Tuesday, January 27, 2015

For Review: Finding Jake ~ Bryan Reardon

A stay-at-home father, Simon Connolly has always worried about protecting his two children. One morning he receives a text from the local high school informing him that a shooting has taken place, and Simon's world completely crumbles. Soon, the quiet, thoughtful boy he brought up is a potential mass murderer.

In terms of its premise, it was difficult for me not to think of We Need to Talk About Kevin. Though I'm sure there are many novels on the topic, Finding Jake centres around a high school shooting. One by one the pupils, alive or dead, are taken from the school. Simon Connolly's son Jake, however, is still missing, leaving him suspect. Like We Need to Talk About Kevin, the parent who spent his life bringing up his child is left recalling incidents from the past, trying to figure out where he went wrong and what has led to that moment of being without their son. Finding Jake is more interesting, however, in that Simon and his family are dealing with a scenario where they struggle between thinking of their son as a victim, and as murderer. Just as Simon finds himself conflicted between clues and possible truths, as reader I was also trying to figure things out, reading between the lines of remembered play dates and conversations shared between father and son. 

Finding Jake, however, is not relentlessly bleak, including moments of love and humour amongst all the danger and tension. While many of the chapters are rather dark in nature, Reardon includes moments of real tenderness and redemption in the novel, and a quest for Simon to remain hopeful throughout. The relationship between father and son is carefully built between flashes of past memories and what Simon knows, and indeed doesn't know, about his teenage son. While in places descriptions of Simon's thoughts and feelings can seem slightly on the cliched side, on the whole the novel is authentically heart-wrenching. There were a few really beautiful pieces of prose scattered throughout, with this one being a favourite: "Maybe life is just a series of banal moments punctuated by tragedy."

Reardon sets up a horrific scenario and with it not only creates a compelling drama, but explores the family relationships, the fear and certainty of knowing our loved ones. The movement between present tense, present day and past tense, past memory makes the novel a gripping and fast-paced novel. Quick with the action and drama, and slower with reflection, Finding Jake takes the reader through a series of thought-provoking and harrowing turns.

With thanks to William Morrow for an advanced review copy.
Finding Jake is published February 2015;
Trade paperback;
264 pages.

Friday, January 23, 2015

For Review: Life on the Refrigerator Door ~ Alice Kuipers

Like the book itself, this review is probably going to be short and sweet. Life on the Refrigerator Door was read and enjoyed by a few of my pupils, and when they explained to me what it was about (and how they were able to read it so quickly) I was intrigued.

The novel is told in a series of notes that 15 year old Claire and her mother leave on the fridge door. Both women live very busy lives - Claire has school, friends, and a new boyfriend, while her mother is a midwife who works long and awkward shifts. The two women have little time to spend together, and so leave notes about their lives, as well as requests for picking up groceries, or for an extra allowance. Soon, though, Claire's mother discovers that she has breast cancer, so among the domestic and everyday snippets of conversation there are also arguments in brief sentences, and unanswered questions.

For such a small word count, Life on the Refrigerator Door doesn't skimp on all the things that a novel should do; there's a definite sense of character, and a whole range of emotions. The author note at the end of the book suggests that a lot can be said about a person in a small number of words, and the novel absolutely shows this to be true. The relationship between mother and daughter comes across as very authentic even though there aren't any of the standard character-to-character interactions. Some of the notes, however, allude to conversations and events that, as an outsider and a reader, I would have liked to have been privy to. Still, the break-ups, make-ups, and hardships are clear and, of course, at times upsetting to read.

Life on the Refrigerator Door was a bittersweet read, and I really enjoyed the concept of notes, which often included Claire's doodles. It was a good thing that my train journey stopped at the point it did, because otherwise I would have found myself very teary eyed in public (again). This was enjoyable and easy to read, making it very accessible for younger teens too.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

For Review: Paris Kiss ~ Maggie Ritchie

2015 is year for me to push myself out of my comfort zones. I'm making a conscious effort to read the kinds of books that aren't my 'usual'. I can't really define this much other than a book by book basis, but historical fiction and romance are two genres that I don't often get involved with. Paris Kiss, however, combines both, and does so in a way that makes me understand why there are so many fans of this genre.

Set in Paris in the 1880s, English sculptor Jessie Lipscomb is trying to make a name for herself in the art world. This difficult, not only because of the competition, but by virtue of being a woman. Under the tutleage of Auguste Rodin, Jessie learns about sculpting, and meets Camille Claudel. The two women form a strong and intense friendship, with each woman trying to figure out their place in terms of art, and of love. The result is a fast-paced and colourful exploration of friendship, romance, and art, taking place in the excitement of Bohemian Paris.

Paris Kiss involves several different stories: firstly, at the start of the novel it is the 1920s and Jessie is visiting Camille in the insane asylum she has been in for years. The story unfolds as Jessie remembers how she met Camille, and their life together in Paris. The tumultous friendship between Jessie and Camille is the centre of the novel, but Jessie's own love interests form another part of the story. She is betrothed to childhood sweetheart William, a sensible but loyal Englishman. On the other hand, however, Jessie spends her time in Paris with Georges Duchamp who is handsome and charming, but reckless. Essentially, Paris Kiss is full of so much drama that it keeps the reader hooked, always with something exciting happening, or being revealed, or going wrong.

Jessie narrates the story with a real sense of her immediate thoughts and feelings always present. She goes through various upsets and heartaches along the way, but it was her yearnings and dilemmas regarding love and lust that were the most authentic. While the reader knows from the start of the novel which man Jessie chooses, it's the wondering of how she chose and what led her there that is interesting to read. Of all the relationships in the novel, though, her friendship with Camille is the most compelling. Jessie, through no fault of her own given her upbringing and the social conventions of the time, is initially reserved and naive. Wild, wayward Camille pulls Jessie out of her shell. Camille is a character that changes frequently throughout the novel, perhaps a sign of her underlying mental health. At times she is adorable, exciting, and the reader really feels Jessie's attraction towards her. But there are points where Camille is frustrating and almost detestable in her words and actions, something that the reader might be aware of, but which Jessie is blind to. Interesting too are Jessie's reactions to her homoerotic thoughts about Camille. The girls are extremely close, and share a few sensual moments of intimacy. While these thoughts are never far from Jessie's mind, it is clear that, particularly in 1880s English society, a safe married life with a man is the obvious answer to a good life.

Paris Kiss explores many themes, including the struggle of women to break free from patriarchal restraints. But above all (in that very Bohemian Paris way) it examines love, between friends, between lovers, and the ways that friendships and relationships can be the making or the breaking of a person. Ritchie brings a series of bright and eccentric characters to life (with Georges being a firm favourite of mine) and really succeeds in creating the intoxicating and vivid scenes of Bohemian Paris. Paris Kiss is an assured debut novel that keeps the reader fascinated from start to finish.

Paris Kiss is published on 26 February 2015.

Saraband, 2015;
270 pages.

Friday, January 09, 2015

For Review: Notes on a Scandal ~ Zoe Heller

As the first book I finished in 2015, Notes on a Scandal got things off to an excellent start. It was yet another of those titles that is mentioned and referenced, that many people I know have recommended, but one that I hadn't quite gotten round to reading. So when Notes on a Scandal came up again in a conversation with a friend, she passed it on to me to read. One of my favourite ways to choosing what to read is having a friend saying, 'No, really, you have to read this.'

Barbara is a high school History teacher who decides to write the story of an affair regarding one of her colleagues, and a fifteen year old pupil. The novel describes Barbara's friendship with Sheba (a forty-something art teacher), as well as piecing together the events of the illegal relationship, detailing how it started, and how it fell apart. Barbara is, then, not the most reliable narrator possible as she creates a story from hearsay and her understanding of Sheba's descriptions of her relationship with Steven Connolly.

Right from Barbara's account of her very first meeting with Sheba, the reader knows that there is something a little more intense than the usual friendship going on. After barely even meeting, Barbara is convinced that she and Sheba are kindred spirits, and this sets the tone for the rest of the novel. Barbara is a very lonely woman in her sixties (and there are some excellent descriptions of loneliness in this short novel) who clings tightly to her friendship with Sheba. While Barbara thinks that she is privy to all of Sheba's secrets, she is only aware of the tip of the iceberg, struggling become more and more in her friend's intimate confidence.

Meanwhile, Sheba is conducting her affair with fifteen year old Connolly. Sheba, from her very comfortable lifestyle, her academic husband, her two children. Connolly, however, is a school boy from a working class background that Sheba can't seem to decide is enchanting or repulsive. That said, as the narrative continues, it becomes increasingly less certain which details are authentic, and which are bent to suit Barbara's story telling. By the end of the novel, there's no doubt in the reader's mind that Barbara has been working with sinister designs - particularly with some chilly closing lines.

Ultimately, Notes on a Scandal sets up an interesting interwining of two stories - Sheba and her pupil, and Barbara and Sheba. As a narrator, Barbara relates memories and thoughts in a way that is often questionable, and yet there were still moments where I had to check myself, lulled as I was into believing and agreeing with her opinions. Morals and the right decisions aren't so clear cut in this novel with a rather creepy undertone of concern. Heller is never heavy-handed or obvious with what she wants the reader to think, instead offering subtle sleights of speech or observation that make the reader question the narrative. Notes on a Scandal was short listed for the Man Book Prize in 2003, and quite rightly so - it's subtle, clever, and leaves a lingering disquiet.

Penguin Books, 2004;
245 pages.

Friday, January 02, 2015

For Review: Uglies ~ Scott Westerfield

Over the course of 2014 I'd been widening my reading to include more young adult and, more specifically, to be trying out young adult series. There seemed to be such a huge hype and a genuine love of reading about the same world and the same characters over the space of several novels. That's not something I've experienced since I was a teenager and the Harry Potter series was growing year by year.  So, as part of this wider reading, I picked up the Uglies series by Scott Westerfield.

First book Uglies takes place in a world where, once you turn 16, everyone undergoes an operation to become a Pretty. Most teenagers really look forward to this, and spend their time designing how they might look after surgery. Tally Youngblood is much the same. However, a couple of months before she is due to leave Uglyville, she meets a fiesty girl called Shay who is determined never to become Pretty. In fact, she wants to run away and join a secret group of people who have also refused, and she wants to Tally to come with her.  But that leads Tally into some trouble and though she does go to find and join Shay, it's under the conditions set by a group of cruel pretties called Special Circumstances. Not everyone is automatically made to be pretty, and Tally is told that she won't be allowed to do so until she finds Shay and the rest of the resisting group.

The general premise and the ideas behind being Ugly and Pretty are reasonably interesting. The idea of a lot of teenagers being obsessed with being beautiful is very familiar so it's a good concept to play with.  But it doesn't really go much further than that, at least in this first book of the series. There's an interesting moment when Tally and a fellow ugly called David discuss that actually although they're called 'uglies' they're not all actually ugly, and that there is a variation between them - some are prettier than others. Pretties, however, are all made to similar specifications, so there's an obvious look at how being pretty is just surface deep. Hopefully with the other books there will be a deeper treatment of these ideas.

As for the novel itself, it works only on its plot. The storyline mixed in with some ideas about beauty is the only thing that I enjoyed in Uglies. The writing was okay, I suppose, but what really dragged the entire novel down was the protagonist Tally. She is utterly boring. By the end of the book I still didn't have a real grasp of who she was as a character. She was just there, and moving the story along. Tally did seem for the most part just to be a trigger to the storylines. Her best friend Shay is much more colourful, and far less annoying.

All the other characters seem to think Tally is brilliant, and exciting, and clever. Honestly, I didn't get any of these things from her at all. She was a bit stupid, taking a long time to realise the most obvious of things, and yet she somehow was able to follow very cryptic clues to get to Shay. Tally blunders around and things seem to happen to her, but it doesn't appear to be that she really makes anything happen. Apart from at the end, where she suddenly sets in as a courgeous utilitarian. Maybe she'll grow up in the next book. I hope so. And with that I hope she gains more layers to her character.

So the plot really is the driving force of the novel, and I'm never much of a fan of books that rely so much on their storyline. I'm a character-based novel lover and, clearly, since I'm not much bothered by Tally, Uglies didn't do anything for me in that sense. In around 300 pages several months go past, and some chapters were like little montages of time passing. Tally manages to royally mess things up and utterly betray her friend (in a way which, to be honest, is being a bit of a bitch) in the space of a couple of months, which seemed pretty quick. Still, the concept and what might happen next is what keeps Uglies going, and that's what'll make me read the next book Pretties. Eventually.

Simon and Schuster, 2005, this edition 2014;
341 pages.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

For Review: Never Mind ~ Edward St Aubyn

The Patrick Melrose novels have been sitting in my To Be Read pile for some number of years now. I'm pretty sure they caught my attention because I read somewhere (probably on his Twitter account) that Bret Easton Ellis recommended them. From what I've read, I can imagine that to be the case. But even if I made that up in my head, putting these books on my list was definitely a good idea. This year, the box set of the Patrick Melrose novels was in a present from me under the Christmas tree. With only a vague idea of what the books were about, I was curious to get reading.

Never Mind is the first of five books, featuring Patrick at only five years old. While the series of books are named after him, this first installment focuses on his parents, and their pompous friends. Just a short novel at under 200 pages, Never Mind takes place the day of a dinner party at David Melrose's house in France. David and his wife Eleanor prepare for the event, while the reader also gets to see couples Anne and Victor, and Nicholas and Bridget before and during the dinner. Given that the Melroses are incredibly rich (thanks to Eleanor's parents), they have servants to prepare everything for them. What the reader gets to grips with instead are the characters' thoughts, feelings, and anxieties about the event.

St Aubyn's narrative moves swiftly between the characters, allowing the reader a good insight into their personalities and moods. It's no secret that I favour dark plots and messed up characters, so I entered into the world of Patrick Melrose with, initially, a fair amount of glee. Each of the characters is messed up in some way or another – be it through drink, drugs, dysfunctional relationships, and all the flaws of thought and action that come with fighting to be top dog in an upper class society. The characters are constantly nasty to each other, sometimes in jest, sometimes very seriously. Of all those that have been introduced so far, David Melrose is my favourite. Not because I like him, but because he's so fascinating to understand. Very carefully and deliberately, David goes out of his way in order to do things that are more 'vulgar' than anything anyone else he knows has done. He takes a pride in knowing that he pushes boundaries, with his wife, his son, his friends and their spouses. The dinner party becomes a way of being able to play with these desires and, ultimately, to use his power over others in order to humiliate them.

At the halfway point, however, there was no preparing me for what happened to Patrick. While the blurb at the back suggested that something upsetting might happen to him, I was definitely not mentally prepared for those few pages. Suffice to say that at that point I had to put the book down and find something else to do, and something else to think about. St Aubyn isn't afraid to punch his reader directly in the gut, or to make them feel somewhat queasy either. Though there is nothing explicitly disgusting or violent about the way he describes events – perhaps that's what makes it all the more horrible.

Never Mind was thoroughly interesting and sets up a childhood experience for Patrick that makes the reader really want to know how he will react, and how he will develop with such parents bringing him up. Patrick is entering a very cruel world, one which St Aubyn does an excellent job of populating with confused and frightened adults versus those who seek to abuse and manipulate. And yet, despite the darkness that pervades the novel, there are moments of brilliant wit and humour to keep the reader intrigued. I'm looking forward to reading more about Patrick and the Melroses in the next book.

Picador, first published 1992, this edition 2012;
197 pages.

Friday, December 26, 2014

For Review: Let It Snow ~ John Green, Maureen Johnson, Lauren Myracle

'Holiday reads' are never really something I've gone in for, not since I was eight or nine and I read Sheepdog in the Snow. This year, though, there appeared to be a few popular ones doing the rounds on blogs, instagram, etc, so I thought I'd give it a go. Let It Snow features three stories, one each by John Green, Maureen Johnson, and Lauren Myracle. At the end of a long term of marking endless assessments, something light and fluffy was what I needed, and with Let It Snow that's exactly what I got.

Maureen Johnson's story 'The Jubilee Express' was the first in the book, and it was the one that I enjoyed the most. After her parents find themselves in jail following a mishap, Jubilee is sent off on a train to spent Christmas with her grandparents. However, during the journey the train finds itself surrounded by a horrendous blizzard which causes the train to have to stop. Deciding that she doesn't want to stick around in the freezing carriage full of cheerleaders, Jubilee goes in search of food and warmth. This takes her to the Waffle House where she meets Stuart. The relationship between the two helps Jubilee think more carefully about her boyfriend, and the way that he treats her.

'The Jubilee Express' was my favourite story largely because of the character of Jubilee herself. In first person narration, the reader really gets to feel the various conflicting emotions that she goes through throughout the story, and I found myself really liking her, so I wanted to make sure that she got the best possible outcome. Admittedly, these holiday romance stories being what they are, there isn't a huge element of surprise regarding endings, but as a woman in her late twenties who has experienced a teenage relationship like Jubilee had, I really wanted to make sure that she did what was best for her by the end. Watching Jubilee making her own realisations about her relationship with her boyfriend was interesting to read, as well as all the adorable kitschiness that goes with everything else in the story.

Next up was John Green's story, 'A Cheertastic Christmas Miracle.' Discovering that there are a whole bunch of cheerleaders in the nearby Waffle House, Tobin and his friends JP and the Duke (aka Angie) risk their lives in a dangerous car journey to deliver a game of Twister. There are plenty of perils along the way, not to mention the clear sexual tensions going in the snow.

In true John Green style, it was quirky, but in a way that is authentic among teenagers and some of the observations they make about the world, and each other. These aren't the cutesy sweet teenagers that can often populate holiday romance stories, but the story sees Tobin suddenly realise that his feelings for the Duke might be more than that for a best friend. The reader certainly can sense what's going on before the narrator does, which makes things more fun.

'The Patron Saint of Pigs' by Lauren Myracle is about Addie, who is deeply upset that she has recently broken up with her boyfriend. She asked him to meet her on Christmas eve but he never turned up. As readers, we know this is because he was stuck in the snowstorm, because her boyfriend is Jeb, who we meet in Maureen Johnson's story. Her friends have told her to stop being so selfish and to stop thinking about herself all the time, so in order to prove that she can change, Addie agree to pick up her friend's teacup pig during her break at her shift in Starbucks. Addie spends much of the story thinking about herself and her relationship with Jeb, and doesn't appear to change much despite what she has set out to do.

This last story was my least favourite. Largely, I think this is because I really wasn't interested in narrator Addie the same way I was with the previous two protagonist. Addie didn't feel as authentic as the others, and I found her thoughts and actions to be uninteresting, and quite transparent. Still, it was readable enough, and it tied together the three stories at the end.

What also really interested me, as a writer, was how the three authors orchestrated the book. The stories contain little in-jokes, motifs, and characters which appear in each one. To make it fit, I imagine they must have had discussions about what they would include and how. Or perhaps they sent the stories to each other in a chain. Either way, it must have been an interesting project for them to put together, and reads as though they enjoyed writing the stories too. 

Ulimately, Let It Snow billed itself as 'three holiday romances' and that's exactly what they were. The writers haven't set out to win any prizes, but to create cute characters and to bring them together in bizarre circumstances. It works, and it's fun and very easy to read - exactly what I was after. While some stories were better than others, overall it was enjoyable, and I'd be interested in reading more Maureen Johnson in the future too. For reading in front of the Christmas tree, and on a train to spend time with my family for Christmas, Let It Snow was a great companion.