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.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Subtle Melodrama on Instagram

Instagram wasn't one of those social media sites that I wanted to join straight away. Partially, this was because I had a really naff phone that couldn't take decent pictures. Relatively speaking, this is still very much the case, but I can actually use it now. I got suckered into Instagram after seeing many posts people were putting on Twitter and Facebook, and it acts like a mini instant blog for many people. Other than that, Instragram is great because I can look at pretty things all day.

So I joined Instagram.

Mostly, I take pictures of books. I like to take photos of my current reads, or anything new that falls through the post box. Sometimes I put up pictures of my nails, or cupcakes, or other things of interest. 

Like this:

Or this:

So if you Instagram, come along and join me - following people who post pretty things (especially books and/or cats) is great fun!

Join me on Instagram! :3

Thursday, August 07, 2014

For Review: Post Office ~ Charles Bukowski

Bukowski is a name that many people mention when they talk about big American authors that they love. Until just a few days ago, it wasn't a name I'd ever read. I can't quite remember how I decided to add Post Office to my TBR, but I suspect it was a review I read somewhere. But I added Post Office to my list so long ago that I'd actually forgotten what it was about (other than including a post office) and what kind of book it was.

Happily, Post Office is a funny book. I really needed this in my life - a break from sad books with death as a focus. Henry Chinaski works at the post office doing jobs that he really dislikes, but that he needs to do to pay the bills. Beyond work, Chinaski enjoys betting on horses, getting drunk, and he struggles to maintain meaningful relationships with women. As a blurb, that might not sound as anything too unusual, especially with the kinds of books that I tend to pick up and read. What is different about Post Office is that it doesn't fall into the dark doom and gloom of many other American novels of similar content.

While there are darker moments, Post Office moves with a lilt that is both fun and funny. The narrator sees the humour in his horrible life situations, and carries on regardless. The tone is stoic, insightful, and funny. Rather than being depressed with his life, Chinaski seeks to find ways to alleviate the everyday boredom, whether that's by marrying rich young women, or taking time off to persue a career as a gambler.

Just a small debut, but Post Office was a much needed respite from some of the more heart-wrenching material I've been reading lately. Again, that isn't to say that Bukowski doesn't include any sad or tender moments, but these aren't what defines the narrator, at least not in a way that is overtly negative and bleak. Definitely keen to venture into more Bukowski - what should I read next?

Originally pubished 1979, this edition 2009;
Virgin Books;
160 pages.

Monday, August 04, 2014

For Review: A Separate Peace ~ John Knowles

John Knowles wasn't a name that I knew of before I was approached to review this book. A Separate Peace, when you look it up, comes with a lot of great praise from some great people. Still, I'd never heard of it. The novel has never had a release in the UK until now, and it is a shame that it seems to have taken so long. Better late than never, though.

Set at a boys' boarding school, A Separate Peace is a story of growing up set at the time of World War II. Gene narrates his friendship with his best friend Phineas. As he reflects on their relationship, he wonders if they are close friends, enemies, or rivals, or perhaps even a mixture of all of these. Gene does well at school, excelling at his studies, while meanwhile Phineas is a sporting super star, breaking records and winning awards. That, and Phineas seems capable of charming everyone around him, including his school masters. He is charming and daring, and always the centre of attention. This is where the antagonism between Gene and Phineas begins. One day, Phineas breaks his leg, and their friendship is changed completely.

The power shift that happens between the two boys drives the novel on at just the right place (when the reader has perhaps had enough reading about the relationship dynamics between the two). There were points where I thought that Gene's insights changed too quickly, or too suddenly, but that might just be the way the teenage mind moves, constantly wondering about relations with others, and where he stands in comparison. Ultimately, though, their friendship is compelling in the way that it is so tumultous. Given the natures of each of the boys, it was difficult to tell how they might react. Gene is revealed to be more thick-skinned and, perhaps, cold and aloof than thought at first. Meanwhile Phineas has his entire outlook on the world tilted by his inability to excell in sports as he used to.

A Separate Peace has been hailed as an American classic, and it's easy to see why. A story of its time, perhaps, including how America took part in World War II and a look at how its young people responded. The boys talk about the desire of enlisting, of the greatness that might come with war, while the reality of the situation presents itself through a friend. In all, the war crucially changes how Gene and Phineas feel about the world, and their own responsibilities of their place in it. It was interesting to see how World War II wasn't just a backdrop setting to the novel, but instead played in important part in the lives of the characters.

Knowles might have been unknown to me before now, but it's encouraging to know that A Separate Peace will be reach audiences further than the America that made it so well regarded. Knowles has written the novel with a beautiful lyricism throughout, but without being clumsy or dense. Tender and heartfelt, A Separate Peace is a coming of age novel that leaves an impression after reading.

With thanks to Simon & Schuster for sending me a review copy.
First published 1959, first published in the UK August 2014;
270 pages.

Friday, August 01, 2014

For Review: Looking for Alaska ~ John Green

After reading The Fault in Our Stars I definitely wanted to read more by John Green, and I'd heard many great things about his debut Looking for Alaska. So that's where I went. And I'm glad that I did.

On the back of all the hype Green has been receiving as of late (not that I don't think it's well-deserved) I was surprised that more of this book hadn't been spoiled for me. This review is one of those that will be vague in terms of the content because of something that happens half way through that I had not expected. In truth, I wasn't prepared for it either. Suffice to say things became rather 'close to home' and it was quite upsetting for me to read. That's said, let's talk Looking for Alaska.

Miles Halter, aka Pudge, is fed up with his loser life in Florida so he moves to Culver Creek boarding school in Alabama. There he quickly falls into a gang of eccentric friends. There's his room mate The Colonel, a small but determined teenager from a poor background but with a talent for maths; the quiet but energetic rapper Takumi; Lara, a beautiful girl from Romania, and Alaska herself. Alaska is gorgeous, clever, enthusiastic about drinking, sex, and feminism. She's a book lover, and a pranker, with an impulsive personality. While all these things attract Miles to her, there are aspects to her that he doesn't like. Alaska enjoys being aloof and creating a mysterious persona for herself. Equally, she can be selfish and focused only on her own pleasures and safety. Unlike other teenage personalities like this, Miles admits that she has her flaws. He loves her, he knows that, but he is also aware that he shouldn't care as much as he should given the way she treats others, including himself. The relationship isn't a straight forward mutual attraction, and therefore somewhat more realistic.

One of my pupils explained to me that she thought that Looking for Alaska was for older readers than The Fault in our Stars, and I can see why she would think that. So often when reading YA I find that authors are too afraid to really represent what teenagers are like. This isn't always their fault - there are agents and publishers that suggest that playing it 'safe' is better, for the sake of a possible backlash from angry parents and teachers. But it's frustrating. Teenagers swear, they are sexually attracted to one another, and they piss each other off a lot. This much is certainly true of the characters in Looking for Alaska. Nothing is gratuitous, but there are parts of growing up that are explored here instead of being ignored. More YA should include authentic characters of this kind. It's ridiculous to think that teenagers don't drink, try smoking, or have awkward sexual encounters. Green manages this in a way that is real, but also often very amusing too.

I think I said this in my TFIOS review, but I would have loved to have read Green's books as a teenager. They're perfect for the bookish boy or girl growing up - contending with teenage issues, but also trying to answer the bigger questions in the world, about identity and their own mortality. Looking for Alaska is peppered with references to novelists and poets, and the characters are the kind of almost-marginalised, quirky types that book lovers can identify with. Looking for Alaska is a must for the teenage reader and for anyone who loves a good book, but is now older, and would have liked this when they were growing up. That's more or less anyone who reads.

Looking for Alaska was beautiful and poignantly sad, but it was also amusing and fun to read. As with TFIOS (and I know, I keep comparing the two, but I'm finding it difficult not to), the message of hope and redemption is deeply important. For me, that's what marks Green differently from many other novels I have read involving death (and, let's be honest, there's a lot of them!), is that he allows for characters to learn from it and to move on, and to show that people can still enjoy life and, importantly, that it's okay to be happy. Tearful as I was reading Looking for Alaska, Green's debut is strong, and enjoyably moving. Clearly, the man has moved from strength to strength. So which of his books should I read next?

Harper Collins, 2005;
263 pages.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

For Review: The Murder Farm ~ Andrea Maria Schenkel

No prizes for guessing the key components of this novel - murders happen on a farm. Of course, that's giving nothing away. Though not so obviously stated, the reader discovers that a family have been murdered on a farm, and the story sets out to discover who did it, and why.

What makes The Murder Farm so interesting as a whodunnit is that each chapter is narrated by a different character. Some chapters are told as by a detached narrator, and the style of these sections is direct and sparse. Other sections are narrated by the characters themselves to a former resident, each of them discussing the family that were murdered and their own take on what might have happened that night. In between the storylines are lines of prayer, which the reader may choose to take as clues connected to some of the characters.

The conclusion of The Murder Farm wasn't mind-blowing, but that was likely due to the nature of the characters. What the characters said about others, and what was in turn said about them, set each of them to be rather odd, and therefore several of them could have been potential suspects perhaps. I'm not sure that I was overly preoccupied with who did it, more just how the characters related to one another, but I enjoyed coming up with various possibilities as the story went along.

Though a short novel, The Murder Farm was intriguing and interestingly told, and a great way to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon with leftover birthday cake.

Quercus, 2009;
181 pages.

Friday, July 25, 2014

For Review: Skagboys ~ Irvine Welsh

Last year at the EIBF, I attended a talk that Irvine Welsh presented about Skagboys. He discussed the novel, how it relates to Trainspotting, and read from the novel. There was a scene involving a competition that measured the size and shape of faecal matter on newspapers. Funnily enough, that particular reading stuck with me, and it was equally as amusing to read in the novel. A fan of Trainspotting, I was really looking forward to Skagboys. In the end, I think I enjoyed it more.

Living in Edinburgh, I find it difficult to imagine that there are people in the world that don't know what Trainspotting is, even if they haven't read it. Put to its absolute simplest, it's the story of a group of young heroin addicts living and how they deal with it, positively or otherwise. Skagboys, then, is the prequel. Early 80s, and Mark Renton, Simon 'Sick Boy', and Danny 'Spud' find themselves isolated and disenfranchised under the unemployment epidemic of Thatcher's rule. Among dysfunctional families and relationships, anger and depression, the boys find their way to heroin. It's the new drug that gives users a high unlike anything they've ever experienced, taking away all the struggles and negatives in their life. Of course, we know how heroin goes - it's an addict, it ruins bodies and minds, and the sharing of needles spreads AIDs.

Throughout the novel, Welsh narrates the stories of various characters - the above mentioned early twenties, and their families, friends, and girlfriends. Some of the chapters are narrated by the different characters, some appear as diary entries, and others are handled carefully by a narrator. For a large novel with tiny text, the differences and the movement from one narrative to other mean the story still moves with good pace. For anyone unfamiliar with Welsh, it's important to say that his dialogue doesn't use the traditional speech mark punctuation, which can take some getting used to. That, and some chapters are told entirely in the Leith/Edinburgh accent and vernacular. Not everyone lives in the city, so there might be lingo that's unusual to others, but 'barry' is not a person, and 'chorre' is not the same as 'chore'. Some of the words and phrases used I only know myself because my teenage pupils use them. [As an aside, I spent two or three days solid reading this book, and the manners of speech actually effected how I spoke. My boyfriend said to me one day, 'Who have you been talking to?' Then I realised I'd picked up Spud's 'likes' at the end of my sentence, which is a central belt habit I lost a long time ago.]

Given the gist of Skagboys, it goes without saying that it's not all rainbows and puppies. There were some deeply upsetting scenes, and I felt rather icky when reading about heroin injections and the resulting wounds. That said, again, this is Irvine Welsh we're talking about here, so expect violence, sex, sexual violence, plenty drugs, and a lot of swearing. If the C word will offend you, there's no sense in even trying to read this (particularly Matty's dialogue, as he uses the word like punctuation, as many Scots do). This reminds me of hearing Welsh doing another reading at the EIBF and there being some disgusted members in the audience. It's Irvine Welsh, people, what did you expect?

The hardest part for me, though, was the disappointment. Skagboys is populated with characters who meet disappointment after disappointment. It doesn't matter where they are in life (a father to be, at university, a professional footballer), there are plenty of things thrown at them to break them (death, drug addiction, jail). For all their flaws and their tendencies, my heart really felt for these young men, shattered by lives that offered nothing of what they'd been promised, what they know they have the potential for. Every time things start to look better, some other misfortune rears its hideous head, and by the end of the novel it was ultimately crushing because the reader knows the sequel. The reader feels the good intentions of the characters, but knows exactly what is in store for them between the covers of Trainspotting.

Despite all of the above, there were places where I actually laughed out loud, and rather loudly too, and plenty of moments of witty and funny banter and circumstances between the lads. The group of friends are viciously loyal, pulling each other from horrible situations, and sticking through the worst of times, even if it's not always the most helpful of ideas. Any warmth and hope the boys have , though often related to the drugs they take, is also to be found with each other. Maybe that sounds like an overly mushy thing to say about a book titled Skagboys, but it's the characters and their relationships with one another that keep the novel strong.

It's probably perfectly reasonable to read Skagboys before Trainspotting, as that's the way the story works, but I think there's an extra layer of storytelling to reading Trainspotting first, as it was published. Might be interesting to see how it works for someone approaching the books in a chronological way. Regardless, Skagboys is an absolute must for anyone who has read Trainspotting. And if you havenae read either, then dae something about it, likesay. Dark, and harrowing, but with small silver linings, if you know where to look.

Vintage Books, 2013;
548 pages.