Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Books – The Rabbit Back Literature Society, by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

The Rabbit Back Literature Society was written by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen in 2006 and translated from Finnish last year). It is a wonderful and wonderfully bizarre book. The Society, are a select group of nine authors around the town of Rabbit Back, chosen as children by the eminent (and enigmatic) author Laura White, to be her protégés and tutees. Decades later, the members of the Society are adults and published writers. After Ella Milana, a young literature teacher, gets a short story published in a magazine, she somehow finds herself invited into the strange goings-on of the Society and caught up in the strange characters within it.

The writing is very good. It is clear, vivid, and funny, and if it is at times a little detached this narrative detachment works quite effectively. The shifting of tenses is a bit confusing and unnecessary, but this may be a translation issue. It’s possible the shifting between present and past tense might be more fluid and more effective in the original Finnish than now.

Nonetheless, the novel’s true strength is the characters and story – and the premise, I suppose. Or perhaps rather than premise I mean the tone. What I really like about The Rabbit Back Literature Society is the sort of underlying magic realism that never gets explained, and never really even gets questioned. I love that the novels in Laura White’s house and in the Rabbit Back library are rearranging themselves, that a plague of book mould is slowly messing with classic stories. It’s such a simple and yet powerful idea. And I love that we never quite understand Laura White, that the novel is constantly ambiguous without ever being too ambiguous. I suppose I mean I liked the randomness of this book, and the fact that its randomness never feels random, if that makes sense. I also love the idea of the Society’s mysterious Game. In general, the novel is just a fantastic idea. It is delightfully unexpected. 

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

Things – A few of my favourite novels... Part 2

Read part 1, my top 25-11 books, here.

The following ten novels are deeply treasured and massively loved books of mine. Having counted, I can safely say that only seven out of ten are nineteenth century novels… Oh dear.

10. Villette, by Charlotte Brontë (1853)

While Jane Eyre is Charlotte Brontë’s most famous novel, Villette is in my opinion the better book. It tells the story of Lucy Snowe, a destitute English teacher who travels to the French town of Villette to gain employment. Not only does this novel deal with human psychology on a very deal and complex level, especially considering when it was written; not only could I not predict what was going to happen from an early stage, as so often with Victorian literature (much as I absolutely love it); but also, the characters are brilliant, and the ending hauntingly superb. Ignoring the slight irritating fact that half the dialogue is in French and you may want to read it near a computer/dictionary, it’s just a brilliant book. Any slight qualms or niggles I have about Jane Eyre are resolved in Villette; what Charlotte Brontë was trying to do in the first she really achieves in the second.

9. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen (1813)

Jane Austen certainly had to make my top ten somewhere. In terms of historical interest, or which I think is genuinely the better book, Mansfield Park certainly rivals Pride and Prejudice, but for sheer enjoyment factor it is near unbeatable. I just like books that make you grin as you read them, thus showing you up in public. It’s a good sign if a book can do that, and Austen certainly can. I like her biting wit and subtle social commentary. And Lizzy and Darcy’s dialogue is brilliant. Jane Austen is particularly and wonderfully skilled at writing flirting. In short, it’s just a lovely delightful story. 

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Things – A few of my favourite novels... Part 1

I thought I’d do something different for a change (mainly because, much as I’ve been enjoying reading all these twenty-first century novels, I do miss talking about Dickens). So today you can have a rundown of my top twenty-three favourite books. I did try to get it down to twenty, but this proved difficult. Today I’ll do number twenty-three to eleven, and next week I’ll give my top ten. I promise that out of twenty-three books, only twelve of them were published in the nineteenth century, and only four of them are Dickens novels. And yes, that did seem like less before I wrote it down.

But anyway, let’s begin:

23. Vile Bodies, by Evelyn Waugh (1930)

As I dedicated a whole module of my undergrad to Evelyn Waugh, I feel he ought to make it into my favourites somewhere. I’m divided on him as a writer on the whole; the language of Brideshead Revisited is a bit rich for my taste, and I couldn’t get into Scoop really – but I absolutely love Vile Bodies. I like the sparseness of the language and the sheer oddity of the plot and characters. It follows a sort of love story between Adam and Nina, a couple on the outskirts of the London high society scene, flitting in and out of the strange parties of the Bright Young Things. I love the obsessive desperation with which these characters live out their lives. And, you know, the 1920s are cool.

22. The Casual Vacancy, by J. K. Rowling (2012)

I almost forgot this one, but it definitely belongs here somewhere. With Harry Potter being so significant to my childhood/teenagerdom/university life, it’s nice to have J. K. Rowling here somewhere. Besides, The Casual Vacancy is a truly great book. It was so thoroughly lovely to read it and realise that Rowling is not only great at creating worlds, but is just a brilliant writer. The Casual Vacancy is a brilliant social criticism, in some ways the sort of book Dickens or Trollope (or maybe Hardy…) might have written if they were alive today. Of all the books I’ve read in the last couple of years, it’s probably made me re-evaluate the world the most. 

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Books with Friends – The Day of the Triffids, by John Wyndham – reviewed by Chris King

And today we have another guest review by Mr Chris King. To read his last review, please click here.

What strikes me most upon first reading that seminal, yet oft forgotten book ,The Day of the Triffids is how different it is from the movie. I already mentioned that the War of the Worlds movies are very different to what happens in the book; it’s the same with The Day of the Triffids. While the triffids fall from a meteor in the film and scatter themselves across the planet, the book has the triffid seed originate in a much stranger place known as ‘Russia’.

The story begins as a blinded man wakes up on a Wednesday which famously feels like it is a Sunday. The blind man comes to realise that everyone around him is blind too. This is as a result of watching the celestial event of the Earth travelling through comet dust which burns around the atmosphere, creating the most wonderful bright colours. Unlike the others, Bill Masen was blinded before the comet shower and so when he takes off his bandages, he is a seeing man in a blind man’s world. After discovering this, the story shifts back to before the comet debris when Bill worked as a bioengineer cultivating and growing triffids for their fuel uses and the coming of the triffids was certainly a slow invasion. First they appeared, then one or two people were stung, then they were pruned back from stinging and everyone became used to them, humans being frivolous and their nature... ooh a new shiny thing!

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Books – The Help, by Kathryn Stockett

Kathryn Stockett’s The Help, published in 2009, is set in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s, and explores the relationships between white middle class ladies and ‘the help’, their black maids. It is told from the perspective of three very different women: Aibileen and Minny – two maids who could not be more different – and Skeeter, a young white female journalist. When Skeeter begins to think that relationships in their town between employers and employees isn’t quite what it should be, the three of them are brought together. This is another one of those books I’ve been meaning to read ever since it came out, and have only just got round to.

What I like about this novel is that it is about a big war played on a small playing field. I like that the civil rights movement is explored within this domestic – and almost entirely female – setting, in a world of social politics and petty popularity contests, where The Benefit takes on bizarre significance to the middle class ladies inhabitants of Jackson town. A lot of the drama in the book comes from what seem like small issues – toilets, pies, local reputation – but Stockett uses these things to explore wider oppression. It’s done well.

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Books with Friends – The War of the Worlds, by H.G. Wells – reviewed by Chris King

So today we have a guest review by the delightful Mr Chris King...

While most reviews tend to focus on new things and how fun – or terribly – they are, I like to think of the turn of the 20th century, a time I would have fit in with perfectly (or so I have been frequently told). The movies (2005 and 1953) of The War of the Worlds just do not do any justice to the original story of world invasion, by H. G. Wells, a master who defined science-fiction far more than I think Asimov ever did. The Invisible Man and The Time Machine were both genre-defining and The War of the Worlds is no different; it had to be  called a ‘scientific-romance’ when it was first published.

So, the movies are bad. The 2005 version has pre-earthed tripods emerge, shoot people (but not their clothes, so that the first time I saw it – and I have to say I did not watch much of it – I thought that the tripods turned people into clothes). This causes Tom Cruise to go into an angst spiral that lasts most of the movie (so I am told). It causes him to shout at his children and throw toast at windows while his children (whom he is estranged from, gasp, the drama!) explain how sticking your fingers in your ears and saying the name of the yellow Tellytubby repeatedly helps deal with the destruction of the world (or you know, America – I think it was pandering to an American audience’s perception of ‘the world’). So, that’s that one over with.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Books – Emma, by Alexander McCall Smith

AKA: In which I rant at length about Jane Austen.

After reviewing the modernised Sense and Sensibility and Northanger Abbey, I’ve been excitedly waiting for the next installation of the Austen Project. For those less obsessed with Jane Austen than me, the Austen Project, is a new series, in which six novelists each take one of Austen’s novels, and rewrite a modernised version set in today’s world. As a massive fan of Jane Austen’s novels and a massive fan of adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels, you can understand why I’m excited by this project – and also why I’m a bit disappointed   

The latest release is Alexander McCall Smith’s rewriting of Emma. I was especially curious to read this as I’ve really liked the other modern adaptations of Emma that I’ve come across – the 1995 film Clueless and the recent youtube vlog adaptation Emma Approved. Both of these were, for me, somewhat more successful that McCall Smith’s adaptation. Don’t get me wrong - I did enjoy the modern retelling of Emma. It’s probably impossible for me to read or watch anything related to Jane Austen without enjoying it at least a bit. And the novel is certainly an easy read. As with Sense and Sensibility, I read it pretty much in one sitting. Mr Woodhouse is done perfectly. I love that Philip Elton gets arrested for drunk driving. I like the hints that Emma befriends Harriet partly because she’s physically attracted to her. It was a bit random, but it was deliciously random, even if it seemed to lead nowhere. There was a lot in this book that I loved; I figure I should make that clear before I launch into what I thought let it down.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Books – if nobody speaks of remarkable things, by jon mcgregor

(On the cover of the book there are no capital letters. I thought I’d honour McGregor’s choice.)

I refer you all to the first paragraph of my review of Life After Life, in which I ramble on about those books that are so fabulous and thoroughly amazing that you want everybody ever in the world to read them. And yes, this is another one of those books. if nobody speaks of remarkable things is truly on of the best books I have ever read, and certainly the best book I have read in the last year. Or perhaps two years. Since whenever it was I read Ishigruo’s Remains of the Day.

I have no words to explain the sheer brilliance of this book, but I can and will rant about how much I liked it.  if nobody speaks of remarkable things is a novel about the ordinary and the extraordinary. The books centres on one single street over one single day, in which normality is shattered by an awful event. Simultaneously we get the story of one of the street’s residents, looking back on that day from a few years on. It is a portrait of the normal existence of one street, and of the effects of tragedy, but it is also so much more. It is also a novel about death, family, friendship, love, life. I’m amazed at how this book encompasses so many snapshots of different bits of life in one single novel.

That McGregor manages to create such strong and moving characters by naming so few is incredible. Somehow the young man from number eighteen, the elderly couple from number twenty, the man with the scared hands, the twin boys, the girl with the short blonde hair and the little square glasses – all of these people come to life in details, in their actions, their movements, without ever being given the solid identifier of a name. And yet we recognise all the residents of the street as they appear again and again, moving in and out of view for the reader. It’s an incredible achievement.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Books – The Hungry Tide, by Amitav Ghosh

In a swirl of university work, short stories and a new job, I have missed one week and thus appear to have forgotten how to write book reviews. Ah well. Let’s a have a go.

I discovered Amitav Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide (2004) through my MA course, but it’s one of those books that was a joy to be forced to read. I’m not sure I would have chosen to read it from the cover; I have a bad tendency of sticking to what I know, of reading literature with a familiar setting, of reading books about books and people who love books. A book that seems to feature a man-eating tiger, several dolphins, and an entirely unfamiliar environment would not necessarily be my first choice, which is probably a mistake of mine. I’m very glad somebody told me to read The Hungry Tide. It’s a good read.

The Hungry Tide is what I might call a triple narrative. It tells the story of the Sundarbans of India, a tide country were villages lie on islands in the midst of rivers and jungles. The story begins with two outsiders arriving here. Kanai Dutt, a Delhi businessman, comes to the tide country at the request of his aunt Nilimia, in order to look over the notebooks his late uncle left behind him. Piya Roy, an American marine biologist of Indian heritage, comes for the dolphins. The notebooks of Kanai’s uncle give us yet another story, that of him, his interest in another village, and the difficult life of Kanai’s childhood friend Kusum. I love the way in which these narratives intersect each other, with Piya and Kanai’s stories overlapping and weaving into one another.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Books – What I Loved, by Siri Hustvedt

Published in 2003, Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved lies somewhere between a love story and a thriller. It follows the life of art historian Leo Hertzberg and his relationship with artist Bill Weschler and his wife Violet. What begins as the story of Leo and Bill builds into the story of both of their families and the connections between them, eventually settling on the story of Bill’s son Mark. It is a novel about family, art, love and grief – and about something else, something more sinister, something that I can’t quite put my finger on.

I found novel both engaging and interesting. It is undoubted a gripping read, especially after Part One, and while reading I was increasingly drawn in and fascinated by these two families living in such close proximity, as well as by Bill’s art. Yet what is odd about What I Loved is that it doesn’t seem to have any sort of consistent plot. Rather than one story woven through the novel, it is made instead up of multiple shorter plots stitched together. They are stitched together well, certainly, but I still felt like I was reading a completely different novel in Part Three to the novel I had started in Part One. The novel seemed to have changed tone, focus, meaning, and even genre by the end. Now, I do rather like books that blend and merge genres, but I find it more effective when they do so from the start, rather than merely shifting half way through.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Books – The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce

After its release two years ago, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry became a bestseller almost immediately, and was longlisted for the Man Booker prize. It’s one of those books I’ve been meaning to read since it came out, not only because of its brilliant title, but because it was thoroughly recommended to me by so many people. So I finally got around to reading it (or perhaps I should say listening, as I’ve got the audiobook), and I was not disappointed.

The premise of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry is both simple and effective. Reeling from the news that an old friend of his is dying of cancer, Harold Fry, a pensioner from Devon, sets out to post a letter to her. And then he just keeps on walking. In fact, he decides to walk all the way from where he is now to Queenie Hennessy’s hospice. He sets out to walk from Devon to Berwick-upon-Tweed, in the hope that somehow the very act of walking with save her life.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Books – The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman, by Denis Thériault

I’ve mentioned before how I enjoy going into a bookshop and choosing a book blind, knowing nothing about it. I suppose when I do this what I’m basically doing is judging books by their cover, but I’ve personally always felt that, however effective and true the idiom is for metaphorical situations, when it actually comes down to books themselves, you can tell a lot about a novel by its cover and its title. That’s not to say that I might be missing plenty novels by judging books by their covers. For example, take Where Rainbows End, which I read on kindle having been recommended the book by a friend. I only saw the paperback cover when I Wikipediaed it while writing my review of it in order to check the spelling of the author’s name. My immediate thought was that, if I’d seen the cover before reading it, I’d have been put off the book at once. As it was I really enjoyed it. Nonetheless, I imagine publishers have a fair idea of what they’re doing when they market and design books in a particular way. So I picked up The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman because I liked the minimalist cover design and because the title is beautifully poetic.

The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman was written by French Canadian Denis Thériault in 2005 and translated by Liedewy Hawke in 2008. The novel centres on Bilodo, a youngish postman who has become obsessed with intercepting the letters he sends. He devours the letters of Ségolène, who communicates with her friend Gaston Grandpré in only Haikus. Bilodo finds him bizarrely falling in love with Ségolène, who he has never met and never spoken to, and lives solely for the days he can read the letters she sends for someone else. And then something happens to disturb Bilodo’s routine.

It’s been several days since I finished The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman and I still haven’t decided whether or not I liked it. There’s no doubt that it’s an interesting idea, that Bilodo is a clever character, and that it’s well written – well, mostly; I have my doubts about the Haikus, but more on that anon. Nonetheless, there is something unsettling about the novel – something intentionally unsettling, I have no doubt, but I’m still not entirely sure whether I thought it worked.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Books - The Book of Illusions, by Paul Auster

Finally reading The Book of Illusions was, for me, a strange experience. I kept getting an odd sense of déjà vu. After all, although I only read this novel last week I have, in a way, been familiar with it for years.

Published in 2002, Paul Auster’s The Book of Illusions tells two stories, or perhaps more. In the foreground, it’s the story of David, an academic trying hard to cope after the death of his family in a plane crash. Yet at the same time it tells the story of the silent film actor Hector Mann, whose work David discovers and loves in the depths of his depression. Hector Mann vanished back in the 1920s, and we follow David as he learns the truth about Hector’s life and disappearance. Beyond that, we also get the stories of several of Hector Mann’s films. It’s a fascinating, complex and clever book, so jammed packed full of stories that I kept on thinking what a great film it would make. Although perhaps any novel about a some lost films and a film maker ought to be in some way cinematic.

The novel was half familiar to me from the beginning because, four years ago, my all-time favourite singer Duke Special released an album entitled The Silent World of Hector Mann. This album, inspired by Auster’s novel, is a musical interpretation of the twelve silent films Hector Mann is supposed to have produced.  Each track is written by a different musician friend of the singer, and all are performed by Duke Special himself. Each track takes the name, theme and plot from a different one of Hector Mann’s films. It’s a beautiful album, including incredible songs such as ‘Mister Nobody’ and ‘Scandal’, and a fascinating tribute to The Book of Illusions. So I sat there reading the novel with a bizarre sense of déjà vu, because although I didn’t know the book, I knew from Duke Special’s album all the films the book describes. As Duke Special isn’t that well known an artist, and as his album came out about eight years after the novel itself, this obviously isn’t the typical reading experience. Nonetheless, I do think they work wonderfully side by side.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Books – Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

Published in 2004, Cloud Atlas is strange, clever and original novel. It is made up of six separate but connected narratives, spanning continents and centuries, from the early 1800s into the distance and dystopian future.

I’ve been meaning to read this novel for ages, and finally got round to it a couple of weeks ago. Having had it recommended to me by several people, and given vague hints as to what it was about, and having had the structure explained to me several times before I read it, I came to the novel with certain expectations. The structure certainly met those exactly. I’ve always been really interested in form (in both my writing and reading) and love novels with unusual structures. I also love multiple narrators, because I find voices and what you can do with different voices one of the most interesting things in literature. We get six narrators/main characters: Adam Erwing, Robert Frobisher, Luisa Rey, Timothy Cavendish, Somni, and Zachary. So as you can imagine the general set up of Cloud Atlas very much appeals to me.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Books – The Life of a Banana, by PP Wong

Published earlier this month, P. P. Wong’s The Life of a Banana tells the story of a twelve-year-old Chinese-British girl growing up in London. After the death of her mother, Xi Ling and her brother go to live with their controlling and somewhat terrifying grandmother, famous actress aunt, and struggling and mysterious uncle. Xi Ling is taken out of a school she was happy in to move to a private school. There she has only one friend, half-Chinese, half-Jamaican Jay, and is constantly the victim of harsh racial bullying. It’s a story about identity, especially nationality, and about growing up.

It’s a slightly odd book, and I was undecided for a lot of the novel whether or not I liked it. By the ending, I had fairly firmly come down on the side of like, but it took me a long time to warm to the novel.

Let me to explain why.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Books – Where Rainbows End (or Love Rosie) by Cecelia Ahern

Where Rainbows End was published in 2004 (I know, I know, I’ve gone back ten years; but as the film’s coming out this year I’m still feeling pretty relevant). It tells the story of Rosie and Alex, best friends from childhood. It goes through their lives from the age of seven to fifty, covering all the muddles, misunderstandings and unexpected babies in-between

This is a book about the intertwining lives of two people who somehow keep missing each other. It is definitely my sort of love story. The five or so people fortunate (I use the term loosely) enough to have read  lots of my writing may understand what I mean by that. I’m also in general a big fan of novels that span a large period of time. Admittedly, Where Rainbows End lacks the historicism that often appeals to me in books like that, being vaguely set in the late twentieth to early twenty-first century, in a world where the internet existed but mobile phones did not (which probably didn’t actually last for the forty years it does in the novel). Still, I did enjoy watching the characters age.

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Books - Rites, by Sophie Coulombeau

Before I begin, let me tell you how I discovered this novel. I did some work experience last year at the literary agency who represents Coulombeau, and read part of the book there. I then promptly forgot what it was called and spent about a year scouring amazon for a novel called ‘Roots’, until I managed to find the novel under its actual title, Rites, about a month ago. I’ve started with this story because I want to make clear that this is the sort of book you remember for a year, even when you can’t remember what it’s called.

Published in 2012, Sophie Coulombeau’s Rites tells the story of four teenagers growing up in Manchester. Fourteen years old and bored, they make a pact to lose their virginity at the same time, and formulate a complex plan to hide their actions from their parents. Fifteen years on, we hear from over ten different narrators the story of how it all went wrong.

When you give a brief plot summary like that, it sounds a little messed up. Which is the point, of course. But I just want to make clear now that this isn’t really a novel about sex, although the crux of the plot revolves around it. It’s not a coming of age story, and it’s not a teenage romance. It’s a story about being young and messed up. Or, more accurately (because the adult characters in the novel are hardly more grown up than their kids), it’s a story about being human and messed up. It’s also a story about truth – or, more accurately, a story about the lack of it.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Books - Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

Every now and then in life, you read a book that is so thoroughly brilliant you want to shout off the rooftops that everyone in the world should read it. I have read several books like this my time (Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, for example, Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, plus, for me, most of Dickens). Since starting this blog a few months ago I’ve read a lot of very good books, but I’ve read two that come into this category. The first was Nathan Filer’s The Shock of the Fall, and the second is this, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.

It is an incredible novel.

In 1910, a baby is born, and dies at birth. In 1910, the same baby is born, and lives through her first moments. In fact, every time Ursula Todd dies, she is reborn, with some vague sense of her previous lives hanging over her. So we follow Ursula through the First and Second World Wars, through the first half of the twentieth century, somehow both stuck to history and outside of it, because she can change her own. With her half memories, she manages to undo her mistakes, and avoid the mistakes of others towards her. We sit with her as she dies death after death, and lives life after life after life.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Books - Northanger Abbey, by Val McDermid

After reading, loving (subjectively at least) and reviewing Joanna Trollope’s modernadaptation of Sense and Sensibility, I was very excited to read the next novel in The Austen Project – Val McDermid’s Northanger Abbey. I feel my excitement was justified.

Released in March this year, McDermid’s take on Northanger Abbey takes Catherine (now Cat) Morland out of the Bath winter season of balls and into the Edinburgh Fringe festival. She is constantly on twitter and facebook, and finds a lack of wi-fi to be definite proof of vampirism. And rather than being obsessed with the eighteenth century gothic of Mrs Radcliffe, she is obsessed with Twilight. It is, perhaps like all things related to Jane Austen, great fun.

Yet, strangely enough, I have to make the opposite complaint of McDermid’s Northanger Abbey than I made of Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility. I absolutely and thoroughly loved and enjoyed Trollope’s adaptation, but objectively I didn’t really think it worked in a modern framework – or at least, not in the modern framework Trollope used. With Northanger Abbey I found the opposite. Objectively I think the novel works far better than Sense and Sensibility. McDermid’s modern adaptation is, for me, much more convincing, aside from a few moments I’ll talk about later. Still, I’m not I enjoyed it quite as much. I didn’t sit glued to my sofa reading and grinning for hours on end as I did with Trollope’s new Austen. Although of course that’s not to say I didn’t still love it, because any Austen plotline is probably bound to win me over.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Books – Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

I appear to be keeping on an '80s theme. However, this novel shares little else with my last review, except perhaps my fondness for both novels. This was another one of my random finds: I picked Eleanor & Park off the shelf at Foyles without knowing anything about it, not even that it’s a piece of young adult fiction.

I want to talk about genre and audience for a moment, prompted partly this month’s Society of Young Publishers’ magazine, which was devoted to discussing Young Adult fiction – or ‘Crossover Fiction’, as it’s apparently now known. I somehow managed to miss out on Young Adult fiction when I was actually a ‘young adult’ (by which I mean a teenager; I’m fairly sure I’m still a young adult), because at thirteen or so I went straight from kid’s books to Victorian literature, where genre and age-based audience were somewhat less of a thing. In the last year or so, however, I’ve read and loved The Hunger Games, The Fault in Our Stars, and Eleanor & Park. I also reread and rediscovered His Dark Materials, and got much more out of it. According to the SYP magazine, over half the people who buy Young Adult fiction are over eighteen. This doesn’t surprise me, actually, because there are some Young Adult novels that are too good to miss out on simply because I happen to be a few years out of adolescence. I think I count Eleanor & Park as one of these.

Eleanor & Park is essentially a love story. Again, something I don’t read very often. I’m used to Victorian love stories, and subplot love stories. This is a love story about two sixteen year olds: Park, who has spent his life so far ensuring he is invisible, and Eleanor, who finds it impossible to be so. Park is fairly content; Eleanor, new in town and living once more with her terrifying step-father, sharing a bedroom with four younger siblings, is entirely unhappy. They fall in love over Smiths songs, mix-tapes and X-men comics.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Books - Meeting the English, by Kate Clanchy

Kate Clanchy’s 2013 novel, Meeting The English, was a random find of mine. Not necessarily an original find, as it was shortlisted for the Coast First Novel Award last year – but a random find nonetheless. I went into Foyles with a book token and picked three novels from the New Releases section, none of which I had heard of before. I briefly glanced over the blurb and first pages of each, but that was it. I like doing this, because it’s something I rarely got the chance to do during my degree, when novels are of course recommended and prescribed left right and centre. I also like doing this because, while I do own a kindle and often buy books online, I also like real paper books, and I also love bookshops, and I’m a little scared that one of these days both might die out.

So I started Meeting The English blind, and it was definitely a great discovery.

The novel, set in 1980s London, is somewhere between surreal romance and social examination, and I loved it. After the famous playwright Philip Prys suffers a stroke, the world of those around him alters, descending into a chaotic muddle of a distracted wife, an interfering ex-wife, two confused teenage children, and a terrified literary agent. Struan Robertson, a Scottish student taking on nursing in his gap year, is thrown into the midst of this chaos, and is bemused by the world he finds.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Books - The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars, published in 2012, written by American author and vlogger John Green, has taken the world by storm in the last two years. It has become a huge fandom, as well as achieving critical success, and everyone seems to be talking both the novel and the film, which came out in the UK last month. This of course must be at least partly due to John Green’s internet success as half of youtube’s The Vlog Brothers, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t there that I first heard the novel mentioned. But the novel’s success can’t entirely be down to this, because it also happens to be a very good book.

I’m not entirely sure what I have to say about The Fault in Our Stars that hasn’t been said before. But I may as well give it a try.

The novel tells the story of Hazel Grace Lancaster, a sixteen year old suffering from thyroid and lung cancer. At a support group for other young people with cancer, she meets Augustus Water, a cancer survivor, and the novel primarily follows their relationship.

It is both a novel about cancer and not a novel about cancer. I think the narrator Hazel’s description of her favourite novel, An Imperial Affliction, is apt here: it deals with cancer, but ‘it’s not a cancer book’. The Fault in Our Stars is not about the main characters being strong in the face of adversity, although of course at times they are both. What I like about the novel is that it’s more about the people than the illnesses they have. It is, to me, not about dying from illness but about living with it, about what’s left in life when its longevity is threatened.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Books - Sense and Sensibility, by Joanna Trollope

First off: apologies for the rant. This is my longest book review yet. I think I got slightly carried away.

I said in my first blog post that I love nineteenth century literature, and named Austen as one of my favourite authors. So as you can imagine The Austen Project is of great interest to me. Started last year, it is a series of reimagined and modernised versions of Austen’s six novels, bringing her plots into the twenty-first century.

The first in this series, Joanna Trollope’s new Sense and Sensibility, brings the Dashwoods into the modern day, into a world where horses are now cars and the landed gentry are (sometimes) replaced by high-flying London property developers, where everything is somehow rather different from the early-nineteenth century, and somehow a little bit the same.

I’m a big fan of adaptations, and was curious to see what the Austen project would be like. I have a soft spot for the film Clueless, based on Austen’s Emma, and have loved the youtube series The Lizzie Bennet Diaries and Emma Approved. As a great admirer of Austen’s novels, it’s nice to see alternative interpretations of them. But I’ve never come across a literary reinterpretation of her work before, so Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility was, to me, something very new, and very, very interesting.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Books - The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

Published in 2009 and translated from Swedish into English in 2012, this is a book everyone seems to be talking about. I heard people mention it long before I read it, although as it happens what I picked up from other people was only the book’s name, and not a smidge of what it’s actually about. So I was rather surprised to find myself reading something that seems a cross between a history of twentieth century world politics, a black comedy, an adventure novel, a crime drama, and a Wes Anderson film.

This novel is very, very strange. In a good way. I think.

Allan Karlsson climbs out of his care home window on the day of his one hundredth birthday, and takes a bus as far as his money will take him. Several pages later he ends up on the run from the police alongside a petty thief, an eternal student turned hotdog stand owner, a red-haired woman who constantly swears, and a dog. Oh, and an elephant. Then, because this turn of events is of course not nearly bizarre enough for this strange novel, we simultaneously learn about Allan’s long and astounding life as an explosives expert, prisoner, spy, interpreter, general world traveller, and charmer of several historical figures.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Books - Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

So I may have slightly lied. 

I did say I’d be reviewing Jonasson’s The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared this week, but as I’ve been slightly busier than I predicted and the novel is taking me longer to get through that I thought it might, I’ve decided to go for a book I read a few months back: Diane Setterfield’s Bellman & Black.

Bellman & Black, Setterfield’s second novel, was published last year. It follows the life and death of William Bellman, a work-obsessed man haunted by death and time – and the occasional rook. It is a ghost story, and a whole lot more.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

Books - The Shock of the Fall by Nathan Filer

Disclaimer: I still know nothing about writing book reviews.

This problem of mine is made worse by my decision to pick, for my second review, so flawless a novel as this.

Published last year, Nathan Filer’s book The Shock of the Fall tells the story of a young man, Matthew Homes, coming to term with the death of his brother ten years earlier. It’s a book about mental illness, family and grief. It’s also a book about writing books. And I loved it.

I’ll give you three main reasons why, which handily separate into the three things I usually judge books by:

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Books - Grace McCleen's The Professor of Poetry

Disclaimer: I know nothing about writing book reviews.

Let me start off by saying that I did enjoy Grace McCleen’s The Professor of Poetry. Published last year, it follows the story of Elizabeth Stone, an English professor trying to write her academic masterpiece while recovering from cancer. This project takes her back to Oxford or Cambridge (I liked that the book never actually specified which) where she did her undergraduate degree, back to where Edward Hunt, her old English professor, lives and works. Internally, it takes her, and us, back to her nineteen-year-old self at university, and back to her childhood.

I liked this simultaneous unfolding of three plots. Elizabeth is an engaging, well-created, three-dimensional character, and her past story helps shape her characterisation in the present. I like that we remember the past as she does. Beyond that, the plot is very convincing. It’s entirely believable that someone might get to a certain age and decide that maybe they’d made the wrong decisions in life, prioritised the wrong things. Elizabeth’s reassessment of her life following her illness is a plausible and interesting premise for a book.

It’s the writing, and the ending, which to me let the novel down.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Things - An Introduction

Let’s start with a quote. I like quotes.

Heavenly: I said what are you thinking about.

Arthur: Oh – things.

Heavenly: Books and things?

Arthur: No.

Heavenly: Just books?

Arthur: No.

Heavenly: Oh! Just things. That’s nice. I wish I could think about things.

- Spring Storm, Tennessee Williams

Well Heavenly, perhaps so do I. As it is I just think about books.