The Wonder (Emma Donoughue)

I will admit to not knowing where to start with this review. I’ll start by saying that it was an extremely good book, about family, religion, morality and the truth. It was tense, it was hard in some places, I genuinely got attached to the characters and sometimes got annoyed with the main character. It was a very good book. But it’s incredibly hard for me to formulate a sensible response. I don’t mean to imply I usually give sensible responses, I think by and large my responses tend to be insensible gushing. But this is one of those awkward books where I didn’t love it with my heart and soul, neither did I hate it. That and the fact I really don’t want to give anything away because it might ruin the story really.

Lib is an English nurse, trained by Florence Nightingale herself. When an eleven-year-old girl stops eating, and appears to be miraculously subsiding on nothing but water, a religious fever takes hold of her village. To investigate whether the girl and her family are frauds, an English nurse and a nun take up a twenty-four-hour watch over the little girl. Full of scepticism about this supposed “miracle”, Lib meets a bright young girl, and a journalist hungry for a story.

It’s a psychological thriller based on the numerous Northern European and North American stories about “the fasting girls” who seem to stop eating and remain alive and well, with a healthy dosing of religion, religious conflict and downright bitchiness from Lib. Lib has one heck of a superiority complex when she first arrives in Ireland, into the tiny little village where the miracle girl, called Anna, lives. She thinks she better because she’s English, she’s a Nightingale trained nurse, she’s not Catholic (or really all that religious full stop). She doesn’t seem happy to be in Ireland in the first place and it all goes downhill.

Like any good thriller, there’s the guessing who’s telling the truth before deciding that everyone is a liar except the main character, but even then you have to be careful because Lib can be incredibly prejudiced most of the time. She is there to do a job, but she can’t help getting involved because Anna is so sweet and then she’s determined to find out the truth. It’s all shadows and rumours and zeal and belief. It’s basically all about belief.

It’s incredibly good, very well written, very suspenseful and the characters are kinda hateful which I suppose is the whole point of a thriller main character so all is good. I think this one would be hard to do as a movie, unlike Room, so I hope they don’t put it on the silver screen. I think a lot will be lost in translation.

Lost Boy (Christina Henry)

An origins story for Peter Pan, a dark twisted version of the well loved tale about the boy who never grows up. Christina Henry has a gift for twisting tales in twisted ways. Her duology Alice was disturbing, but in a way that meant I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the page from start to finish. Lost Boy wasn’t quite up to those dizzying heights, but it was gripping and it was a very interesting take on the classic tale.

Jamie was the first one Peter chose. He’s been on the island the longest, apart from Peter. He knows it better than all the other boys, and he teaches them how to survive on the Island, because Peter never will. There’s the knockabout twins, happiest scuffling about on the floor; there’s the littlest one, his hair like a yellow fluffy duck and his temperament much the same, there’s the quiet one who knows he is ill, there’s the great big brutish new boy, who has yet to learn his place. They are Peter’s Lost Boys, from The Other Place, a place they can never return too. But Jamie was the first. He looks after the boys. But Jamie has been growing a little all that time, just a little. Maybe he isn’t destined to be a boy for always, and maybe the island and Peter have lost a little of their shine. Peter bought the other boys to join in the fun, but his version of fun is on the edge of a sword.

Peter says I am a villain. Peter lies. 

Jamie is a boy, who is doing the work of an elder looking after all the boys on the island that Peter has bought to play with. He mourns every one they bury, because the island isn’t all fun and no rules and no grownups – it’s dangerous and boys are easily replaced. He loves Peter, but it’s interesting seeing how Jamie uses it as an excuse for all Peter’s macabre shortcomings. Jamie is a very angry young man. He has seen decades of death and not aged much in doing so. But he worries for the boys under his care, protects them from harm wherever he can. Sometimes he protects them from Peter. The re-direction of Jamie’s anger over the course of the book is fairly justified, even if many of his actions are not justifiable. His relationship with little Charlie, who he feels was too young for Peter to have bought from the Other Place, and his problems with how Peter’s self-absorption is hurting them all are well-developed themes.

The language and descriptions of the island can be blunt and lyrical, a little like explaining something you’d seen in the past with that dual layer of words you knew then, and words you know now. It’s really quite clever in some places. But the descriptions of the way magic worked – just as a fact of life and only considered interesting when one of the new boys encounters something for the first time, was incredibly well done. Jamie knows that there is a little magic on the island, but he doesn’t know the roots of it, he doesn’t know how this magic works, how the island magic works. He just knows that it does and gets on with the business of surviving and keeping the other boys alive. The way things are bought together at the end are pretty incredible really.

I really enjoyed this alternative, origin-story tale of how a little boy’s dangerous self-absorption and macabre fascination leads to the creation of a “villain”. While it wasn’t quite as disturbing as Alice, Lost Boy was incredibly dark, and Neverland is nothing at all like the Disney film would have you believe. Everything is out to kill you for a start.

Good Omens (Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaimain)

I recently found out these two amazing, wacky writers collaborated on a book together. I had to wait until Christmas before I could finally get my sticky hands on it. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter. You can’t say that doesn’t sound like it’s going to be a corker.

It’s about the dawning of the apocalypse, a demon and an angel who would really prefer the apocalypse didn’t happen because they like Earth very much thank you, the Four Bikers of the Apocalypse are riding once more.
Oh, and someone misplaced the Antichrist…

It’s full to the brim of references to the M25 being the demon’s handiwork, the angel is a rare books collector who pretends to be a book dealer, all cassettes turning into Queen albums after a fortnight and other peculiar humour. It’s full of my kind of humour, and I spent minimum of half the book snorting out loud. The Dog has a voice, the Bikers are actually on the back of motorbikes, all characters are comic and sometimes it really is just all about timing.

I’m incredibly worried I will give something away in my effusions about this book, trying to be vague is not working in my favour. I find it so much easier to write long reviews for books I didn’t enjoy so much. It is every bit as ridiculous as you would imagine an Apocalypse book written by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. It’s bizarre, it has references all over the place, it has witty characters and it was just a recipe for a good book!

Good Omens is the most bizarrely entertaining book I have ever read, made more entertaining by the fact that in my head it’s narrated by Stephen Fry, Crowley(Demon) is Mark Shepherd and Aziraphale (Angel) is Matt Smith (neither of them fit the physical descriptions at all, but the voices!). Amazon are doing an adaptation of Good Omens with David Tennant as Crowley, and Michael Sheen as Aziraphale, which will well worth watching if it’s half as good as this book.

 

Howards End: Book to Screen and back again

I did this backwards of course. I recently watched the BBC’s version of Howards End starring Hayley Atwell and Matthew Whatshisname as Margaret Schlegal and Henry Wilcox. I will confess to seeing the advert on the BBC and deciding to watch purely because of Hayley Atwell. The show being a period drama was a huge added bonus. I really enjoyed the BBC show, and I bought the book on the day between watching the second and third episode of the series. Therefore I can’t really separate the book from the screen in this instance, Howards End is both.

Hayley Atwell as Margaret Schlegal, and Matthew MacFadyen as Henry Wilcox in the BBC Howards End 2017 (Image from BBC website)

Howards End, by E.M.Forster is an Edwardian era novel about class and hypocrisy in society. It follows the interactions between three families – the rich Wilcox’s with their traditional views, the artistic and flighty Schlegals and the impoverished Basts. When Helen visits the Wilcox’s at Howards End one summer, she starts a chain of events that lead to the unlikely friendship between her older sister Margaret and the matriarch Mrs Wilcox. Upon her death not long after, Mrs Wilcox leaves Margaret Howards End, but as Margaret had no idea, the note is scrapped and that is that. Years later, the Wilcox and Schlegal families meet again, and Margaret finds Henry Wilcox, with his certainty in traditions and expectations, fascinating. They talk of the situation of the Bast’s with him, and Mr Wilcox advises Mr Bast to clear out of his current job because of the uncertainty. Mr Wilcox is wrong, but by then it is too late, Mr Bast has cleared out at the sister advice. Margaret and Mr Wilcox get engaged, and family drama spills over into the lives of the all three families.

I have never had much of a desire to pick up a Forster novel – I’ve viewed Passage to India many times, nodded and put it back on the shelf before selecting another book. I think that I have, quite unknowingly, been missing out! Forster is witty and satirical and honest and his characters are incredibly flawed but I prefer flawed characters to unrealistic ones.

Margaret, for example, is stoically independent and acts as she sees fit rather than confining herself to a society she cares little for, but this can mean she can be impulsive and she changes her mind within the topic of a single conversation. I find her endlessly fascinating. She is loyal to a fault, and she will talk her way through a problem with tangents and then, once she has come to a conclusion will act upon it immediately and decisively. Once her decision has been made its really quite hard to change her mind. Helen is impulsive and defiant in quite a different but similar way and they can clash quite horribly. Margaret avoids confrontation, Helen seeks it. Henry is quite misogynistic and is bull-headed – Margaret learns to manage him but it highlights how the patriarchy is so ingrained that she decides – for all her forthright personality – that the best way to bring Henry to her point of view is to make him think it is his idea. It works.

There were so many things that were said that felt so frightfully modern – and at least once I flicked back to the copyright page to check when this was written and published because I just couldn’t believe it! The women are not the heroines, nor the men the heroes. They try and they fail and they are human because of it. It is a reflection of society, of class, of gender, of power and it is subverted and twisted. In the end, Margaret stands by her own morals, rather than ceding to a society that won’t accept her sister, and isolated herself from her husband without remorse because that is what she believed to be the right action, and she would never betray herself. It’s family and messy human relationships and cause and effect and blame and anger and it was a truly excellent novel.

So, you should all know how much I despise writing in books – One of the reasons I like Kindle is because I can highlight things without it affecting my pages. So it’s a big thing when I say this book had me reaching for a pencil (let’s not get too wild) and underlining passages or comments or sentences. My favourite in the whole book is:

Actual life is full of false clues and signposts that lead to nowhere.” It sums up travelling through life, not knowing where the future will lead but only being able to guess through the unreliable.

And now back to the TV show. I enjoyed the characters in the book, and I personally felt that Margaret and Helen and Tibby were incredibly true to character. Margaret is a bulldozer of a friend and she knocks down defences quite easily and Hayley Atwell portrayed that amazingly. Henry in the book annoyed me as much as in the show, but then he was also human and Matthew McWhathisname managed the awkward – inability to connect – side of his personality so well and the whole thing just worked. It stayed incredibly true to the book – as all good period dramas should do. There were no unnecessary sword fights or any of that nonsense. It was about real people and real emotions and it was excellently done!

I recommend both the book and the BBC TV show. I’ve even popped onto kindle to purchase a few more of Forster’s novels, so we shall see if I enjoy the

Review: Our Dark Duet (Monsters of Verity #2)

The only kind of trail you were supposed to leave was the one you yourself could follow home.

Our Dark Duet – V.E.Schwab

A while ago, and I mean like, my summer reading binge, I read the first of a duology by the amazing V.E.Schwab, called This Savage Song. I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as the Shades of Magic series by the same author, but I thought it was a damn good book, and then proceeded to read other things forgetting there was a second half to the story as it ends quite definitely with the potential for more. Anyhow, Our Dark Duet is the conclusion to the tale of how a monster who wanted to be a human boy, and a girl who was trying to be a monster met and became allies in  the fight against the malachi and the corsai in the monster-ridden streets of Verity.

Kate Harker, the daughter of the now dead monster-mob boss Callumn Harker, has become a monster hunter in nearby Prosperity, concerned with the complete lack of contact from the city of Verity. August Flynn, Sunai, has decided to grow up and become whatever he needs to be in order to help save his dad’s campaign to save Verity from it’s monster rule. But the monsters have seized control of the North City, under the orders of the Malachi Sloan (Callum Harker’s very own monster) and the monster Kate created – Alice. In order to save his city, August decides to become what he tried so desperately not to be – the monster that he had the potential to be. When a new monster makes its way from Prosperity to Verity, Kate returns to the city of her home, to a city in chaos, hell-bent on destroying itself, and a monster that feeds on the chaos and violence around, amplifying it and invisible.

As always, V.E.Schwab was amazing. Introducing Prosperity as a city that teeters on the edge of controlling the monsters, with a different kind of darkness breeding in the underbelly, and then flitting back to Verity where the monsters reign and people consider becoming monsters to have a chance of winning was a good case of bad and worse. The cities reflected the different states of human society, how what causes the monsters in one doesn’t lead to the same monsters in another. And Kate seemed to be doing well in Prosperity, but she was isolated while surrounded by people that genuinely cared for her, and after her childhood spent desperately trying to get her fathers attention, its like she doesn’t know what to do with affection. She warms up as August cools down, a pair that are destined to always be opposite.

August has a new Sunai sibling, and Ilsa is dreamily tragic, and the Flynn compound is struggling to hold its own weight up. What’s a little scary is August giving into his monster side a little, and how he develops into a survivor because he fears the alternative – he fears feeling. So while Kate learns emotions aren’t all that bad, August is stoically cutting himself off from thinking about friendship, or feelings. It’s quite an interesting dynamic really. I like how brash Kate is, and I like how insecure August is and how desperate both are to find a place where they belong.

I don’t want to give any more spoilers, but the ending was really quite sad because it suddenly felt like it was over. But it didn’t feel rushed. Give V.E all the awards please, she really is quite extraordinary. I really enjoyed this series. I will however, admit to just liking it, its a solid four star series, but I probably won’t pick it up and re-read it. Part of the magic of the Monsters of Verity duology is not knowing what might happen next, what stupid thing a character is going to say, or who’s going to die. I think it’ll lose a bit of magic in re-reading so I’m not going to.

I’m hoping to have Howard’s End finished before Christmas so I can read the Christmas books I already know my brother has gotten me. I was aiming for a flat 60 for this years Goodreads Reading Challenge, but 57 is a fairly close hit so it’s ok.

 

Review: We Were Liars

We Were Liars was recommended to me by my Aunt, with the comment “It’s a young adult, but it’ll break your heart.” I tried not to laugh at the “it’s YA but…” comment because, lets be honest, my reading list is mostly YA. So I bought We Were Liars by E.Lockhart on Kindle and it’s sat there for a few weeks or possibly months, who can even tell? I started writing this review last weekend, and for some reason didn’t finish so let’s try this review again!

We were liars is about Candence Sinclair, who experienced an accident  on her families private island Summer Fifteen, and suffers from terrible migraines because of it. Sinclairs have Mottos. They have Rules. They have family laws that are abided by. There are four teenagers in the Sinclairs, called the Liars – there is Candence, the oldest, the heir, her male cousin who missed out by a few months, his best friend and cousin the passionate and political boy, and Candence’s brilliant female cousin. Two girls, two boys. Three related, one not. Bought up together on idyllic summers where the world beyond the island doesn’t exist. Then Candence’s accident happens, and the summers spent with the Liars come to a grinding halt.

If anyone asks you to tell them how this story ends. Just Lie.

We Were Liars begins in fits and starts. The beginning of the book is Summer 16, when Candence is returning to the Sinclair island. The true beginning of the story is the summer they became the Liars, when they were all children on the island. It’s a story fed in whispers and in guesswork – a veritable consolidation of hearsay and a slow realisation of What Happened. It’s stories embedded within stories, the lies we tell ourselves to make ourselves feel better, to assuage any guilt that might be felt.

Candence is in love with her cousin’s best friend, but it’s summer love that spills over edges into the real world but doesn’t fully engage until they are back on the island. It’s loss and heartache and emotion that is personified and reaches across the page to create feelings of loneliness, of loss, of anger, of frustration, of love, of desperation, of denial.

I will admit there was a slow section, where I wondered whether the point of the entire book was that she had absolutely awful migraines and her family were standoffish – and that she had major problems connecting with absolutely anything beyond the Liars – but it’s so much more than that. The lies that are drip-fed and turn into truths and what the truth can do – it all comes to a head and THAT is the entire point, that you can deny things for only so long.

This is technically a YA book, and it features many elements of a YA novel – there is love, heartbreak, guilt. But it’s also a harrowing personification of emotions, how they’re a mess. It’s got one of the best descriptions of experiencing migraines that I have ever read and never been able to verbalize myself. It’s an interesting style of book
with sentences
spilt
into chunks
that topple
from line
to line.
Fairytales are used repeatedly to re-imagine the relationships between the characters, over and over and over – re-iterating that sense that the truth and lies are so tangled in this family, on this island that no one is above suspicion.

We Were Liars has justifiably won many awards since it was published in 2014. But while the end has you gaping like a fish with tears in your eyes, there are bits of it when you wonder where the story is going, where you consider putting it down and reading something a little jollier. Keep going. Keep battling through the self-pity and the self-loathing and the loathing of everything the Sinclair family stand for. Keep going.

And if anyone asks you what the ending is – you lie.

Review: The Selection (1-3)

This is a partial series review – I don’t usually do series reviews because I tend to read series across several weeks, and if I waited till the end I’d have forgotten my emotions at the beginning and would generalise. I will be honest and say The Selection by Keira Cass is not something I would normally pick up for myself – it’s the sort of high romance YA series I’d get for my younger sister. But the first three books in the series fit quite well into a review together, as I read them over three consecutive days and my emotions towards them differed very little from book one (The Selection) to book 2 (The Elite) and book 3 (The One). There are two more books, about a different generation of the same family that I do not intend to read.

Beware, there will be spoilers.

America Singer is a Five, a musician. She is secretly dating a Six, a friend from the caste below. When the letter arrives, America applies for The Selection – the competition held to find the newly-of-age Prince Maxon a bride. America doesn’t actually want to be a Princess, she wants to be Aspen’s wife, but he has trouble accepting she is of a higher caste, and scarpers just before the 35 Selection candidates are announced. America gets bumped up to Three, and becomes Lady America, a women after Prince Maxon’s heart. In her first few hours, America refuses to let them primp her all the way, asks for simple clothes, makes friends with her maids and tells Prince Maxon to stuff it and that she’s only here for the paycheck and the food. The next day, she “officially” meets Maxon, and tells him she wants to stay a while to provide money for her poor family, but she would rather be his friend than his wife. She makes friends with a girl named Marlee, and they hate Celeste (a model from Two with a superiority stick up her ass). Over the course of The Selection, the girls get whittled down to like, twenty-five, and find out that life at the palace involves rebel attacks and history lessons. And America realises that Maxon isn’t quite so bad a prospect as she first thought.

The Second book, The Elite, as the final six girls after a big attack on the palace. America’s ex-boyfriend Aspen turns up as a guard at the palace some time in the first book and she spends the entire book as a yo-yo between Maxon and a clingy regretful Aspen. It gets tedious. They have a Halloween Ball, Marlee gets unexpectedly and very publically eliminated, and they have to organise an even for the Italian Royal Family visiting. She ends up having an argument with Maxon at some point. It’s hard to tell where one book ends and the next begins – so in The One, there are four girls left, and America is jealous because Maxon is trying to make sure he has a second choice if America finally makes up her bloody mind and decides she can’t love him. Which is fair, Kriss seems nice. All the girls become best friends (even with the initially odious Celeste) and

I actually quite liked America, apart from the absolute tediousness of her inability to just make a goddam decision about Maxon or Aspen. I get it’s supposed to increase tension, but when she (predictably) decides, she doesn’t tell Aspen and just end the goddam game. That was so frustrating, because we could have saved a good few hundred pages if America had just told Aspen to sling his hook when he first arrived as her guard. I liked how (again, predictably) America tried to sabotage herself and ended up becoming the country favourite to become their princess, even if the King hated her. The ending is very convenient, but I did kind of like the drama involved. Aspen annoyed me because it was his own fault America left for the palace and he basically refused to take any sort of ownership and proceeded to try and win her back. Maxon was just trying to cover all bases and just seemed to upset everybody. There were a few of the other girls who were reasonably well characterised.

I didn’t like how they made picking the Prince a bride some sort of The Bachelor type situation with less sex going on – but I did like the rebels and working with the rebels to try and end The Selection, and odious, outdated and oppressive caste system. However, the fourth book in the series is about America and Maxon’s daughter holding her own Selection, twenty years later. I’m curious to find out if they actually made any of the societal changes they thought they would achieve, but they cant’ have succeeded too much because the Selection is still going ahead. But then, I didn’t really read this series for a dystopia fix it, it would have been an added bonus.

The thing is, I chose The Selection the other night because I needed a simple, easy romance novel that was entirely predictable. This series of 3 could probably have fitted nicely into one book, by missing out the reels and reels of indecisiveness about Aspen or Maxon (does it really count as a love triangle if one of the guys doesn’t know he’s in direct competition?). I read all three books over about ten hours, and it is hard to know where one ends and the next begins and America gets on her high horse a lot. I did enjoy the first one enough to buy two and three, but again it was just because I was quite happy to keep reading the really easy predictable romance and it was cheap on my kindle. My life hasn’t changed because I read it, and it was so painfully heteronormative – like, what would they do for a Selection in this country if their Prince(ess) was gay? Alas I will never know. But honestly, couldn’t two of the Selection girls have dropped out because the found the love of their lives with each other, not Maxon? instead of all the sobbing when he sends them home crownless.

Anyway, yeah, I needed an easy read, and I found one. Don’t expect anything world-altering, because it is prescriptive. It is your bog standard YA romance, with a love triangle and a stunning woman who doesn’t think she’s pretty or talented and has Morals and Opinions and people both love her and hate her. So, if that’s your jam, go crazy, there’s five books in the series and a few novella too.