Friday, 30 August 2013

Someone Like You

Someone Like You
Roald Dahl
London, Penguin, 2011, 355p
(World Book Night 2012)

This novel has been sitting on my shelf for ages, so I was pleasantly surprised when I opened it to find it was a collection of short stories. It was just what I needed for the last few days of my holiday - intelligent, witty little bites of fiction. 

Someone Like You consists of a number of short stories written for adults. These are tales of gambling and murder, but told in such a way that you cannot help but read with a smile on your face. Dahl is one of the most hilarious and macabre writers - he is the master of the twist in the tale. 

In most of these stories, the protagonists is the cause of their own demise. Dahl entices you into empathising with these characters, but through ego or stupidity, the hero ends up in ruins. In just a few pages, Dahl is able to build up tension to the point that you find yourself laughing with shock and amusement as the plot suddenly turns in an unexpected direction. 

The ones that particularly stood out to me were the more wicked of the stories. Lamb to the Slaughter begins with a woman excitedly awaiting the return of her husband from work, but things take a dangerous twist when he tells her is leaving her. You read in awe as the events unfold and delight in the strangeness of it all. 

I think what is incredible about these stories is that they are both realist and surreal. The characters are not great works of imagination and the tales begin as narratives of everyday lives. But the twists and turns take you into a dreamlike world where the darkest of fantasies come to life. 

It is similar to the sensation when you might be really angry at someone, and imagine punching them in the face, but of course do not actually take action. Dahl writes those wicked fantasies into short story form, allowing the reader to release some pent up frustrations by laughing at what might happen if you did succumb to your darkest desires.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

The Snow Child

The Snow Child
Eowyn Ivey
London, Headline, 2012, 423p

I love rewritten fairy tales - contemporary writers drawing on years of oral story-telling and folklore to create a modern morality tale, often loaded with ghostly happenings and psychological horror.

The Snow Child is just that. Eowyn Ivey has taken an old Russian fairy story about an elderly couple who cannot have children of their own, but are blessed when a snowchild they make one winter evening turns into a real little girl. 

In this modern re-imagining, we find ourselves in Alaska in the 1920s, where Jack and Mabel have opted to start a new life. They have bought a farm far away from their home and loved ones, and are working hard to get it established. But they are cursed with cold winters, and while Jack slaves away on the rough, unyielding land, Mabel is left alone at home. The nights are long and dark, and Mabel is haunted by the loss of her child ten years earlier. 

Then one day, in heavy snow, Jack and Mabel are reunited in making a snowman, which they mould and dress to look like a beautiful little girl. The next morning, the mitten and scarf are gone, and Jack sees a little figure running through the trees. Slowly, the young girl in the woods comes to trust Jack and Mabel, and they take her into their lives. But every summer, she returns to the forest, and they must wait and hope that she will return.

The concept makes for a beautifully tragic tale, but I found myself frustrated whilst reading it - for many reasons. Firstly, I was annoyed at Jack and Mabel's inability to communicate. At the beginning of the story, the death of their child has created a chasm between the couple, which is bridged by the arrival of the snow girl. And yet, her presence does not completely simplify things - as they are the only people who have seen her, their friends worry about their mental states, believing cabin fever is making them see strange things.

Secondly, I found the plot to be somewhat predictable. In part, this was because I already had a vague idea of the original fairy tale of the snow child. But also, I think Ivey did not fully explore the idea of the snow child as a ghost or hallucination. As such, the Gothic tropes in the novel were lacking - the novel was not the psychological thriller I had wished it would be.

And finally, I thought this novel was probably about 200 pages too long. I read fervently, hoping for twists and turns, but little happened. This allowed for some beautiful descriptive passages - the setting becomes a character in itself and was probably the most Gothic element of the story. Towards the end of the novel, as the snow child grows up, her own story starts to take hold and there is more pace, but this did not make up for the earlier lack of plot development.

Essentially, I think I had overestimated the novel, thinking it would have been a Gothic rewriting when really it was just a beautifully written and more developed fairy tale. I really like the idea behind it, but even when the idea of the snow child as a ghost was introduced, it was not performed particularly well. I was gripped, but merely in the hope that it was going to get better.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Vernon God Little

Vernon God Little
DBC Pierre
London, Faber & Faber, 2005, 277p

Over the course of the last week, I have suffered through hours and hours of waiting around for flights, trains, etc. and yet I initially struggled to engage with the story of Vernon God Little

This novel is about a teenage boy who gets caught up in a criminal investigation, and is accused of murder. Vernon's best friend, Jesus, kills himself and several of his classmates, and the police suspect another weapon might be involved. Vernon is a reserved, awkward teenager, and his fear of being accused leads to some strange behaviour, including running away to Mexico. Immediately, a man hunt is on as Vernon is accused of every crime between Texas and South America. 

Pierre is a very original writer, and I think it was his unique style that stumped me. (That, and the fact that I have heard such brilliant things about this book that I really wanted to love it.) The language used is fluid, often colloquial, slowly dragging you deep into the complex being that is Vernon.

The plot takes some time to eek itself out, though I rather liked this element of the mysterious. Vernon insists he is innocent, but as he does not reveal anything to the reader, you find yourself torn over whether or not to believe him. Was he just in the wrong place at the wrong time? Unfortunately, the people of his home town feed off gossip like leeches, and the evidence quickly stacks up against him: drugs, dirty magazines and homosexuality are all linked to him. And yes, apparently homosexuality is enough to convince some people that a teenager is a murderer...

When Vernon decides to go on the run, the pace picks up, and I found myself engrossed in this investigation, though still not convinced of Vernon's innocence; and by the end of the novel (no spoilers, I promise) I was crying! 

Vernon spends most of the novel unable or unwilling to take responsibility for his actions, whether or not they are correctly interpreted by society and the police. His friend, Jesus, becomes a symbol for his confusion, slowly blurring with a need for religious fulfillment. But nothing is ever as simple as Vernon wants it to be, so he must learn to exercise his own power.

Saturday, 17 August 2013

The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner
James Dashner
Frome, Chicken House, 2011, 371p

Hailed as a must-read for Hunger Games fans, The Maze Runner is currently being adapted into a movie franchise. When Thomas wakes up, he finds himself in a darkened lift, unsure who he is or where he is being elevated. When the lift stops, he is in the Glade, a microcosm of young boys abandoned to their own devices. They have set up a society in which everyone has a role and order is law. 

But there is no way out. Beyond the Glade is the Maze - an ever-changing mess of alleyways infested by deadly creatures. For two years, Runners have mapped the Maze, searching for an escape, trying to avoid the Grievers: gooey mechanical monsters that scratch, sting and kill. Thomas can't remember anything about his life before, but he knows he wants to be a Runner.

This novel is sickeningly thrilling, all because of the horrendous Grievers. The Maze is rather difficult to visualise, but Dashner details the monsters like something from his nightmares. He is not afraid to be graphic in scenes of violence, with pain and death being a constant threat to this group of boys. And, with Thomas and his companions having few or no memories, the reader is constantly guessing, wondering what is next and what came before. 

That element of mystery is what kept me gripped. The pace is quick from the first page, but begins to lag at the half-way point, when the path the plot will takes seems inevitable but frightening. But the uncertainty is a constant, with hints of revelations floating before you and then being pulled from beneath you. Nothing is obvious - you cannot tell good from bad, safe from danger, truth from lies - but it all feels terrifyingly possible.

Arguably, this is a story that has been told a million times before - an amalgamation of everything from The Lord of the Flies to the Hunger Games - but it feels original. It may not be flawless (in particular, I didn't feel any strong connections to any of the characters, though all had been well developed), but it is thrilling and intelligent, keeping the reader eager for more. 

Thursday, 15 August 2013


Nineteen Eighty-Four
George Orwell
London, Penguin, 1989, 326p

Some reviews are extremely difficult to compose: sometimes because the book is pretty rubbish and I have to formulate an articulate way of saying why I didn't enjoy it; but sometimes because the novel is so complex that it takes a while to develop a succinct commentary.

The story of 1984 is so well known it is hardly worth repeating, but in case you have just stumbled upon the Internet because of exchanging a mobile phone for safe passage across the bridge you live under: Winston Smith lives in a dystopia in which your every movement and thought is scrutinised. It is 1984, and the world is split into three states, Oceania, Eastasia and Eurasia, each vying for power. But Winston has his doubts; he sees through the brainwashing, past the unnecessary war: he sees the structures of power and the manipulation of the everyman.

When Winston encounters Julia, he finds love and peace. Julia is a rebel, subtly defying the rules and expectations outlined by the state. She offers him companionship and a feeling of belonging, and finally Winston sees a way out a way to help a rebellion and create equality.

Some books change you as you read, and I wish I had read this when I was younger, as I might have known less about it and been more open to its effect. And yet, I still found it incredibly invigorating - it angered and inspired me. I felt like Orwell's language was alive, seeping into my subconscious, shaping my thoughts. Although it was a criticism of the society in which Orwell lived, the subject is timeless and universal, exploring the evil of social power structures and greed.

Big Brother is a terrifying concept, watching you all the time; and yet this is the society in which we now live. The power held by a minority is overwhelming, and the extent of their exhortation of the masses is incredible. It is brainwashing to the highest level, with documents being destroyed and history being altered. (As a librarian, this is my worst nightmare!) But as it is happening on such a large scale, I struggled to comprehend how the deception could succeed. Even though much of the written information was being corrupted, those doing the corrupting had to be aware of what they were doing and what the original documents stated, so should have been capable of doing something. But even this Orwell has thought of, and has introduced the concept of doublethink, a concept that feels almost impossible to explain. Perhaps I shall leave that to Orwell and make you read it.

Whilst 1984 scared and angered me, it also made me feel very lucky. Oceania is a dystopia, and however much it reflects contemporary reality, it is not real. In theory, it still could become our reality - Orwell was writing in the 1940s about a future he feared might develop, and of course it still could. What would be fascinating would be to know what Orwell makes of our world now. I speculate he would not be best pleased.

Monday, 12 August 2013

The Fat Black Woman's Poems

The Fat Black Woman's Poems
Grace Nichols
London, Virago, 1984, p85

I have opened this collection several times over the course of the last couple of weeks, searching for and finding new meanings and details with every read.

The Fat Black Woman's Poems is a refreshing and challenging look at the world through the eyes of Grace Nichols. It consists of four different collections, each with a different tone and theme running through. The first is the title collection - a series of passionate poems, sometimes angry, sometimes comic, about the experiences of a fat black woman. She contrasts ideas of Western beauty with images of African culture and climate. Nichols isn't resentful or self-loathing, but joyous and confident, full of the wonder of womanhood. She is proud.

The collections that follow are similarly loud. Some are about London life, set in conflict against her African heritage. Some are about family and friends, full of affection and admiration. And some are political, exploring the history of black lives, from slavery to racism and everything surrounding these subjects. 

I love Grace Nichols confidence. She is strong and brave, and her power is perpetuated through her words. 

This is an inspiring collection, both in terms of its subject and its form. Nichols is unconventional, refusing to conform to standard rhyme, structure or language. But in this way, she demonstrates that poetry can be whatever you want it to be. 

Friday, 9 August 2013

Sky Hawk

Sky Hawk
Gill Lewis
Oxford, OUP, 2011, 226p

This was an unexpectedly enjoyable book. I had not anticipated where the plot would take me, and it was refreshing to read an original story about wildlife.

The Sky Hawk is an osprey named Iris, a rare migrating bird found by two children in the highlands of Scotland. Iona and Callum promise to keep their discovery a secret from anyone else, knowing that it would endanger the life of their beloved new friend. But things do not go to plan, when they find Iris caught by a fishing wire, close to death. They have to enlist the help of some trusted adults, who place a tracker on the bird, so the children can follow her flight south for the winter, over the mountains of France, across the Sahara desert, into The Gambia.

This journey was the element of the novel I had not predicted - I find that many teenage novels can be plotted fairly easily within the first few pages, so it was brilliant for this story to take me somewhere new. The first 60 pages do not lead you to guess that you will later be flying over north Africa with the bird. 

The story is told through Callum, who remains in Scotland, tracking the flight via the Internet. Whilst Iris flies, Callum searches for pictures to get an idea of what she sees as she travels. The journey is perilous, but Callum and Iris have  a special link, and he strives to keep his promise to protect her. 

The way in which the characters come together for the osprey is incredible and inspiring. This novel is uplifting, both in terms of the story and the language. Callum's farm is a magnificent sight brought to the reader by vivid description and imagery, whilst The Gambia is seen through the pictures Callum finds online, and later by a pen pal who also takes an interest in the bird. 

Sky Hawk is an uplifting novel because of the way it demonstrates the good in people. It is about more than an animal, more than nature - it is enjoyable because it is about humanity. 

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Much Ado About Nothing

Much Ado About Nothing
William Shakespeare

I have this really beautiful old copy of Much Ado, which I brought from the book shop around the back of Winchester Cathedral (if you haven't been there, it is a must!). I think it is my favourite Shakespeare play - I have always preferred the simple jolliness of the comedies to the macabre depression of the tragedies, and Much Ado is a fabulous story about two incredibly proud individuals being bought down a peg or two.

Beatrice and Benedict have met long before the start of this play, and have already declared a dislike for each other. Beatrice is a confident, intelligent woman who has no desire to be subject to the tradition of marriage; and Benedict is a promiscuous bachelor who follows around rich young men, feeding off their popularity. In theory, they seem vile, desperate creatures, but they are sharp and witty, equal matches for each other in terms of pride and foolishness.

And so, their friends and families plot against them, in order to trick them into loving each other. Whereas in Taming of the Shrew, it appears that only the woman is overtly tamed, in Much Ado, they are both ridiculed and made far more amenable. They deny their love for each other, right up to the end scene: too proud to admit the feelings they have discovered. Their competitiveness is full of banter and wit, building up the sexual tension that characterises their love.They are the original love-to-hate couple.

There are some brilliant one-liners in this play: many from Beatrice and Benedict, but also from the watchmen in the subplot. Dogberry is offering advise on what to do if the watchmen come across any scoundrels on the night:
"If you meet a thief, you may suspect him, by virtue of your office, to be no true man; and, for such kind of men, the less you meddle or make with them, why, the more is for your honesty."
It is not a flawless approach to policing that Dogberry presents, but his team provide entertainment for the other characters and for the audience. He is the caricature of ridiculousness. Later, when listing the offences of a criminal, Dogberry says,
"Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and, to conclude, they are lying knaves."
Shakespeare has this incredible way with words and, through Dogberry's 'synonymising', demonstrates his intellect.  In his plays, he offers something for everyone, and often, his best characters are the supporting cast. In this play, there is the drama and romance between Hero and Claudio, the evil plotting of Don John, the argumentative love-making of Benedict and Beatrice, and the strange detective work of Dogberry. And it is not Hero and Claudio's ups and downs that I love, but the language and conversations - from Beatrice's angry rebuffing of Benedict to the watchmen's strange soliloquising. There is power in language, and Shakespeare wields it like a sword to woo his audience into admiration.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

The Skin I'm In

Rollercoasters: The Skin I'm In Reading Guide

The Skin I'm In
Sharon G. Flake
Oxford, OUP, 2007, 133p

When a Miss Saunders starts at Maleeka Madison's school, the young protagonist takes an instant dislike to the teacher. She's different from the other teachers and seems to take a special interest in Maleeka, pushing her to read widely and do special extra-curricular projects. 

The Skin I'm In is about a young girl trying to work out who she is whilst she is being pulled and stretched by the many demands of her life. She is picked on by her classmates for the darkness of her skin and the clothes stitched together by her mother. She tries to be friends with the class bully, just to avoid being one of her victims, but gets dragged down by this spiteful girl. In school, she is embarrassed to be top of her class, and resents being set extra work and being given additional responsibilities. And at home, her mother is broken by the death of her father, so Maleeka has to fend for herself.

Maleeka is an incredibly complex character, and I love that. She demonstrates the challenges of growing up black in middle school in America. Although many of her classmates are black, Maleeka is more dark skinned than most. I felt ignorant, not having realised this was something a child could be bullied about. Despite being very intelligent and beautiful, Maleeka finds it hard to love herself and feels like an outsider. 

Miss Saunders assigned Maleeka to work on a creative writing project, imagining that she is a slave upon a ship bound for America. Through her fictional diaries, Maleeka is able to express her fears and pain, and better come to know herself. She grows in confidence and self-assurance, and learns to accept the skin she's in. 

This is a beautiful, reaffirming novel about self-acceptance. Maleeka is an inspiring character, able to succeed in a world that seems to proffer so many obstacles against her. Miss Saunders is the sort of teacher all teachers want to be, and through her, Sharon Flake preaches the fact that there is value in all of us.

Friday, 2 August 2013

Theodore Boone

Theodore Boone
John Grisham
London, Hodder, 2011, 263p

John Grisham writes teenage fiction! Who knew?!

Though I have to admit, I have never read any of Grisham's adult fiction. 

But I loved Theodore Boone. He is a young wannabe lawyer, who gets caught up in the biggest criminal prosecution case that has ever come to his home town. It is the murder of Mrs Duffy, and her husband is the prime suspect. A few days into the trial, new evidence finds its way to Theo - he promises to protect his source, but does not know how to get his evidence noticed without breaking his promise. 

Theo is well known throughout the Strattenburg courts. Both his parents are lawyers - his father in real estate and his mother in divorce - and he is friends with bailiffs, cops and judges. Whilst in eight grade, he hands out free legal advice to his classmates and teachers, and helps his Government teacher with his lesson planning. 

The murder case is the talk of the town, and Theo manages to get his class front row seats. He keeps abreast of all that is happening through his connections and seems to know more about law than the lawyers. Theo is the perfect protagonist - intelligent, moral, and pretty popular, having helped almost everyone he knows with one thing or another.

I do not want to spoil the ending, so cannot give much away, but there are a lot of loose ends at the end of this novel. I know there are more novels in this series, but with so many unanswered questions, I feel this book does not stand alone very well. 

Also, I would like to have seen more of April, Theo's closest friend (but not his girlfriend, Grisham is cautious to distinguish). Perhaps she will appear more in the next novel. 

I would definitely recommend Theodore Boone. Although it is American, and therefore some of the legal terminology does not apply in the UK, I found everything to be explained clearly. Theo is an smart kid, and he avoids legal jargon for his young clients and readers. But most significantly, I really liked Theo. He wasn't too clever or too moral; he was normal. He felt real. 

Thursday, 1 August 2013

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea
Yukio Mishima
Trans. John Nathan
London, Vintage, 1999, 181p

I found my way to this book via the David Bowie exhibition at the V&A - apparently, it was one of many things that inspired the musical legend. And because I have loved the Japanese literature I have read in the past, and because I love Bowie, I thought I couldn't help but love Mishima.

However, The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea was somewhat disappointing. I suspect this is because I had such high expectations.

During a warm summer, a sailor begins a love affair. Fusako and Ryuji are caught up in the romance of it all - the secretive nights spent together whilst he is docked. After three days, Ryuji must depart, and he is filled with the glory of his love. 

Meanwhile, Fusako's young son, Noboru, finds a peep-hole through which he can see his mother's room. He flits between admiration and resentment towards the sailor - admiration, because Noburo loves the sea and Ryiju can answer all his questions about his adventures; and resentment, because Ryuji fails to fulfill Noboru's ideas about how a sailor should be.

In the winter, Ryuji returns to land, and decides to give up his sea-faring life to marry Fusako. Noboru is furious that Ryuji has failed him, and plots his revenge.

I hesitated before I wrote this review simply because I do not feel I really understood the novel. I cannot get a grip on Mishima's motives and meaning, which, for an English graduate, is infuriating. I also do not know whether or not I enjoyed it. 

The pace of the novel is rather slow: although the story does not drag as such, it is predominantly descriptive until the last quarter. Yet some of the descriptive scenes are simply magnificent beautiful. The novel opens with Noboru watching his mother undress - a moment which is disturbing and beautiful in equal measure. The language, or rather the translation of the language, is peaceful and precise, pinpointing the wonder of everyday things, including the human body.

The sea is a powerful symbol in this novel. For both Noboru and Ryuji, it represents freedom and possibility. Ryuji recalls the time when he chose to be a sailor, escaping to the sea for a chance of glory. Noboru has this choice ahead of him, but his love of ships suggests he wishes to escape, too. Thus, when Ryuji gives up sailing, he gives up glory and hope. He is emasculated.

Mishima is an incredibly dark writer, creating a group of thirteen-year old boys much like those in The Lord of the Flies: they are malicious, dangerous, and very intelligent. They have assigned themselves the role of saving humanity through brutality, seeing chaos as the only way to recreate existence. Having read a up a little on Yukio Mishima, I am still unclear if this is how he really views life and childhood, or if his novel is some sort of critique explored through these children.

I think this terrible darkness is what distanced me from this novel - I simply could not understand the children's motivations or actions. The evil was excessive to the point where the whole novel felt like a fantasy, and yet I think Mishima was searching for truth. 

In my confusion, I want to read more of Mishima's work and to understand him better. He is haunting me. In this way, I suppose, Mishima has succeeded as a novelist.