Thursday, February 19, 2015

For Review: The Miniaturist ~ Jessie Burton

Cute title, and a cute cover, The Miniaturist caught my attention on a superficial level (because, let's be honest, people really do judge a book by its cover - at least initially!) Then it became vastly popular and, at risk of repeating myself, I'm not a reader that likes to follow hype. However, this title was chosen as the next read as part of our book group at work and so, Waterstones [and then some!] Book of the Year and all, off I ventured.

In 17th century Amsterdam, Petronella is eighteen years old when she is married off to wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt. She enters into a strange household where she struggles to feel that she fits in, even if she technically should be mistress of the house. There is her husband Johannes, who is often away on business trips, working late, and who can't find the time to visit her bridal bed; then there's Johannes' beautiful but stern sister Marin who commands much of the comings and goings of the house, and who has a firm hold on Johannes and his business; the maid Cornelia, a confident woman to likes to eavesdrop; and former slave, current man-servant Otto. What is immediately clear to Nella is the secrecy of the household - everyone is mysterious in their own way, and each of them seem to be harbouring secrets.

That's where the miniaturist comes in. As a wedding gift, Johannes gifts Nella with a cabinet, a sort of open dolls house that is an exact replica of their own household. Feeling bored and lonely, Nella fills her time by seeking someone to create miniatures for her cabinet. What arrives, however, aren't just ordinary pieces but, again, exact replicas of the items of the house, and the pets and people who live there. The miniaturist appears to be sending tokens as omens, and increasingly these items appear to be some kind of warning to Nella about the people who live in that house, and those that they consort with. So the novel unfolds as a series of twists and turns, secrets being forced out into the open that, ultimately, lead to fatal consequences.

Where The Miniaturist really works is in terms of its plot. As the summary above might suggest, there's a lot going on here. There are several lives in which various secrets are revealed, some much greater than others. Nella is overwhelmed with her new life and, equally, the reader is given revelation after revelation, some of which are huge gamer changers in terms of what will happen to Nella and her new family. Nella and the reader are both trying to figure out who the miniaturist is too, so there's an element of trying to figure that one out too. Of all the characters that Nella learns about, though, Marin is probably the most interesting. Her facade as the extremely pious non-married sister of the household makes her firm and aloof, but Nella snatches sneaky glimpses of the kind of woman she might really be beneath the disguise - maps on her walls, eating candied nuts when hidden in her room, taking more comforts than she'd like to let on. The plot is engaging, and the constant twists made me compelled to keep going to see what would happen next. As vague as this might seem as a summary, there's that worry of giving anything away too soon, so often to the little reveals crop up, even early in the novel. Suffice to say that with affairs, stabbings, betrayals, and deaths, there's plenty to keep a reader going.

As for some of Nella's interactions with others and, particularly with dialogue, I wasn't as impressed. Of course, it's the 17th century, Amsterdam, and people will talk in a particular manner. Some of it, though, was quite clunky. Largely, though, characters like Marin seemed to speak as though they were reciting from the Bible, or from poetry all the time. While, admittedly, there are quotes from the Bible in the novel, there was a lot of unnecessarily dramatic and flowery dialogue happening. In many places, the dialogue was used as a way of putting across some 'lovely' prose that shouldn't have been there, meaning that it often lacked authenticity.

In dialogue, and in Nella's own thoughts and observations, Burton is clearly exploring the place of the woman in 17th century Europe. Certainly, the rights of women then are not what they are now, and the reader will pick up the novel with having this in mind - there were certain things women were expected to do (get married and have babies) and not expected to do (anything else).  While definitely an interesting avenue to explore, there were several points where this message was just too heavy-handed. Nella had thoughts about her place as a wife which sometimes were reasonable, but which sometimes sounded like she was composing an essay on the rights of women. No reason why she couldn't, but her thoughts felt very forced. Equally, there were several places where the female characters were having conversations about the place of women that were just too contrived. 'I am a woman who isn't married and look at the things I want to do but can't do.' 'I am a woman who is married but I can't do some of these things either.' 'We are just women, look how badly we are treated.' As I say, looking at the role of women is a great thing to explore in historical fiction, but having Nella (young, naive, married into a new family), Marin (intellectual, strong, unmarried), and Cornelia (orphan, and maid) all in one household is avenue enough to explore these things without them being made in such a heavy and obvious manner.

That said, for any stumbling I did over the prose, there were some really delightful descriptions of 17th century Amsterdam. Creating the setting was something that Burton did particularly well, flavouring the place with landmarks, dress, foods, and various details to make the backdrop of the story vivid. The placing of events, the revealing of secrets, and the pace of the plot are the real gems of The Miniaturist. As a reader knocked for six with the flu, The Miniaturist held my attention and kept me guessing, wanting to know the fates of the characters I liked (like Johannes, Cornelia), and those that I wasn't so bothered about (rich Agnes and Frans). I imagine its difficult, in a sense, for a debut author to have their novel surrounded by so much hype because that only calls for harsher judgement, perhaps. The Miniaturist, whatever one makes of all the buzz, has at its heart a very intriguing concept, and plot twists to entertain and compell from start to finish.

Picador, 2014;
424 pages.

Monday, February 09, 2015

For Review: The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher ~ Hilary Mantel

Despite being twice a winner of the Man Booker Prize, and despite all the other acclaim, until recently I'd never read anything by Hilary Mantel. But with a title like The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, I could hardly resist. (And that's all I'll say about that). Before I'd read the book, I'd also read some of the comments that were being made about such a story, and Mantel's bemusement at the trouble some accused her of being capable of. That said, although the short story collection takes its name from the story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher is about much more than that.

In the space of ten stories, Mantel covers a varied range of setting from the foreign and unusual to the local and familiar. They consider relationships between friends, neighbours, lovers, sisters, and strangers. In 'The Long QT', a man is discovered having an affair, with fatal consequences. 'Harley Street' is surreal, and strange, with the reader perhaps knowing better than the narrator what their colleague is up to at night that makes them so tired and pale. A contender for the favourite (though it's very difficult to choose) is 'The Heart Fails Without Warning', a diary of sorts that considers a young woman's eating disorder, and how her sister relates to this. Among all of this there are stories of children fascinated with unknown creatures, and dead men on trains. I wasn't really sure what I was expecting with this story collection, but everything I got was something that was far more than I had anticipated.

For all the strangeness and all the differences between the stories, what they had in common were themes of death and the unexpected. In some stories, this was more apparent than in others, but they all featured some consideration of death or dying (or perhaps that should be life, and living?), and the characters dealt with scenarios where they didn't know what to expect, or where their expectations fell short, into disappointment. I love a good bit of character disappointment in a story. Mantel draws her characters along through their stories, dangling little bits of hope in front of them every now and then to keep them going.

Mantel is, quite clearly, a brilliant writer. Reading through the stories, it seemed to me that she is very aware of her reader, and what they expect, or what they will be seeing in certain signs or motifs. She is astute in sensing what the reader will be thinking or feeling, and that was something that was quite apparent by the end of stories such as 'Winter Break' and 'Harley Street'. I was intrigued in several places, wondering which details were clues, and which details were red herrings, but all the while I felt like I was in capable hands, and that Mantel absolutely knew how she was manipulating my thoughts.

Title story The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher was interesting, and a look at government and politics in prose that wasn't too heavy-handed. While a great title to give to a short story collection, there were better moments, and greater prose, I felt, in the stories that came before it. Interesting, too, is the range of years that the stories have come from, published between 1993 and 2012. It does make me wonder when The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher was written, or how the idea came about, and if, perhaps, Mantel would have attempted to have this published at an earlier time, but if it wasn't possible while Thatcher was still alive. Put together, the ten stories in this collection are excellent reads. All unexpected and unique stories, I'm very keen now to see what more Mantel has to offer.

Fourth Estate, 2014;
242 pages.

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.