Monday, September 21, 2015

For Review: Talk of the Toun ~ Helen MacKinven

It's becoming less of a rarity in Scottish fiction to find a novel set in my home town of Falkirk, but whenever I do come across one it is very exciting. Talk of the Toun follows Angela as she makes her plans to leave the town for art school in Glasgow. However, doing so from a council scheme in the 80s isn't so easy, not when her family expect her to leave school to take a job. Meanwhile, Angela's friendships are falling apart, as well as her own self-esteem.

Talk of the Toun is narrated from Angela's point of view, and it is her story of trying to escape her life and of her difficult relationships with friends and family. Angela doesn't have much in the way of confidence - she is overweight, aware that she isn't as cool or attractive as her best friend Lorraine - but she still dreams of the various ways that the future will be much better for her. Angela imagines living in a flat in Glasgow with Lorraine, going out at the weekends, the hot guys they'll meet. However, when Lorraine starts spending more time with her new boyfriend Stevie, Angela's jealousy begins to slowly destroy those possibilities.

Angela is a complex character, but not one that I liked. Having been a teenage girl in Falkirk myself, it was amusing to see how much I could identify with the girls, how they did their best to entertain themselves, their complaints of the town. However, Angela did not come across to me like a nice person in the slightest. She is very selfish, always looking out only for herself in ways that become increasingly obvious as the novel unfolds. In order to get Lorraine away from Stevie, Angela tells a lie that is utterly disgusting and unforgivable. And yet, she doesn't see at any stage that what she has done might be wrong. Even following horrific events that happen to Lorraine, Angela doesn't seem to quite make the connection.

That said, the dislike wasn't something to put me off reading this novel. If anything, I wanted to see what would happen to Angela, and to her friends and family. Angela's grandmother, Senga, is definitely one of my favourite characters. She is funny, eccentric, and very caring. Senga is ready to give Angela the help and advice she needs, even if it isn't what she wants to hear. She is also a medium for pets, and keen to let the world know that she is still young at heart. Senga is a crucial centre of Angela's life, and of the novel. There are things about Senga that the reader understands, unforunately, far sooner than Angela does. Even in some of the darker moments of the novel, Senga offers light relief and comfort to the reader.

Talk of the Toun is not an easy-going novel. There are moments that made me smile and laugh, but many of the scenes are uncomfortable, especially when an adult reader can recognise the mistakes that teenage Angela has been making. MacKinven's characters are authentic and effortlessly drawn. Talk of the Toun is a novel that is upfront and unabashed in its honesty, genuine in its truths as a coming of age story.

ThunderPoint Publishing,2015;
272 pages.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

For Review: The Litte Prince ~ Antoine De Saint-Exupery (and a Giveaway!)

How is it possible to review a book that is already so close to my heart? My mum introduced The Little Prince into my life when I was young, and I'm very grateful that she did. It's one of those timelessly beautiful books and it always surprises me when people haven't heard of it or, if they have, they have never read it. So while this is a review, of sorts, it's more an encouragement to spread the word and to share this beautiful story with many others.

Our narrator crashes his plane in the Sahara Desert and is at risk of running out of water. There's nothing and no one for miles around, but suddenly the Little Prince appears. He asks the narrator to draw a sheep for him, so that he can have a friend on his own planet. What the narrator eventually gives the boy is a drawing of a crate and he explains that the exact sheep that he wants is inside the box. To this, the little prince is very happy and very grateful. Thus begins the relationship between the narrator and the little prince.

The narrator comes to learn much more about the little prince's life - about his lonely existence on his tiny asteroid, looking after his rose and tending to the small volcanos. The boy sets out across a series of small planets where he encounters different grown-ups, each with their own obsessions (be it business and counting, or drinking alcohol). The Little Prince considers what it is to be and to think like an adult, and how confining and limited the world can become. In the mean time, the prince also learns how relationships are formed, and what it means to love. The narrator and the reader, therefore, learn a lot from the peculiar little prince. This is a book of allegories and philosophies, while also being a loveable story on the surface - the narrator's relationship with the little prince is beautiful in itself.

Saint-Exupery provides a tale that is short, but packed full of beautiful prose. This time, I only managed to get to page 23 before I started crying, and let's not get into the sobbing that happens at the end. Yet there's nothing overly lyrical about the style, even in translation. The tone, when considering the little prince and his stories, is one of curiosity and awe. Yet, when the narrator discusses his attitude to his dealings with grown-ups there's an edge of cynicism there. The prose is put together simply and precisely, but with a wealth of emotion.

The Little Prince wouldn't be the same without its illustrations, by Saint-Exupery himself, which don't just accompany the story but are part of it, and also referenced by the narrator. At times the drawings are used for humour - look at the picture of a hat, and the sheep - but at other points in the story they are just beautiful. Again, there's nothing overwrought or pompously done, but beautifully simple line drawings that, together with the story, create quite an impact. Not to mention that the little prince himself is just utterly adorable to look at!

The joy of the The Little Prince is that it is accessible to all ages and all readers, and it can be read slowly, or all at once in a couple of hours. Either way, I would urge everyone to pick it up, because the world is much more valuable with the story of the little prince.

If  you're missing The Little Prince in your life, now is your chance to get your hands on it! I have two copies of the The Little Prince to give away (UK residents only at the moment, I'm afraid!). This new edition from Alma Books contains extra material about the author and characters, plus a quiz for younger readers. To win a copy, all you have to do is make a comment below, and be sure to leave your email address. The closing date is midnight Thursday 6th August. Winners will be announced on Friday 7th August. Good luck!

Many thanks to Alma Books;
Originally published 1943, this edition 2015;
91 pages.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

For Review: Jellyfish ~ Janice Galloway

Jellyfish is a collection of short stories that explores the following comment by David Lodge: "Literature is mostly about having sex and not much about having children; life's the other way round." While I can certainly think of several novels and stories about having children, there are certainly a lot of narratives out there where people are just having a lot of casual sex. This collection explores these themes in various ways, and Galloway sets the tone immediately with title story 'Jellyfish'.

This first story in the collection explores a mother's anxieties about her young son growing up, nearly old enough now for school. She worries about what will happen to him on his first day in his new uniform, as well as how that will affect his future life. He's growing up, and yet still so young, which is conflicting for the mother. There's a lot of love here, but also something scary and dark. Galloway's examinations about having children (more often from a mother's point of view) are not cutesy examples of family fun.

Some of the stories are very short, more like snapshots of the ideas of sex, relationships, or even lack of either. Others were longer, and these were the narratives that I preferred - with characters to be invested in and care about. 'distance' sees a woman struggle with her relationships with her husband and her son, and she forces herself into an isolation that brought tears to my eyes. Only...the story finishes in an obscure way that detracted from the emotions I felt up until that point.

Highlights of Jellyfish were 'opera' featuring a woman singing Carmen loudly and out of tune in her bath, while a runaway 15 year old girl wonders where it is she goes at night. 'and drugs and rock and roll' is a beautifully put together story about a group of people in a psychiatric ward. The women in this story struggle with their depression, and Alma, along with other residents, reflect on abortions, and how the absence of family affects their lives. Ultimately, Galloway carefully crafts her stories. Sometimes it comes across as pained and deliberate, but in the stories above the characters and their thoughts and sentiments are powerfully expressed.

Jellyfish is a dark and uncomfortable collection of short stories, but not in a way that makes them impossible to read. The stories are of different lengths and work with different paces, and there are heart-warming moments among the difficulties. Galloway explores her themes in a variety of ways, some which are more relatable than others. There are places in the prose that are confusing to read in the way that the dialogue and sentences are constructed, and sometimes the phrases are awkward. More often than not though, the language and the characters are crafted in a way that is perfectly poised, brutal and honest.

Freight Books, 2015;
169 pages.

Friday, May 29, 2015

For Review: Attachments ~ Rainbow Rowell

I've been using Instagram for a while now and, mostly, I'm in love with all the book porn there. There are so many gorgeous photographs of all sorts of books. What I've noticed recently is that there's a definite indication of what's hot right now in the reading world – suddenly hundreds, or even thousands, of photos pop up of a particular title, and all the comments are about people desperately wanting to read something. It was the bookstagram community, therefore, that reminded me that I've had Attachments on my To Be Read list for a long, long time.

What drew me to Attachments was the turn of the millennium use of technology; the internet is still a new and exciting thing, and email suddenly makes communication so much easier. With the fear of threats to computer security rapidly increasing with the approach of the new year, Lincoln is employed by a newspaper to make sure that IT runs smoothly, and that the employees aren't misusing their email. Through a web filter, Lincoln is alerted to the email exchanges between Jennifer and Beth, two young women who share details about their private lives and, more importantly, their love lives, using their work email addresses. Lincoln is supposed to caution the women for their use of their work addresses, but he becomes so engrossed that he decides not to warn them. Instead, he continues to find out more about their lives.

Jennifer is a married woman who definitely doesn't want children although her husband desperately wants some, and Beth is an unmarried woman who really wants to be married, but she is increasingly unhappy in her relationship. Their stories are told through their email exchange, and their witty, amusing, and sometimes very heartfelt, conversations are thoroughly enjoyable to read – no wonder Lincoln can't keep away. But his obsession with them grows to the point where he is worried he might bump into them in person, and he worries about what they might think. Especially where Beth is concerned. Soon enough Lincoln begins to fall in love with Beth, and reading her emails becomes much more than just some light entertainment.

Lincoln's story is told through more traditional third person narration, and he is instantly loveable. Following a bad break up years before, Lincoln has moved back home to live with his mother. His sister Eve keeps telling him he needs to get a life, and even his D&D-playing friends insist that he needs to move out and find a girlfriend. Stuck in a rut and stuck in the memories of his past girlfriend, Lincoln isn't sure he's ever going to do anything useful with his life. Until he 'meets' Beth, and his life takes on much more purpose, and he becomes much happier.

Attachments is a quirky and endearing romance novel. It doesn't take long to be utterly caught up in the lives of Lincoln, Beth, and Jennifer, and every new revelation meant that I was constantly rooting for all three of them to find happiness. Romance isn't usually the focus for most books that I choose to read, but Rowell avoids using cliches or, if she does, she twists them to make them new. Reading Attachments was very refreshing – I've read some terrible books lately, and some books that I liked enough but that didn't live up to expectations, so the sheer enjoyment and the need to keep reading with this one was more than welcome. The structure, the characters, and the clever way that Rowell details and styles her writing add up to a novel that is just brilliant fun to read.

So, thanks to technology, I once upon a time stumbled across a review of Attachments, and was reminded of it again by all the Rainbow Rowell pictures scattered across Instagram. I'm very glad, and I've since added more books to my TBR that I have found in this way. Fingers crossed they'll be just as good! This was my first time reading anything by Rainbow Rowell, and I certainly understand what all the hype is about. It's exciting to know that there's more titles of hers for me to read, and I hope they are as perfectly enjoyable as Attachments.

Orion Books, 2012;
357 pages.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

For Review: Falling Into Place ~ Amy Zhang

Falling Into Place starts with Liz Emerson dying at the bottom of a cliff after she has crashed her car in a suicide attempt. That was enough of a premise to make me want to read this book, and the really pretty glossy cover was an added bonus. The story, though, isn't just about Liz, but concerns the people who care about her the most, and the way that she has affected them throughout their lives.

The narrator looks at Liz's best friends Julia and Kennie, and considers what their lives were like before meeting Liz, while they were friends, and now that she is dying. Liz is quite a force to be reckoned with. She is popular, with girls as well as with boys, and she uses this for her own advantage. Liz gets what she wants, and dictates the lives of her friends – from what parties they will go to, to much more serious decisions. Ultimately, though, Liz is a young woman who hates how lonely she is, with her father dead and her mother often absent. Best friend Julia is beautiful, talented and clever, but becomes involved with drugs to deal with her problems. Kennie is a dancer who seems to take life as it comes, laughs any problems away, until Liz makes a decision for her that changes her completely. Liz, looking at her own life, and the way she has changed those around her, decides she wants to die.

Of all the stories of the people in Liz's life, the most heart-breaking for me was that of Liam. Liam is in love with Liz, and is the one who discovers her car and calls for an ambulance. He is certain that Liz never even notices that he's around, though she does know he exists. Later on in the novel, we discover that Liz actually thinks about Liam more than he realises. He might not be rich or popular, but he clearly has a very good heart, and that unnerves Liz slightly, because it's not something that she can readily understand. But then the narrator looks back at the way that Liz has treated Liam in the past, and it is so utterly horrible and cruel that it really broke my heart for him. There are several points in the novel where Liz shows how capable she is of hurting others, adding an extra layer to understanding who she is, and why she chose to end her life.

All this is told from a clear narrator persona, but one which is unknown to the reader. There are 'snapshots' peppered throughout the novel showing times when the narrator has been with Liz, and several places where the narrator is nearby and watching what is going on around her. The reader has to try and figure out for themselves who this is, and though I did have a few ideas, most of them didn't fit at various parts of the plot. The narrator's identity is revealed towards the very end of the novel, and it was one of my ideas, but having it confirmed was actually strangely beautiful – maybe in part because it was who I most wanted it to be.

What I admired that Zhang has done, and which is different from many young adult novels that I've read, is the brutal honesty about being a teenager. While there's all the fun positives to being a young person, the main characters in this novel have a pretty shitty deal in life. But it's not presented (as it is so often done in the young adult novels I've read) as something kitsch, or cute, or quirky. Addictions, disorders, and mental illness are not just kooky added on extras. In Falling Into Place, there's a real sense of the everyday battles that these young people face, to the point where the world becomes an unbearable place to live in. That's the reality for so many teenagers, and Zhang makes that ring very true.

Ultimately, Falling Into Place is a novel that gets to grips with what it can really be like to grow up and to be unhappy. The characters are explored through some truly gorgeous prose, and the plot increasingly reveals more devastating truths as it continues. The novel is not without redemption, however, which I was grateful for, as I worried that there might not be any. Falling Into Place is a beautiful debut, and I hope to read more from Zhang soon.

Greenwillow Books, 2014;
296 pages.

Friday, May 08, 2015

For Review: Mercy Seat ~ Wayne Price

The world of Tess Durbeyfield is far removed from the more contemporary coastal Wales in Mercy Seat, but for some reason, the following quote came to mind when I was considering my feelings towards this novel:

“Did you say the stars were worlds, Tess?"
"All like ours?"
"I don't know, but I think so. They sometimes seem to be like the apples on our stubbard-tree. Most of them splendid and sound - a few blighted."
"Which do we live on - a splendid one or a blighted one?"
"A blighted one.”

It's the tone of disappointment I think that I connected with this – the idea that the world isn't perfect, and our lives are never going to turn out the way we expect them to. Such is the life of Luke in Mercy Seat.

In order to escape his lonely teenage years, Luke finds himself married and with a son, working a job in a warehouse to provide for them. The monotonous comfort is broken, however, when Jenny's estranged sister Christine arrives to stay. A tension builds and shifts between the characters. Jenny forces herself to get along with Christine and to forgive past choices, and yet she becomes increasingly concerned about leaving her baby Michael alone with her sibling. Luke observes this dysfunctional relationship while finding himself strangely attracted to Christine. There is nothing overly dramatic or obvious about this, just an odd, creeping attraction, but with a wariness too. Christine's strangeness is a feeling that the reader certainly shares, a little disturbed by her quiet nature.

Mercy Seat is a novel focused on the characters and the tensions between them, and that's something that Price does very well. There's a real sense of awkward and disquiet that permeates throughout. None of the characters respond or react in ways that are easily predictable, meaning that the reader is always watching for turns in the dialogue or the action that might lead to further conflict. From the outset, the reader knows that the results of Christine's visit aren't positive, so we wait to see who will crack next, who will make the next mistake.

Because the real beauty of Mercy Seat is exactly that – the conjuring of an authentic ache of disappointment and regret. Luke's narration is thoughtful but straightforward, making Mercy Seat thoroughly engaging, and bleak without being melodramatic. 

Freight Books, 2015;
199 pages.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

For Review: The Way Out ~ Vicki Jarrett

The dedication for this collection of short stories is 'to all those who dream of escape', and that's what the aptly named The Way Out is all about. The characters in these stories are trying to escape something - relationships, their own guilt, the person they've become, the world altogether. But while that might sound desperately doom and gloom, The Way Out is far from difficult to read. True, there are parts of stories that are dark, or uncomfortable, but Jarrett takes the reader along with an amusing lilt, while often also just being plain funny.

My favourite stories include White Pudding Supper, a story set, funnily enough, in a chip shop. The scenario isn't something so out of the ordinary - the girl working there is expecting the usual weekly trip of customers from the local hospital, customers that she calls 'mental cases'. What is so interesting is her discussion and her treatment of these people. However, this is the kind of story with a gasp ending. As in, 'Oh you snide little -' 

In Loving the Alien, the narrator is having a difficult time dealing with her boyfriend's fetish for sci-fi related roleplay. It's becoming too much of an obsession for her, and though a very short story, she describes how this has evolved. And then there's the ending, which made me laugh out loud and instantly need to tell my partner the story, as he was sat on the sofa opposite and was wondering what was so funny. Jarrett knows how to pull out a twist that the reader isn't expecting.

There are several stories in this collection that really stick, as the writing often presents a particular idea or image that makes a firm impression, such as the end of Bingo Wings, which left me quite distraught after reading. My favourite story, though, for this reason, is What Remains. It's that combination of what I love about Jarrett's stories - everyday life made totally bizarre. Marvin lives at home alone, trying his best to be independent and ignoring offers of having a home help. Following a gas explosion on his street, he ventures out to see what's going on, and discovers a severed hand. Poor Marvin has to figure out what he should do, and the result is hilarious. The image of the ending to that story, and the possibility of what will happen next, is just brilliant.

What is so enjoyable and clever about The Way Out is that the stories feel instantly familiar with the characters or the places being so identifiable. But the stories Jarrett tells are always on the edge of something very strange, or just utterly bizarre, and it's exciting to start reading a story and to know that you have no idea where it might go. Tender and heartfelt, but also funny and strange, Jarrett has created a thoroughly enjoyable collection of short stories.

Freight Books, 2015;
159 pages.