Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Books – The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

I’m feeling very up-to-date writing this book review, because Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel The Buried Giant was only released last month. I was actually lucky enough to go and see Ishiguro talk about the book as part of the Bath Literary Festival (and after sitting in absolute awe in the second row, I was able to go and get my copy signed). It was really interesting to hear him speak about his motivation and inspiration for writing this particular book, and about his apparent movement into “fantasy”.

One of the things I so love about Kazou Ishiguro’s novels is that every one is so completely different from the last – and The Buried Giant is no exception. It takes us back to a mythical British Middle Ages, shortly after the death of King Arthur. Britons and Saxons divide the land between then, and ogres, pixies and dragons still roam the earth. We follow Beatrice and Axl, an elderly couple on a quest to find their half-forgotten son. They soon find themselves caught up in the larger tension between the Britons and the Saxons, and in trying to solve and disperse the odd mist that has fallen over their land, making everybody forget the past.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Books – The Goldfinch, by Donna Tart

So today I finally finished The Goldfinch, by Donna Tart (2013). Almost a year ago I saw it advertised in Waterstones with the tagline ‘Dickens with guns’. I figured it was a novel I should probably read, and probably one that I should enjoy. It has taken me an age both to start it and then to finish it. I should say (both in defence of my slow reading, and in warning for the review about to come) that I unwisely chose to listen to The Goldfinch on audiobook rather than read it in print. On reflection, this was perhaps a mistake. A thirty-two hour long mistake.

The premise is this: thirteen-year-old Theodore Decker and his mother get caught up in a terrorist attack on an art gallery in New York. In the chaos that ensues he ends up stealing a small and beautiful painting – ‘The Goldfinch’. The novel then follows some fifteen years of his life from this moment on, as the possession of this painting and his misery at the loss of his mother pulls his life in strange directions.

I almost love this novel. At so many points in The Goldfinch I got so close to loving it, only to be stopped short. There are some brilliant moments, some wonderful characters, some scenes that really did have me on the edge of my seat – but these snapshots of excellence get lost in the slow pace of this huge book. Don’t get me wrong, I love long novels. Dickens is my favourite author of all time; of course I like long books. And Im aware that listening to the audiobook might make a book seem longer, but I’ve listened to a fair few long novels before, and never found the pace to feel particularly different, not to the extent that the experience of the book is ever damaged by it. But The Goldfinch as a book is simply too long for the story it tells.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Books – The Dynamite Room, by Jason Hewitt

It is 1940 and eleven-year-old Lydia has run away from the town she’s been evacuated to. She heads back home, only to find her village deserted, her house empty, and her mother gone. The only person there is the German soldier hiding in her house, who holds a gun to her head and tells her she cannot leave.

The Dynamite Room (2014) is Jason Hewitt’s first published novel, and a very good one at that. The whole novel takes place over the course five days, during which Lydia and the soldier are forced together in this house, stuck in the strangest of intimacies. Hewitt effectively reduces the Second World War to a battle on the very smallest scale. The set-up of the novel is brilliant, and the idea well executed, for the use of flashback and memory allows us to travel far beyond the confines of the house, to Germany in the 1930s and the Norwegian campaigns during the war.

Beyond the premise, the characterisation is for me what’s really strong about this novel. The writing is good and the tension well built, although the plot is at times a little confusingly executed. However, the characters are truly well done. The soldier (whose name I won’t reveal in this review) and his complex mental state are cleverly explored. I like how his memories of Eva less us see deeper into him, as does his interest in and love of music. He must have been a difficult character to create, because to understand him we have to recognise him both as he is now and as he used to be before the war. Hewitt is showing the reader a man who has been almost hollowed out, who has been so changed and internally crippled by war that he is a fragment of what he once was. I love that we get a sense of the man the soldier used to be long before we understand who he really is now. It’s a difficult feat, and deftly pulled off.

Thursday, 5 March 2015

Things – My Favourite Kids’ Books

Happy World Book Day

So today is World Book Day, the day that celebrates books and reading all over the world, the day dedicated to encouraging children and young people to read. Book tokens are handed out in schools and all over the country and I think the world, kids are currently sitting in school dressed up as their favourite literary character. I think it’s wonderful.

In honour of this occasion I thought I’d do something a bit different, and give you a run-down of my favourite books when I was a kid. I should say (as a warning) that this is a fairly spontaneous post, so I haven’t had a chance to reread or even look over some of these books; there are a few that I know I absolutely loved but don’t actually remember all that much about. After all, I am sadly no longer a child. On the same note, this is not a definitive list, nor even an up to date list in terms of children’s fiction – it’s simply the books I remember most enthralling me when I was somewhere between the ages of seven and thirteen. Of all the books and series that shaped my childhood, it was genuinely so hard to choose a top ten. I therefore had to pick a top fifteen. Apologies. I promise I tried.

15. The Children of the Red King Series (AKA the Charlie Bone books), by Jenny Nimmo

Now let’s be honest. This series was basically a rip off of Harry Potter. Boy with strange magic powers goes to special school for other children with strange magic powers. Shortly after Charlie Bone discovers that he can read the thoughts of people in photographs, his uncaring family send him to Bloor’s Academy, an arts school where each child must specialise in music, art or drama – and the students, like Charlie, each have unique superpowers. My favourite character, Billy, can talk to animals. So yes, the premise is basically the same as Harry Potter’s – but they’re a well written, engaging and lovely series.

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Books – The Veil of Anonymity, by Lauraine Povey

Lauraine Povey’s The Veil of Anonymity, published last year, is a novel about bullying – particularly cyberbullying. The novel focuses on one year ten boy as he takes out his frustrations and jealousy on Marcus James, another boy in his school. The bully sends him threatening texts and facebook messages, stalks him and hacks into his online accounts – all of which, we are told from the very beginning, will ultimately result in Marcus’s death.

There are some really clever ideas here. For one it’s always interesting to see a story about bullying from the perspective of the bully, turning it on its head. We’re not only watching the victim’s life fall apart, but we’re also watching the downward spiral of the bully, as he slowly loses control. I love that he is always referred to as ‘the bully’, so that he’s hiding in anonymity not only online but in the very pages of the novel. The ambiguous narrative voice is also a great touch. Having this bitter and intriguing first person voice intruding every now and then on the otherwise third person narration really builds suspense.