Saturday, March 14, 2015

For Review: Only Every Yours ~ Louise O'Neill

As a bibliophile, I get a lot of enjoyment out of looking at hundreds of pretty pictures of books. That's why Instagram is so much fun. There's a huge community of people posting pictures of what they're reading, their favourite books, new books they've acquired, and I'm one of them. Anyway, the point of this, is that Instagram is a very quick way to get word around about certain books. I've bought several because I've seen them on Instagram – and bonus if they look pretty too! - and that's how I came about wanting to read Only Ever Yours. Given the content of the novel and the way the characters use and misuse social media, this is maybe a little bit ironic (not that the women are allowed access to books...)

In the future world of Only Ever Yours, women are created and designed to be beautiful. They exist for the purpose of men and their fates are decided when they turn sixteen years old. The girls can become companions, a wife for the purpose of giving birth to healthy sons; concubines, to be used any way that the men see fit; or chastities, the very few women who are not considered attractive enough to become either, and who must stay in the school to look after the rest of the girls. Frieda is preparing for her selection, hoping that a man will take her as a companion. The girls are rated and ranked according to their desirability, and she is almost top of her class of thirty. Her best friend isbael is number one, but when she begins a self-destructive path of weight gain, she is shunned by the others and frieda finds herself falling in with a group of vindictive bitches (for want of a better word). This novel has been tagged as The Handmaid's Tale meets Mean Girls, and I can understand why. As if living in such an oppressive world wasn't bad enough, the young women are constantly competing to be the best, and this becomes especially tense with the arrival of the men. Teenage girls can be particularly fickle and unkind to one another, and there are some intensely nasty moments in this novel.

Only Ever Yours, as is no doubt apparent by now, is not a cutesy book about high school teens. The novel is far more layered, much more clever, and far more darker than that. What really shook me about this book is the way that frieda's narration explored the way that women feel about themselves, in relation to each other and, more importantly, in relation to men. Their entire lives are dictated by how well their peers perceive them, and by how attractive they are to the boys who come to choose them. Throughout the novel, frieda constantly criticises herself, always comparing her body shape, her skin tone, her fashion choices with others. Partly, that is the world that they live in – they even have classes where classmates are asked to provide 'feedback' on their appearance, and to compare them against a peer. But this isn't a concept that is unique to the story – women now, in this world, live day to day doing this, albeit in a much more private and silent way. I can only speak for myself, but O'Neill gives frieda a narration that is scarily easy to identify with.

And we haven't even got to the men. On the first page, as soon as I saw that frieda is introduced without a capital letter for her name, I thought, 'Ouch, so this is the kind of world this is.' That, and while they are at the school, they are known largely by a number. Women's worth is entirely down to the decision of the men and who they want for what purpose. Some of the girls recognise their place as concubines, dressing as provocatively as possible for men's visits, hoping for validation during their 'Heavenly Seventy' private time. But there are others that know they will never fit in with what the men want, with even some of them being disregarded for the colour of their skin, or the shape of their eyes. It's when the men become involved that frieda begins to really fall apart. Her anxiety becomes extreme, bringing with it depression, paranoia, and a fixation on the daily medication that the girls are given to maintain a 'perfect' weight. O'Neill really picks frieda apart, little bit by little bit, until her descent from promising hopeful becomes destroyed so completely. Being in frieda's head, especially during the latter part of the novel, is a horrifying and devastating place to be.

Only Ever Yours is a stunningly dark novel. As great dystopias do, O'Neill has put together a terrifying alternative future and used it to look deeply into the way that women are placed in society, and the way that they perceive themselves, and are perceived by others. The novel doesn't hit the reader over the head with any of its ideas, and it never screams out all 'ooh I'm being feminist' – if someone wants to read it as just a really good story with intense characters and nail biting plot turns (literally, I bit my nails and my skin around my nails towards the end) then it can be just that. But Only Ever Yours is such much more – a dark and thought-provoking look at women, their relationships with each other, and with men and, crucially, their relationships with their own appearance, mental health, and power. 

Quercus, 2014;
390 pages.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

For Review: Dark Rooms ~ Lili Anolik

I love being surprised by a book – when you pick up a title thinking 'Hmm...That sounds alright...' Then you read it, and it's fab. Really, Dark Rooms is brilliant. I enjoyed reading this book in a way that I haven't in a while. As I put on my Instagram while I was reading this, it has the kind of the plot that means that cursing out loud is absolutely necessary – in the good way. As in Oh my Actual God I Cannot Believe That type way.

The novel starts with a death - Grace Baker wakes up one morning to discover that her sixteen year old sister Nica has been murdered. A boy from their privileged private school is found hanged with a suicide note that seems to claim that he was responsible. For Grace, though, that story just doesn't seem to fit, and so she seeks out to find the true killer. Nica was an immensely popular, lively and enigmatic teenager with many close friends and, seemingly, many admirers. One of these, Grace is sure, is walking free and the list of possibilities seems to only increase the more she delves into her investigation. Meanwhile, Grace's parents drift apart, and she works two dead-end jobs to try and make ends meet. Something (won't say what - spoilers!) also happens to Grace at the start of the novel, and while she might not be trying to piece together her own story, the reader certainly is.

Grace, as the narrator, is thoroughly engaging. She throws the reader into the state of turmoil that she's in while also encouraging us to also see every male that Nica has known as a potential suspect. There was an interesting balance between what the reader knew and Grace didn't, and what she knew but wasn't sharing with the reader. For a thriller, this is exactly the kind of relationship with the characters that you want. Her own state of affairs, including a brief time numbing her grief with various drugs, does make the reader feel in some way sorry for her, but she is so stubborn and determined to find out the truth of what happened to Nica that she is, in some ways, strengthened by her grief.

Although Nica's death is obvious from the very first sentence of the novel, her character is fleshed out through Grace's memories in flashbacks throughout. Mostly, these fitted well and were quite clear - for a start, the present narration is in present tense, and the flashbacks are in past tense - but sometimes I did struggle to put together where exactly in the timeline those particular episodes actually happened. Nica is fascinating and wild, but what makes her so intriguing is the path of self-destruction she always seemed to be on. Be it the drugs she took, drinking too much, or the men and women she flirted with and slept with, Nica appeared to be determined to ruin herself, even if she didn't seem necessarily conscious of it. In this way, that she was killed isn't much of a surprise in itself.

In order to find the real killer, Grace has to confront a series of various different kinds of characters. Some of them are prominent characters in the novel - such as Damon and Jamie - while others are barely there in the background. Regardless, they're not just empty cameo type characters. Anolik manages to create each character to be someone significant with a distinct personality of their own, and it's her ability to do so that makes Dark Rooms such a convincing and engrossing read.

True to its genre and its plot, Dark Rooms is full of twists. Some of these were guessable, and some of them smacked me right in the face out of nowhere. There a little twists, and there are mega twists. The plot never suffers from becoming boring, thanks to the characters and the secrets that Grace discovers about them. There is an important reveal regarding Grace towards the end that was something I had suspected for a large part of the novel, but instead of being disappointed about that, I had a rather smug 'Ah-ha! I knew it!' moment. I've already mentioned how wowed I was with the plot twists and turns in this book, but it needs to be said again that Dark Rooms is a real kick in the teeth type of story.

While Dark Rooms is, essentially, a murder mystery novel, it felt much more centred around the gravity of the characters and the type of people that they are rather than a mere whodunnit. The characters, from Grace, to Nica, to Jamie, to Damon, compelled me to keep moving on, desperate to find out what had really happened. It was the kind of read where, when I had to put it down to go to sleep, my brain was still ticking over new revelations, trying to figure out what was going on - a real thrill of a read.

William Morrow Books, 2015;
Advanced Reader's Edition;
323 pages.

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.