Tuesday, September 25, 2012

For Review: Nothing Is Heavy ~ Vicki Jarrett

I love coincidences. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, but I love the way that humans bumble along and accidentally collide every now and then. I find connections between people fascinating, always just a case of people happening to be in a certain place at a certain time. Nothing Is Heavy is full of coincidence, of lives somehow coming together in ways that don't seem significant at the time, until something happens that makes you see things differently.

Edinburgh is one of my favourite cities to write and read about, so I was a happy bunny when this book popped through my letter box. Set in the centre of the city, in a landscape familiar with Irvine Welsh, Nothing Is Heavy begins on Junction Street. Here, Beth is working late at night in a chip shop, while Amber dances round a pole in a bar across the street. Meanwhile, George is dressed up in a monkey suit on a night out and decides to get himself some chips. Then someone dies, and that someone was connected with a drug deal that was going to make a lot of money. Cue Amber and Beth meeting, running away with a bag of cash in a chip van. Throughout the novel, more stories are revealed and the characters begin to admit and to realise things about themselves that had been hidden before.

The book, at 252 pages, largely takes place over that one night. The narrator takes turns in looking at events from Beth, Amber, and George's points of view. The result is a novel that is multilayered quite quickly, but given that the lives of the characters connect and interact, this doesn't become confusing. Towards the end, there is an unexpected shift into first person that I initially wasn't sure about, but each character gets a turn and it does provide a kind of closure. As endings go, this one was very sweet, and quite sentimental. I don't read enough books that end like this (so used, and so happy, with stories that end with sadness, or with threads that don't tie up), but I think for a novel that is so everywhere with so many lives overlapping, it's interesting to see them come together neatly eventually.

Nothing Is Heavy
was brilliant fun to read. It was funny one paragraph, then thoughtful, sad one chapter, ridiculous the next. A fast-paced novel, with moments of clever writing, I'm excited by this debut novel. I put the book down last night with a smile on my face, and I liked that. Not often do I get such a feeling a peace from a novel, and nor did I expect one from a story so bizarre. Realistic and likeable characters, a great setting, a crazy plot; Jarrett has offered a very enjoyable read.

Monday, September 24, 2012

For Review: Of Mice and Men ~ John Steinbeck

Bit silly, really, only getting round to this now. The third year class I'm doing my first teaching placement with was reading this, and I got myself round to reading it (after having the book on my to be read list for so long). Not so sure of what to say about this that everyone doesn't already know. Even I'd heard of George and Lennie before. But I'm living proof that not everybody reads Of Mice and Men at school, so here's what happens:

George and Lennie are two men in Steinbeck's America, looking for work on a ranch. The idea is to work really hard, earn a lot of money, and live the American dream, off the fatta the land. We meet George and Lennie on the road, where they're heading away from the previous ranch because of something that Lennie did. Lennie Small is a huge man, even if a 'crazy bastard', and all he wants is some rabbits to tend and pet.

They pair reach a ranch and are given work. There, they meet Old Candy and his elderly dog, their mean boss Curley and his tarty wife, and black farm hand Crooks. That's ageism, sexism, and racism. The result is some confusing and conflicting relationships. All the characters are lonely, victimised by some means or another. So the happiest little (it's less than two hundred pages long) novella, this isn't. But it's powerful, and very tender, in a way that Steinbeck really mastered. Suffice to say, the book is poignant, resonant, and it made me shed a tear or four at the end.

Previously, I've 'only' read The Grapes of Wrath, but Steinbeck creates such stunning scenes that I'll have to find some more to read.

And an FYI that I didn't know, but now do: The title Of Mice and Men comes from Robert Burns' Tae A Mouse - The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley. Might be useful for a pub quiz some time.

Friday, September 14, 2012

For Review: The Wanderer ~ Sharon Creech

It's always exciting to go back to an author that you loved ten years ago. I remember reading, and thoroughly enjoying, Sharon Creech's Walk Two Moons, which won the Newbery Medal in 1995. Much older than I was then, it was almost a treat to go back and visit another of her titles, so I picked up The Wanderer.

Thirteen year old Sophie is about to set off to sea with her uncles and her cousins. She's very excited about the trip, sailing across the Atlantic ocean to visit her grandfather in England. Sophie feels as though the sea is calling her, daring her to go, but when she gets on board, she's not entirely sure how she feels about the water. Still, she's a keen sailor, and she soon learns how to sail properly, and how to navigate the ocean. However, Sophie has to contend with her cousin Brian, who is serious and insists she stops telling stupid stories that are lies, and Cody, who is never good at taking anything seriously at all, and encourages her imagination.

Most of the novel is told from Sophie's point of view in her journal, but what is interesting is comparing this with Cody's log of the trip. He wonders about Sophie who, and it is revealed early on, is actually an adopted orphan. Everyone but Sophie seems to be aware of this, and they don't understand how Sophie can have memories and stories from a grandfather that she has in fact never met. So Sophie's past is mysterious to the reader, but threads of the hidden truth permeate her narrative the more the journey moves on. It's not an easy sail, and it's curious to watch how the nature of the water makes an effect on Sophie's memories.

The various familial relationships in The Wanderer can be amusing, dark, and sometimes quite complicated. For myself, as a female, I enjoyed reading about the different kinds of male relationships - father and son, brothers, cousins, grandparents, uncles. Creech has presented an interesting look at family, and what it means to be family, but on a boat, and in the midst of treacherous waters. The result is a book that is fast-paced and exciting, but often very thoughtful and tender.

For the record, I'm now training to be a secondary school English teacher and, as part of this, I think it's important that I pick up young adult titles to read. So, it's official, that my website will include young adult reviews from time to time, but there won't be any nonsense - promise.

Saturday, September 08, 2012

For Review: My Gun Was As Tall As Me ~ Toni Davidson

In the Alps, Tuvol decides to commit suicide. But he's rescued by NGO worker Dominque who takes him to a South East Asian jungle, where Lynch and Leer have suffered a military attack on their village. Somewhere among it all, the journalist Reuss has created and left his video field notes.

That's a lot to take in, but My Gun Was As Tall As Me moves all of these threads, and ties them together in various places. First is Tuvol, the son of a great humanitarian who is dying in hospital. The relationship between father and son, it is revealed, has always been damaging, and it's understandable that Tuvol has turned into the awkward young man that he is. But, for all his awkwardness, his heart is in the right place and he's very likeable. And he's saved by Dominique, a very spirited young woman who is completely devoted to her cause at the clinic. Through Tuvol's eyes, Dominique is fiery, and exciting. On her own, I don't like her much. I sympathise with her situation and her past, but she wasn't a character I was ever hugely concerned with.

Lynch and Leer, however, were fascinating. Twins whose mother denied them their speech (the less I say on that the better here), the boys communicate through signs and drawing. From escaping the bloodbath of the their home village, the twins travel to find a way to safety, always looking out for their father who disappeared during the attack. Verlaine was a character I really loved, and Lynch and Leer's desperation to find him was very moving. The chapters that followed the boys' story were my favourite, perhaps because the South East Asian jungle was a new territory for me, and the constant danger they were in was always worrying. Not to mention that their journey was broken up with chapters from Tuvol and Dominique.

The book is quite fragmented, fitting in all these various strands and putting them together. About half way through as the stories became more connected, I was concerned that things would end up tying together too neatly, but by the end that didn't happen; the story remained true to itself and realistic.

Given the content of the novel - child soldiers, death, slaughter, suicide, dysfunctional family relationships - it wasn't possible not to be moved. The story was underlined with a subtle passion, but it was never overly sentimental. Toni Davidson has pulled off a very thoughtful novel, and while My Gun Was As Tall As Me might not be the usual kind of story I'd pick up, it was enjoyable and well crafted.

Saturday, September 01, 2012

Scottish Summer Reading Challenge? After Thoughts.

So it's September, and my Scottish reading challenge is over. How do I feel about it? Pretty bad. It was a poor effort.

When I did my Victorian literature challenge a couple of years ago, well over one hundred people signed up and took part. For this Scottish literature challenge? Four or five, all or most of which were actually Scottish. This is completely not the thing I'd set out to do.

And it's not from lack of trying. Thanks to the internet and Blogger etc, I know that my challenge page got plenty views, as did the reviews I did for the challenge, and I also know that the majority (as is the way with the world in general) were from the States. So what does this tell me?

Sadly, the suggestion is that the blogging world doesn't seem to have much interest in Scottish fiction. Why not? Are there weird ideas or stereotypes floating around the internet about what Scottish writers do? Or is there not any information at all? Do bloggers and readers just not know about how great Scottish literature can be?

Yeah, the latter would be my thinking. Hence the reading challenge in the first place. Either I've failed in my job to get readers excited, or people don't care. Maybe it's a little bit of both. But, on behalf of the Scottish writers that I know and love, I'm more than a little disappointed.

The campaign for Scottish literature doesn't end here. Naturally, I will continue to read and review Scottish writers, and I will always include that little label of  'Scottish' so that readers can find them easily.

For myself, I had a fantastic time introducing myself to some brilliant Scottish literature. I read: Louise Welsh, Christopher Brookmyre, J. David Simons, Alasdair Gray, Irvine Welsh, James Kelman, and Ali Smith. That's some mega list. The result? A happy pride for the literature produced by writers from my country - and a determination to get the blogosphere to pay more attention to Scottish fiction.