is the kind of Murakami novel that I'd suggest for a reader who wanted to get into reading his books, but didn't want to dive in the deep end. Previously, I'd always suggested Norwegian Wood, but Colorless Tsukuru is a good bet too, I think. There's just enough of the flavour of Murakami's surreal, world-bending/blending without it being too far-fetched for the realist reader. The focus of the novel is on Tsukuru, his relationships, and uncovering some dark, hidden truths (or, indeed, untruths) about his past. He claims throughout to be a 'colorless' character and often refers to himself as an 'empty vessel', and in a sense Tsukuru did feel at times like a blank canvas. At others, though, he had a personality, and there was a definite sense of his need to reconcile his break up with his friendship group in order that he could really move on in life. The tone throughout is rather dark and uncomfortable, but there are lighter, more humorous moments in there too, though few and far between. Murakami has nailed the feeling of melancholy that Tsukuru feels, even through the bare and reserved style of the narration.

The quirks of Murakami are all here - strange dreams, descriptions of food, philosophical conversations, beautiful and intelligent women with impeccable dress sense. There's a sense of loneliness that drives many of Murakami's novels, but the idea of suddenly breaking apart from a friendship group and the difficulties that makes was the feeling he wanted to communicate, and he's accomplished what he set out to do. My love for this writer creates a bias that means that I almost fall under a 'Murakami does no wrong' umbrella, but the man is greatly skilled at delivering stories and the feeling that comes with them, and Colorless Tsukuru is no exception.

Harvill Secker, 2014;
298 pages.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

For Review: The Suicide ~ Mark SaFranko

Following my review of Mark SaFranko's Dirty Works, I was asked if I would be interested in reading his latest novel, The Suicide. Mostly, the title and the author were enough for me to agree to read and review this. Noir fiction isn't something I read often, but it is a genre I like to dabble in now and then, provided that it's written well and that the plot isn't ridiculous. The Suicide fits that bill.

Vincenti is a detective in New York who finds himself attached to a case dealing with a woman who has fallen to her death from a window. It should just be a 'straight forward' case of figuring out if it was accident, suicide, or murder, but when he sees a picture of the young woman, it stirs up uncomfortable memories that he can't quite place. On top of that, his marriage is falling apart, so he's struggling between being a good cop/husband/father and friend to an ex-detective transwoman. While the shortcomings of various parts of his life seem to be unconnected at first, the novel pulls the threads together towards a conclusion that links them together.

What I enjoy about noir fiction is the way that the stories are constructed - full of red herrings, little clues for the reader to think about, distractions along the way. SaFranko introduces most of the characters in ways that could suggest that they might have something to do with what is going on. There's the cause of death that the reader is trying to figure out, but there are also some dark truths to Vincenti's past that are kept secret for much of the novel too. Double the things to figure out. The Suicide is less about concerete clues, however, than piecing together the psychological factors and issues surrounding Vincenti and the people he mets through the case. When the novel reaches its reveal it isn't necessarily earth shattering, but it's arrived at through interesting means that do fit the pieces together.

The Suicide is quite different from the other SaFranko books I've read, but that's something I really appreciate. Perhaps the genre makes things read differently but, while admittedly I'm not familiar with his other work, it's great to see authors thinking 'Hey, this is the story I'm going to write this time, and even if it is different, I want to write it anyway.' That said, the dark and darkly humorous side to his writing was definitely still there, and it was this that made the novel enjoyable to read. While Vincenti may not have been the most inspiring or original of detectives, I still liked him, and wanted to see him figure out the case, and his own troubles. The double strand of psychological puzzling was interesting and unsettling to follow.

With thanks to Honest Publishing for providing a copy for review: 2014;
279 pages.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Meeting Murakami: EIBF 2014

Sunday 24 August was incredibly special for me - I got to speak, face to face, with a big idol, a real love of mine: Haruki Murakami. I've reviewed several of his novels on my blog, and I'm such a fan. On the day tickets went on sale, my brother and I were online from 8.00am, and I also at one point had my phone on hold for 45 minutes. Neither of us got tickets. Then one day I got a message from a friend offering a ticket as she could no longer make it. When I bought the ticket from her, it was hard not to hyperventilate or cry in my excitement. Much the same could be said as I stood in line 45 minutes before the event.

I've never seen the staff of EIBF trying so hard to pack so many people into one place. Lucky me, I got a pretty good seat, and eagerly awaited the event to begin. Soon enough, out came Haruki Murakami in a tshirt, hoodie, and plaid shirt. Throughout the event, Murkami was thoughtful, engaging, and funny - not always easy to do in a second language, I'd imagine. I made three pages worth of notes of things that Murkami said, and thought I'd share some of my favourites.

On his latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage (review coming soon), Murakami said he wanted to write about the sentiment of being hurt when expelled from a group, and the ideas of isolation and depression that follow. These are hurtful feelings, he said, that leave a scar and stay.

Murkami's novels have romantic relationships involved in them, and these are often the centre of the story. He talked about Plato's theory of men and women originally being one, but being split in half. The idea here is that man and woman spend their lives looking for the person who is literally their other half (where the phrase comes from). Important to Murakami is the idea of a man searching to find who that woman is, and this certainly makes sense as a theme to the novels I've read (almost all of them).

Have some quotes:

"I think of myself as an engineer, not an artist or a creator. Am I a good tinkerer? Yes."

"I have never had a time when I couldn't write. If I don't want to write, I don't write."

"It is what the story decides, not I."

The conversation turned to physical strength, and Murakami's love of running. He talked about his work as a translator, claiming to do that as a hobby, just for fun. 

A part of the discussion that really interested me was Murakami describing how his novels are received in Asia, particularly Japan, in comparison to Europe, or America.  In the Western side of the world, Murakami claims that his readers are more analytical, and think about his novels much more logically than in Asia. Sometimes, I'm probably a little guilty of this, because Murakami's books often bring out the philosopher part of my brain. In Japan, however, the readers accept the changes of worlds/times/realities because they're next to the 'other' world all the time. Unlike Orpheus, Murakami said, because he had to go through all sorts of tasks to get to the other world. This mentality towards fiction makes a lot of sense, given the Japanese fiction I've read, and the several many Japanese films I've seen. Worlds blend together more here, and that is certainly true of Murakami's work.

To round off the event with audience questions, Murakami facepalmed at being asked which director he'd have to translate his novels into film, but his answer of David Lynch sounded about right to me. Finally, the conversation finished with comments about seaweed on Jura.

In an hour of Murakami talking, I took away a lot as both a reader and a writer. At the book signing, I blurted something about how overwhelmed I was, and thanked him for writing his books.
The signed book is now my prized possession. Really, I'm very grateful to have had the chance to go to this event - Murakami is deserving of all the admiration he receives.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

For Review: Middlesex ~ Jeffrey Eugenides

That this book still had a 3 for 2 Waterstones sticker when I took it off the bookshelf says something about how long I've had it waiting there. At 500+ pages with tiny script, I wanted to wait until I had the time to enjoy the book properly. By the end of my summer break, I had 10 days left, and I thought that this would do for that space of time. However, I ended up reading Middlesex over those ten days, plus then some, and read other things in between.

In fact, the book had been on my shelf long enough that I'd more or less forgotten what it was actually about. Middlesex is narrated by Calliope (Cal) who tells the story of the events leading to her birth as a hermaphrodite. The tale is not just of the history of her parents, but also her grandparents and their life in Greece. Suitably, then, Middlesex is narrated as a kind of Greek epic - lots of exposition, coincidences drawn to, romance, war, and tragedy. The first parts of the novel are about Cal's grandparents and their journey from war-torn Greece to America, and how they met and fell in love (one of the better love stories of the novel). They then have to live in work in their new country, where they give birth to Cal's father Milton. He, in turn, does his best to woo Tessie, and they marry and give birth to Cal. Here, for me, is where the novel really kicks into pace.

Middlesex took its time, I felt. The pacing was at places very slow, which is why I was able to put it down, read something else, and come back to it. Reading the novel, therefore, took much longer than I'd thought it would. But as Calliope narrates his/her own life, the story moves along at more enjoyable pace. Born into the world as a girl, the family doctor notices nothing out of the ordinary with Calliope, and so she grows up in dresses, at a girl's school, with girl friends, and the expectations of being a girl growing up. Puberty is a real source of struggle for Calliope, who has to deal with all the girls around her moving through adolescence, while she never gets her period, or develops breasts. Her romantic and sexual interests are only with her female friends and classmates, greating further anguish for her. Eugenides doesn't shy away from physical feeling, particularly surrounding sexual organs and genitalia - the sense that Calliope feels that something is very strange and very wrong stems from her understanding of her own body, and how it relates to others. It's only in an accident that another doctor discovers the truth about Calliope.

And here is part four of the novel, where at age fifteen Calliope becomes Cal, and allows himself to identify as male. He runs away to begin a new life in California, encountering problems not only with money and shelter, but with the various people he hitch hikes with along the way. The novel begins with birth, and ends with death, but also with a degree of hope for Cal, who has found it increasingly difficult to maintain any kind of romantic relationship his entire life. That said, I did want to know how Cal grew from fifteen and awkward, to a self-assured and apparently successful forty year old, but those were gaps that weren't filled.

The chunks of the novel that dealt with Calliope and Cal were the most compelling for me. Otherwise, what Eugenides does best is describe romance, and everything that comes with it. Whether it be Desdemona and Lefty, Milton and Tessie, or the narrator's own longings, Eugenides really knows how to capture love, lust, and all the tumultuous and titillating feelings that come with that. Despite the premise of the novel, the overriding theme of Middlesex is love. Gender identity certainly has its part to play, but the most important and the most beautiful parts of the novel deal longing for requited love.

Middlesex is a rather sprawling novel, covering a variety of themes and characters, and while the pace and page time of particular sections slowed down my reading of the novel, I nevertheless enjoyed much of it. I imagine Middlesex is the kind of novel where different readers might take different things from it, and some scenes might be more memorable to some than others. (For me, kissing practise and near death in a swimming pool stands out.) As it's such a large text, this is likely to happen, but Middlesex offers many moments and characters for the reader to care about, and to remember.

Bloomsbury, 2003;
529 pages.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

For Review: Butter ~ Erin Lange

Butter is a morbidly obese teenager (weighing around 30 stone in UK measurements - I had to Google it) who decides to commit suicide by eating one final, fatal meal over webcam. His obesity is the cause of upset and ridicule for Butter, and he finds himself marginalised in high school, unable to join in with groups of friends, or meeting girls. Meanwhile, he is an extremely talented saxophone player, though he plays alone in his room, and he is also in an online relationship with a girl at school. Only, he hides behind a persona of someone who is much more popular, and much more attractive. The novel follow Butter's resolve to kill himself but, as he makes the decision, he finds himself surrounded by more friends and opportunities than ever before.

Much of the novel follows the 'will he, won't he' surrounding his impending suicide. He changes his mind every now and then, vaguely. For myself, though, I never really felt like Butter actually wanted to die. Even during some of the slightly more intense moments, or the times he felt most down, there was never any feeling that he did want to commit suicide. Perhaps Lange meant it to read that way, but I thought the dilemma would have been more compelling if at some points I genuinely believed that it was a course of action that Butter might actually take. Mostly, Butter seemed to crave attention, and that's exactly what he got - sometimes in good ways, otherwise in bad ways. Pity seemed to be something that initially he didn't want, but by the end of the novel, he seemed to be quite pleased by it.

Butter was an interesting novel, but I wasn't as invested in it as I wanted to be. While I loved the concept of the book, there were places that it just didn't go. For example, no one reaches 30 stone without reason, and I wanted to know more about how Butter got to that state, but that was never mentioned. Equally, Butter's relationship with his parents was the most detailed and authentic of the novel, but while I wanted more revealed about how his mother treated him and fed him, that wasn't there either. There was a lack of reason to many things, and ultimately I think that's why Butter felt as though it had something missing.

There's a thoughtful and interesting story being told in Butter, raising plenty of issues that Lange hadn't consciously planted into the novel (so she said last night in an excellent discussion with Nicola Morgan at EIBF). Lange wanted to portray teenage life as it is, and I do think that Butter faithfully presents that, asking many questions about growing up in the modern world as the story unfolds.

Faber, 2013;
343 pages.