Wednesday, 23 September 2015

Books – How to be both, by Ali Smith

Ali Smith’s How to be both (2014), is a novel in two halves. One tells the story of George, a sixteen-year-old girl coping with the death of her mother, funnelling grief into ‘60s dance routines, memories of a family trip to Italy, and her friendship with a classmate, Helena, known simply as H. The other half follows Francesco, a renaissance painter, who finds his disembodied self dragged through time to the twenty-first century, to watch George, while reflecting on his life. In some copies of the book, George’s story comes first; in others, it is Francesco’s. It is a skilfully-written and fascinating novel, one that both moved and intrigued me.

The writing is simply suburb. It is perhaps not for everybody – at times it is unconventional, at times a little difficult to follow. There are no speech marks in either narrative, allowing thought, action and speech to run into one another. Francesco’s narrative is more puzzling than George’s, his memories of the past and his visions of the present interweaving, often without clear distinctions. However, Smith’s writing style is very effective. While making use of stream-of-consciousness techniques, the book is by no means as dense or alienating as, say, Will Self’s Umbrella; after a few pages I got used to the style and was thoroughly engaged in the book. Moreover, the writing thoroughly enriches the stories and characters, giving us a much more personal insight into the minds of both George and Francesco.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Books – The Rest of Us Just Live Here, by Patrick Ness

Patrick Ness’s new novel, The Rest of Us Just Live Here, came out a few weeks ago. It takes the standard young adult high-school-meets-supernatural-adventure and turns it on its head. In this particular American high school, the Immortals are descending from above looking for bodies to inhabit, and indie kids are dying left, right and centre. But this isn’t a book about the “chosen ones”. Instead, our narrator is Mikey, a fairly ordinary teenage boy. And despite having a best friend who is worshipped by cats and occasionally getting caught up in stampedes of supernatural deer, his main worries in life are how to cope with his OCD, how to help his sister through anorexia, and how to find a way to ask out his long-term crush Henna. It’s like the John Green novel going on in the background of Twilight. Which is a pretty cool idea.

The premise is just brilliant. In so many YA fantasy books, there are characters at the side-lines who we never hear from. For every muggle-born wizard there’s a sibling or friend who didn’t get their Hogwarts letter, and this book is basically about them: the teenagers in the background of the supernatural, who sometimes get caught in the crossfire as they attempt to carry on with their lives. The book is structured cleverly. At the beginning of each chapter, we get a quick summary of what’s happened in what the other story – the supernatural plot going on in the background. In ‘Chapter The First, in which the Messenger of the Immortals arrives…’, what we read is instead a long conversation about love, stomachs, and schoolwork, broken off when one of the indie kids (ie, the ones who do get caught up in the magical stuff) runs through their group, followed by a weird glowing light.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Books – A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

Published in 2013, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliant and beautiful book. At its heart are two narratives. We read the diary of Nao, a teenage girl who has recently moved back to Japan after having spent most of her life in the States. She documents her and her family’s struggles, as well as the inspiration she finds in her great-grandmother, a hundred-and-four-year-old Buddhist nun. As we read her diary, so does the novel’s other central character. Ruth stumbles across Nao’s diary on the beach wrapped in a plastic bag and begins to read.

I read this book in one day. Considering that it is 422 pages long, this should give you a rough idea of just how good it is.

Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Books – Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout

Oliver Kitteridge, published in 2008, lies somewhere in between a novel and a collection of short stories. It is a beautiful, moving and superbly written book, about both the ordinariness of life and the surprises it can bring. It dips in and out of the lives of various residents of the coastal town of Crosby, Maine, linked by the recurring character of Olive Kitteridge, a retired maths teacher.

What I loved about Olive Kitteridge was its form. It felt like a quieter, softer version of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, another novel-turned-collection-of-interconnected-short-stories that I loved. The form offers us snapshots into the lives of the other residents of the town of Maine, as well as giving us a full view of Olive herself, from various different angles and through various different lenses. I love the way the stories interweaved, that way characters who are central to one story are mentioned in passing in another, the way we glimpse characters from different angles. In general my favourite stories are those where Olive takes a back seat and is a minor, not a major, character – ‘Pharmacy’, ‘Starving’, ‘Ship in a Bottle’, ‘Criminal’. Indeed, if we class these for a moment as stories not chapters (of course they’re both and neither, and it doesn’t really matter which), then ‘Pharmacy’ is quite possibly my favourite short story that I have ever read.