Saturday, September 27, 2014

For Review: Buddha Da ~ Anne Donovan

Last year I taught Anne Donovan's play version of Hieroglyphics to my second year pupils, and as a class we all thoroughly enjoyed it. So, when I saw Buddha Da at a second hand book sale, I thought I'd like to read her prose too. The only thing that nearly put me off getting it was the fact it was second hand. It's the first second hand book I've bought in basically...ever. I have a real thing about having new books, in perfect order, but that will be another post for another day.

Buddha Da is the story of a Glaswegian man who finds himself converted from atheism to buddhism. While this might be helping Jimmy achieve clarity and enlightenment, it is also confusing and isolating for his wife Liz. Meanwhile, their twelve year old daughter Anne Marie is caught between their disagreements. The novel moves between their three separate narratives (told in varying degrees of Glaswegian dialect), giving direct insight to the lives of each of the characters and how familial relationships affect each of them.

Jimmy's chapters focused largely on buddhism and his search for mental peace, reflecting while he continued with his job as a painter, as well as considering how he can be a positive role model for his daughter. Liz narrated her growing distance from her husband, in large part due to his new religion taking up a much larger part of his life. She also spends her time focused on looking after her elderly unwell mother, leaving her with little time to spend and focus on herself and what she wants from life. Anne Marie observes the changing relationship between her parents, but her energy and attention are spent with a new friend and persuing dreams as a singer. Essentially, every member of this family is trying to figure out their place in the world, seeking out the things that make them happy, and they goals they want to achieve in life. Unfortunately, not all of these complement one another easily.

The novel begins with the three characters very close together, but gradually sees them drifting apart. They're never too far from each other's thoughts (as revealed through their narrated thoughts) but the family do find themselves reaching out to other places and, crucially, to other people to find their happiness. The movement from one character to another does still work rather seamlessly, though there were points closer to the end where I wanted to hear more from Jimmy and Liz, but that might just be my preference of character. Liz was okay, but I did have a soft spot and a lot of sympathy for Jimmy. Of all the characters, I thought he was the strongest, and my favourite.

Buddha Da presented as a whole novel, but with three separate stories, at least where the characters were carrying on their lives without one another. Each was enjoyable to read, and while Jimmy was the one I was most invested in, it was impossible not to care about each of the characters in one way or another - for Liz it was for her situation, for Anne Marie is was for her likeability, and her youthful hope. The novel ended rather abruptly - the kind of ending where I turned the page and was actually confused that the story didn't continue,  For all the difficulties the characters faced, Buddha Da offered space for redemption, forgiveness, and hope in a beautifully written story. I'm looking forward to reading more by Donovan soon.

Canongate Books, 2003;
330 pages.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

For Review: The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter ~ Ambrose Bierce

Never Always judge a book by its title. Titles speak greater volumes than book covers because if an author can think up a great title then there's a better chance that what's inside will entertain you. The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter is one such book - there was no way I was going to resist that. True to such a title, the novel itself didn't disappoint.

A tiny classic first printed in 1892, The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter is about exactly that. A young monk is learning the ways of his faith - to be pure of thought, and to exist without any need for earthly desires. That is, of course, until he meets the hangman's daughter - a young woman shunned from the rest of the town and shamed for moral decisions. The monk Ambrosius finds himself rather infatuated with her, but insists that this is because he has been charged by God to look after her soul. Throughout the first half of the novel, Ambrosius continually deludes himself into denying that his feelings are anything less than pure and devout.

That can only last so long, however. Eventually, while praying in isolation, he recognises the truth of his feelings, and is aware that they are far from innocent. That said, he still allows himself the time and solitude to first ask God for forgiveness, then to forcibly stop Benedicta's lover from seeing her.

The Monk and the Hangman's Daughter is a short novel, but even so, Bierce's depiction of Ambrosius' devotion to his faith is thorough. More than that, it's interesting to read his delusions between the lines, and to watch his gradual decline into 'sin' and earthly desires.

First published 1892, this edition 2011;
93 pages.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

For Review: The Night Circus ~ Erin Morgenstern

When there's a lot of love for a book I can be a little bit nervous about starting to read it for myself. Sometimes I'll even opt out of reading them altogether (like I did with The Hunger Games for a very long time - and I still haven't read the others). Still, there was an allure to The Night Circus that meant it was a read that I knew I wanted to get round to eventually. Now that I've read it, I'm very glad that I did, and I found it to be worth the affection it receives.

When they are young children, Marco and Celia are bound together as challengers as part of a game. They don't know what it is, or even who they are up against, but they both grow up knowing that they have to work very hard at their 'magic' skills to ensure that they are the very best. As way of showing off their skills, The Night Circus is created as a venue. It is as the name suggests - a circus that travels the world, but it only open during the night hours. The circus features illusionists, acrobats, wild cat tamers, and contortionists. To those that visit it appears to be an exceptionally beautiful place with highly skilled performers, but little do they know the real truth of the powers that hold the night circus together.

The story follows Marco and Celia as the two challengers as they participate in the games they have been made to complete, even though they don't entirely understand what it is they have to do to win. Meanwhile, the novel follows another line of narrative about a young man called Bailey who becomes fascinated with the circus, and involved in ways he can't explain. Mystery and the unknown play a large part in the lives of the characters in The Night Circus. Each chapter was titled and dated (from the late 1800s to 1902), so that the reader could piece together how the stories were working together. Storytelling also plays a part in the novel, and it's a gift that Morgenstern executes quite beautifully in The Night Circus.

The narrative itself is sumptuous. Morgenstern creates a world that is just so alluring that I had such a good time being lost in it. The characters, the setting, and the gorgeous circus itself are such so delicious when combined. While Marco and Celia may be considered the protagonists, The Night Circus is peppered with all sorts of flavourful characters. Though not many of them are explored in too much depth, they were all peculiar and interesting in their own way.  The people that visit the night circus, however, are bewitched by it, can't get enough of it, and can't wait to return to it - those were the feelings I had myself, particularly when reading the passages set in the circus. Morgenstern appeals to all the senses with a writing style that is appealingly lyrical.
Picking up the novel again after a short pause felt like a treat.

Words used to describe The Night Circus often include 'dazzling', 'enchanting', 'magical', 'spell-binding', and any words I would use myself would be synonyms of the same. Ultimately, I finished the novel feeling all warm and cosy inside, not to mention utterly jealous that I can't visit the night circus myself. Apparently, The Night Circus is to be made into a film, but whoever is directing it will have quite some work to do if they want to capture the atmosphere of the novel.

Vintage Books, 2012;
490 pages.

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.