Wednesday, 28 January 2015

REVIEW: The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins

Title: The Girl On The Train
Author: Paula Hawkins
First Published: January 2015
Published By: Transworld
Rating: 5/5
Review Summary: Something Is Not Right Here

When I bought this about a week and a half ago (with an unexpected windfall courtesy of a backlog of void-day train refunds, coincidentally), the bookseller putting the sale through enthusiastically informed me that they'd just received a review that described The Girl On The Train as “a mix between Hitchcock and Gone Girl.” “There’s even birds on the back cover!” she quipped (albeit truthfully). I smiled and said I liked Hitchcock films (who doesn’t?) and Gone Girl (who doesn’t?), so this book should suit me fine, but in my head I was thinking, ‘Great, here we go…’ The truth is, I don’t really like reading – or hearing – reviews of books before I’ve read the books themselves: I’ll happily sit down and plough through them after I’ve finished to see if my ideas correlate with anyone else’s, but I don’t like my opinion being clouded by theirs beforehand. As soon as that good-natured bookseller told me that quote, I was immediately thinking exactly what everyone else is now thinking about this book: it’s Rear Window, with a really messed-up relationship thrown in for good measure. Sorry for the spoiler, guys, but if it got spoiled for me, then I’m spoiling it for you.

Except I’m not really spoiling it, because that comparison, whilst a legitimate one to make, barely scratches the surface of this novel: there’s so much more to it than just witnessing things you shouldn’t have. I’m going to have to keep this review short (don’t cheer!) because I want to avoid giving away as little as possible, but there will be a few things I’ll have to tell you, so bear with me.

The novel begins with Rachel, our main character, commuting into London on the same train every morning, which always stops at the same signalling point for a little while, opposite a row of houses that back onto the tracks. One of these houses is the home of Jess and Jason, a couple who are frequently seen out on their roof terrace in the mornings, enjoying breakfast, chatting about the day to come and generally revelling in their love and life. At least, that’s how Rachel sees it: she doesn’t know them, of course, and their names aren’t Jess and Jason, but she looks out for them every day, envying their lives, wishing she had what they have – until one day, she sees something on that roof terrace that changes everything, leading her to interfere in their lives. It’s not as straightforward as that, though, because Rachel – and this is the other thing I need to tell you – has a drinking problem, which makes her a very unreliable narrator. Now, I love an unreliable narrator, but with Rachel it’s not just a case of ‘what is she not telling us?’; it’s also, ‘Does she even know what she saw?’. It certainly puts a different spin on things, not knowing if your only source is A) telling you everything or B) knows what she's talking about.

This is not a fast-paced novel – at least, not for a lot of it. A good chunk is spent establishing just how unreliable Rachel is, and the changes her drinking habits have wrought on her life (incidentally, it sounds like a lot of people don't like Rachel, and I can understand that. To me though, she cuts a rather pathetic character, one who deserves pity rather than censure). The slow-burn works here, however; there’s a sense of dread throughout the novel that grows as it progresses, and the overwhelming feeling I had whilst reading this book was ‘there is something not right here.’ Admittedly I did find it a bit jarring – and disappointing – that first time I turned the page and realised this was one of those multiple-viewpoint books with alternating chapters between characters: there’s been a lot of those lately and whilst they do allow many facets of a story to be covered, I do sometimes get a bit bored with them. Hawkins, however, uses this as a plot device as well as one for storytelling (much like Gillian Flynn does in Dark Places), with flashbacks told from one point of view, and the current story from another… but I've already said too much! What I mean is, the pace might not be as rapid as you might expect, and the switching between characters might make it feel slowed down but trust me, it benefits from that.

I was really excited to read this book, mostly because my commute involves a train that overlooks houses at various points, and like Rachel, I sometimes wonder is was happening behind the net curtains I pass every day. Once, when the train paused at a signal – much like Rachel’s trains – I saw a woman walking her dog through a field, all alone, and out of nowhere I  thought, ‘What if she was attacked, right now – and I was the only person who witnessed it? I couldn’t do anything about it because I’d be moving again before I could get any help!’ The sudden shot of fear I felt as soon as I thought that was surprisingly thrilling, so when I found out someone had written a book that played exactly on that circumstance – well, it was a no-brainer that I would have to read it. Thankfully, though, The Girl On The Train is not nearly as straightforward as my imagined scenario, making for a fantastically twisty, turny novel that only stumbles slightly at the end.


Tuesday, 27 January 2015

REVIEW: Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders

Title: Five Children on the Western Front
Author: Kate Saunders
First Published: September 2014
Published By: Faber & Faber
Rating: 4/5
Review Summary: It's Not Divergence: It's Canon

Like so many, I've read Five Children and It, E. Nesbit's charming tale of the adventures the titular five children - Cyril, Anthea, Robert, Jane and The Lamb (the baby) - have with It, a grumpy, vain sand-fairy known as the Psammead (pronounced 'Sammy-ad') that has the power to grant wishes. In the original novel, the children get stuck on church spires, are barred from their own house for being unrecognisably beautiful, and generally abuse their power with absent-minded wishes that (luckily) expire at the end of each day. It's all very pastoral and sweet and exactly the kind of thing one wants from a fairytale. So when I first heard that someone had written a sequel in which the children are grown up and about to live through the First World War, I can't say I was exactly impressed: generally speaking, I'm not a fan of sequels written by people other than the original authors, especially in cases such as this, where the author is long dead - even less so of  'all grown up' sequels. In fact, had this title not just won in the Costa Awards, I probably would not have read it at all - but when an author wins awards for a story using characters created by someone else over a century ago, you have to give credit where it is probably due, and give it a chance.

As is the time-old expectation of any book with magic in it, there are two children of an age at which magic is still a very real possibility: The Lamb, now grown up to the age of nine, and Edie, a little sister of around five who was born after the events of Five Children and It and its other sequels, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet. They discover the Psammead has reappeared in the gravel pit of the White House once more, but this time lacking the power to grant wishes for them or himself. The two take him to Anthea - now a grown woman studying art - who, despite being an adult (to whom the Psammead is usually invisible), is able to see him - a telling sign of his waning power. Soon after, all the children - most no longer actually children - are reacquainted with their old friend, though unable to fathom why he has returned, or why he has lost his magic.

There's not enough time to worry about that, though, as Cyril - the eldest - is departing for the Great War to serve on the Front. It's a sombre contrast between the heady, carefree days of on-demand wishes when we previously saw him with the Psammead, and this blend of painful nostalgia and stark, grown-up reality is constant throughout the novel. Eventually, the Psammead regains some of his strength, and also his ability to grant wishes (to which only Edie and The Lamb are usually privy). But instead of the usual whimsical adventures, the two children and the Psammead witness scenes from the his previous life as a desert god - in which he does not come off well - and pay invisible visits to their older siblings embroiled in the war - Anthea and Jane as nurses in England, Cyril and Robert as soldiers in Europe.

Saunders doesn't shy away from the horrors of the war, despite the excellent mimicry of Nesbit's gentle style: there are casualties, fatalities and injuries to endure, but in between times there is still the delightfully cantankerous Psammead to ease the pain - although he now has a story of his own, rather than appearing as the foil for others' adventures. Saunders captures his persona very well, so that the subtle character development of the creature throughout this novel feels natural, rather than the contrived plot it could have appeared as. It's certainly a bold direction to take: part of the delight of the Psammead in previous encounters is that he is irrevocably conceited, reacting with outrage and sulks if he is doubted or criticised. He still maintains his vanity and bad-tempered behaviour in Five Children on the Western Front, but there is a definite lean towards a more civil, repentant sand-fairy as the novel progresses.

The most jarring thing about this novel is Saunder's visions of the children as adults: I never would have pictured Jane as an aspiring doctor, or Robert as a studious man, so in many ways the only connection between Saunders' children and Nesbit's was, for me, actually the Psammead himself, which made it easier for me to enjoy reading it: once I'd gotten over the shock of not getting larger versions of the characters I knew, I was able to separate the children of Nesbit's creation, allowing Five Children on the Western Front to stand on it's own, as it should do. It seems foolish now to expect to recognise the characters as they are in Saunders' tale from the children they were in Nesbit's: after all, I highly doubt anyone who knew me as a ten year old, then saw me as I am now, would be able to connect the two, so why should I know Saunders' Cyril as well as Nesbit's?

Saunders may have used Nesbit's characters for her story, but this doesn't diminish her work in the slightest: if anything, I've found it actually enhances the experience of reading the original stories - something Saunders was no doubt aiming for with her reference to the children's moving visit to their friend the Professor in the future, taken from The Amulet (as Saunders said herself in an interview in The Telegraph, "These little children come back to visit and he knows what has happened to them. Of course they leave him crying"). Peter Pan is the only character no one expects to grow up, after all, and given that we're in the midst of the 100th anniversary of the First World War it now seems almost sensible to acknowledge that some of our best beloved characters from classic children's fiction would've grown up into that tragedy. 

As a standalone story, this might not appeal to many: you really need to know about the Psammead and his connection to the children in order to feel the full impact of Saunders' tale, and you won't get much of an explanation of the back story here. But if you've ever read Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet or The Story of the Amulet then I think you should put aside any preconceived notions of what should and shouldn't be done with other people's creations, and read this. It's an addition to the Psammead canon, not a divergence, and worth the reading just for that.


Friday, 23 January 2015

REVIEW: Tampa by Alissa Nutting

Title: Tampa
Author: Alissa Nutting
First Published: July 2013
Published By: Faber & Faber
Rating: 4/5 
Review Summary: A Different Kind of Horror Story

I've wanted to read this book for a while, but have been wary about it because the main character and first-person narrator, Celeste, is a teacher with a ravenous sexual obsession over 14 year old boys. It's not exactly the usual book I read, nor does it sound like particularly pleasant reading material, but sometimes you've got to move out of your comfort zone - even if just thinking about it makes me feel a bit ill. Yet despite my distaste for the plot, I have to confess I was intrigued by this novel, mostly because someone actually wrote a book about a teacher seducing a male pupil, and from the perspective of a teacher who intends to do it. I tentatively read an excerpt a little while ago and, despite being thrown in at the deep end (Nutting does not hold back), I was hooked by it, and had to see where this was going. I was a bit concerned that I might become sympathetic to Celeste, like I have done in the past towards other morally-reprehensible characters: Joe, from You by Caroline Kepnes, stalks his victim and goes to extreme, violent measures in his pursuit of her, yet because he rationalised his actions to me, I more readily accepted them. Similarly, Alex of A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess recounted his most violent crimes in a slang of his own creation, lessening the impact of what he had done until it was too late and you were on his side. In much the same way, I feared Celeste would win me over.

No such thing occurred, because she is not a character you can have much sympathy for: Celeste is a cold, calculating predator, a blonde beauty on the outside but rotten to the core. I'll tell you early on, so you can duck out if you want to: this is not a woman who fights against her feelings, but wholeheartedly embraces, encourages and indulges them. She does not rage against her unnatural urges, or feel conflicted about what she does: she lives for it, even explaining early on that she had become a teacher specifically to be around her preferred age-range.

When we first meet her, Celeste is preparing for her first day as a qualified teacher to middle-school children, and she is eagerly anticipating picking her victim. She quickly establishes that she has a 'type': youthfully androgynous, but obviously male; not too confident (he might boast to friends) and secretive, potentially with negligent parents to make getting to him easier. She is a vampire, from her glamorous appearance and predatory nature, right down to her insatiable appetite for virginal flesh, and she is despicable. The true edge of the novel, however, comes in the form of Jack, Celeste's fourteen-year-old victim. It's easy, in a world of Augustus's and Edwards, to give teenage boys a maturity they don't actually have - admittedly, the love interests of The Fault in Our Stars and Twilight are slightly older than Jack, but the point still stands that these are teenage boys, credited with more wisdom and worldliness than many of their real-life contemporaries would have. Nutting's Jack is portrayed exactly as he should be: childlike, innocent, young. If Celeste's tastes had run towards the older-looking, more confident boys she dismisses for being exactly that (she finds any male even slightly resembling adulthood repulsive), then we'd be treading a dangerous line between titillation and violation: instead, we're firmly placed in the violation camp. By keeping Jack deliberately young, from his skinny legs to his too-long fringe, we're constantly reminded that this isn't some extended teacher-pupil fantasy scene: this is abuse.

Celeste is a very interesting character: she recognises that others would view her as a pervert, but refers to her proclivities as 'a preference', like there's no real reason for anyone to think badly of her just because she 'prefers' something different. It's a mind-boggling way to think about such a thing, and yet the fact that Nutting is able to create a character like this is testament to the quality of her writing: whilst Celeste regularly disgusts, she also fascinates with her outlook on her actions. The way she rationalises her actions, the brazen manner in which she reveals her fantasies, and the matter-of-fact way she plans to ensnare Jack are the kind of car-crash reading I don't come across often: I was revolted and utterly hooked. She also has a dry sense of humour that throws you off guard: you don't expect a monster to be able to make jokes, and laughter is, after all the great unifier - so it's uncomfortable and terrifying that by making you laugh Celeste can (even for a second) make you forget what she really is. As she sinks deeper into her depravity and becomes careless in her indulgences, the novel becomes less about her obsession with Jack and more about her cold, inhuman attitude to those around her, and the lengths that she will go to in order to conceal her secret, giving the novel far more depth beyond its original subject matter.

It feels weird to say I enjoyed reading this book, but the truth is, I did, in a malicious way: from page one I found myself rooting for someone to identify Celeste for what she is and call her out on it, so she could be punished. I had similar feelings about her as I did Amy Dunne when I read Gone Girl  - I was horrified by Amy's actions and reasons for them but also admired her in a perverse way for her determination and ingenuity. I can't say I admire Celeste, but I certainly recognise those qualities in her: she is nothing if not scheming. I suppose I would say that, if you've got a strong constitution when it comes to subjects that make you feel a bit ill, and enjoy reading about a psychopath being, well, psychopathic, then this would definitely be up your street. Nutting has created a deliciously wicked, depraved character who is as enthralling as she is disgusting: you'll not find an anti-hero here to root for, but you will be feverishly turning those pages to discover if Celeste's crimes finally catch up with her. It does lose pace towards the end, which is disappointing, but not so much as to diminish the rest of the novel. I suppose I'm going to lean on the recommend side because the bottom line is - Tampa has a lot of bad things in it, a lot that will make you uncomfortable, but is ultimately a very good book.

So to summarise with my new feature....


Monday, 19 January 2015

Reads For Early '15

Before I got an e-reader, I was - to say the least - an erratic book-buyer. Whatever I saw in a shop, if I liked it, I bought it. I didn't follow any book blogs or columns, and whilst I was always aware of the big summer hits, I can honestly say that I didn't have much of a clue about up-and-coming books, or the must-reads. I just read whatever I happened across. But since browsing on the e-reader isn't exactly as easy as browsing in a shop (which I still do, by the way), I've had to find new ways to get my book fix, and Twitter - with it's myriad of fellow bloggers, authors and book-pluggers - has become that source. I'm now far more aware of what books are getting people talking, what ones are coming out this year, and which ones I've missed but should really get on to. To this end, I now present the books I'm hoping to read in the first half of 2015 - some published already, some still to come:

Rooms by Lauren Oliver
I'm not entirely sure why I want to read this, because it sounds like a slightly less hammy version of the Nicole Kidman film The Others, which gives me the heebie-jeebies (I'm an absolute coward when it comes to ghost stories or anything remotely paranormal). In it, a wealthy man dies, and his estranged family descend on his home to tie up the ends of his life. What they don't realise is, the house is inhabited by ghosts of former residents, who witness the bitter family exchanges and sometimes try to intervene. I'm hoping this will be a ghost story more along the lines of Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger, which I really enjoyed, and less The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, a book that I can't sleep in the same room of.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson (publishing May 2015)
I discovered Kate Atkinson last year, when I read - and really enjoyed - her time-lapsing novel, Life After Life, which follows Ursula Todd through the many possible lives she could have had, all results of various decisions made by herself and others along the way. I've not read any other books of Atkinson's yet, but when I heard there was to be a companion novel about Ursula's brother, Teddy, it was only natural I should want to read it. I am a bit wary, however: I don't want to suggest Atkinson is cashing in on the success of Life After Life, but I really hope that A God in Ruins will be as entertaining as its sister, and also readable as a standalone novel. Whilst I love revisiting an established world as much as anyone, there has to be some added value to it, not just a recognition of that world - or novel's - popularity. Also, a bit of a stronger ending than Life After Life's would go down quite well, too.

A Million Years In A Day by Greg Jenner (publishing January 2015)
Greg Jenner, if you don't know him, is the historical consultant - and occasional extra/writer - of one of my favourite TV shows, Horrible Histories, based on the inimitable Terry Deary series: so obviously I am quite excited about this, his first book. The main attraction is that it focuses less on the major historical events throughout time, and more on the parts that get overlooked - the day-to-day bits and bobs that aren't considered as important as the dissolution of the monasteries, or the Restoration, but are nevertheless huge parts of history - essentially, how people like us lived throughout time, 'from stone age to phone age'. I'm really looking forward to this one in particular - plus, I get to meet the author in February, so doubleplusgood.

A Court of Thorns and Roses by Sarah J Maas (publishing May 2015)
If you haven't heard of S. J. Maas, and you're a fan of fantasy novels, then WHAT ARE YOU DOING?! She's an up-and-coming author in the YA-wing of the genre, penning the excellent Throne of Glass series, which began as a twist on the Cinderella fairytale (as Sarah described it herself: what if Cinderella was at the ball to assassinate the prince?). This, her second series, is of a slightly more romantic and adult nature, and this time turns the tale of Beauty and the Beast on its head. Here, the Beast is Fae, and Beauty is a hunter who shoots (with a bow and arrow, of course) a Fae whilst in it's wolf form. Cue brooding, flirting and yes, a little bit of Stockholm Syndrome.

Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb
Robin Hobb is a machine. She churns out fantasy novels like you wouldn't believe, and - making her a rarity in writing - she not only keeps returning to her readers' favourite characters, but does so well, without compromising her previous novels. Now concentrate, because this bit is tricky: Fool's Assassin is the first book in a new trilogy about the characters Fitz and the Fool, who together have already featured in two other trilogies (The Farseer Trilogy and The Tawny Man), although there is a third already finished that takes place in the same world, called The Liveships Trilogy, which only features the Fool. Keeping up? So basically, she's starting her FOURTH trilogy set in one world, and her THIRD featuring the two same protagonists. Oh, and they're all at least 500 pages long. See? A MACHINE.

Tampa by Alissa Nutting
I've been wanting to read this for ages but been a bit scared to: the main character is a sexual predator who abuses their position as a teacher by embarking on an affair with a pupil, and doesn't appear to shy on some of the more unpleasant details. It's told in much the same way as You by Caroline Kepnes, or A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, in that you are forced to see the story through the predator's eyes. Now I've read both and have felt uncomfortably sympathetic with the narrator in each at times, so I'm reluctantly anticipating much of the same. Oh, and did I mention? The sexual predator of Tampa is a beautiful young woman with a particular penchant for 14 year old boys. Yeah, I know.

Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman (Publishing March 2015)
This is the sequel to 2012's Seraphina, and quite frankly, it's been a bloody long time coming: I read Seraphina in 2013, I think, so I've been waiting for nearly two years for this. For those of you who don't know this series, it is set in a world where humans and dragons (who can assume humanoid forms) uneasily co-exist, until some traditionalist dragons decide to try reasserting their dominance over the humans, despite a peace treaty. Seraphina is refreshing in so many ways: for starters, the main character is a musician and teacher with a skin condition, so she's not your usual perfectly-formed, athletic heroine with an uncanny ability for ninja-techniques and martial arts. Secondly, there is a love story, but it is sensibly in proportion to the rest of the plot (i.e. not a big deal), so it somehow means more than the burning gazes and brushing hands one usually encounters in romantic storylines. Finally, the most interesting aspect of it is that it is very political: there are factions disrupting the fragile peace, persecutions, prejudice, delicate dances performed by those in power to maintain equilibrium, etc, which makes for a fascinating, tense read. In short, I loved Seraphina, and I cannot wait for Shadow Scale. I could pretend I'm a bit nervous it won't live up to my expectations, but truthfully, I think this is going to be great. Also: BEAUTIFUL COVER ALERT, amiright?!

The Girl On The Train by Paula Hawkins
I get trains. I use the tube. Therefore, I can RELATE to this book, and isn't relating to a book - be it geographically, socially, personally - the main attraction? Well, okay, I haven't developed any obsessive relationships with people I observe from my train or tube - but I did once see a woman walking her dog through an otherwise empty field, and found myself imagining, 'What if I saw a crime, like a murder, being committed from this train, and it was only a fleeting glimpse, and it seemed like I was the only one who saw it?' Well thankfully nothing like that has ever happened to me, but this book sounds a bit like that, with bonus stalking, so that's why I want to read it - because it's a mix of my imagination and You by Caroline Kepnes (actually, that's a bad - and concerning - combination. Never mind.).

The Catcher in The Rye by J. D. Salinger
I've always felt like I missed the boat with this one: I never read it as a teenager, and by the time people started incredulously asking me how I'd got so far without reading it, I kind of felt that I was too old for it. Actually, that's not right: I felt that I was beyond the age where I'd find Holden Caulfield to be anything but a whiny teenager, because I am no longer a whiny teenager (not to say all teenagers are whiny, of course). I suppose I just didn't think I'd be able to relate to the narrator in the same way as I would've done say, ten years ago, and knowing that may cloud my impression of it. However, there are only so many excuses one can make, and when I read My Salinger Year by Joanne Rakoff last year (the autobiographical tale of Rakoff's time working for literary agency, replying to Salinger fan mail), I started to reassess my accidental no-Salinger policy, and now I'm actually looking very forward to finding out more about Holden Caulfield.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
The only other non-fiction title on the list, this is the account and analysis of the brutal murder of the Clutter family in 1959. Penned by the childhood friend of Harper Lee, and the inspiration for the character Dill in To Kill A Mockingbird, this is the rare true-crime story that I'm actually interested in reading - I don't think I'll ever understand the morbid fascination people have with those real-life-murder mysteries and true-abuse books. I can't say it's the grisly details that particularly draw me in - it's more the connection between the author and Harper Lee, and my new-found appreciation for Agatha Christie, which has lead to a new-found love of crime novels.

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro
I've read two and a half of Ishiguro's novels: Never Let Me Go, which I love and frequently re-read; The Remains of the Day, which I enjoyed and will read again, I'm sure; and The Unconsoled, which I never finished and can't say I ever will. It's a mixed bag so far, which is why - rather than getting all excited about The Buried Giant, his first novel in a decade that's out later this year - I'm going back to the beginning, to his first-ever novel, A Pale View of Hills. It's the story of a Japanese woman in England, reflecting on the aftermath of the Nagasaki bomb when she was a young woman, and her relationship with her daughters. I think it's a bit darker than I've made it sound, but I'm hoping it will rekindle my interest in Ishiguro's novels.

Are there any books you're looking forward to, or any that you've put off for ages but now intend to read, in 2015?

Saturday, 17 January 2015

2014: Worst of the Year

I've not done this before - listed all the books I disliked the most from the past twelve months. But, now I've got my Reading Log, it's that much easier for me to remember those books that really disappointed, annoyed or bored. So here they are: the books I least enjoyed in 2014. I've actually been really lucky this year in that there have been very few books I've actively disliked or been really disappointed by - I was trying to aim for ten, for symmetry with the Best Of list, but on reflection some of the titles I'd selected were actually just filler, and I wasn't so bothered by them that they merited inclusion. So here are the eight titles I liked the least in 2014.  Similar rules to the Best Of list apply - all books listed have been read by me FOR THE FIRST TIME in 2014, but weren't necessarily published in 2014. A few extra caveats here, though - firstly, I have to have finished it. And secondly, consider yourself warned - there may be some VERY unpopular opinions here!

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie - first published 1934
Bit of a controversial place to start: for starters, Christie featured in my 2014: Best of the Year list, and Murder on the Orient Express is one of her most well-known, best-loved stories. This may well be why I didn't get on with it: when a title's reputation precedes it, expectations are naturally going to be higher (expect quite a few of those kind of books on this list). Easily one of the bigger disappointments this year, Christie's tale of Hercule Poirot investigating a murder on a stranded train is infamous, and yet it didn't do anything for me. I don't want to go into it too much because (despite my antipathy) I don't want to give it away, but a lot of the story felt quite contrived, and I thought the ending was a bit of a cop-out. Others may - and probably will - disagree with me, but it fell short of the standard I had come to expect from Christie. It may well be that I saturated myself - I read nine Christie books last year, most of which featured Poirot - but I felt deflated when I finished this one. Not the worst book I read last year by far, or indeed the worst Christie, but possibly the starting point of my increasing dislike for Poirot as a character (still just finished another, though. Christie has become my crack).

Lady Chatterley's Lover by D. H. Lawrence - first published 1928
I've no idea why I started reading this. It's never been something I've wanted to read before, and I've not read anything else by Lawrence to make me want to pick up another; I just happened to find it for free download on my ereader, so I got it, and I'm so glad I didn't pay any money for it. I just don't get it. I mean, yes, I do - I get the whole commentary on the unnatural divides in society, the reawakening of a woman's sexuality, the question of what love actually is - but the actual story? Nope. I got bored with the endless shagging, I got bored with the supposedly-titillating instances when Mellors lapses into his 'real' accent, and I got bored with their romance. I just didn't connect with it: I know that Connie was filling the gap (ha!) her impotent, paralysed husband left with a solid, strong, dominant man, and was in part obeying his suggestion to provide an heir by any means, but the whole relationship - whether it was about love, or power, or sex, or whatever - just wasn't convincing. I struggled gamely on in the hope of finding something to actually care about, but, to be honest, I spent most of the time reading it just feeling actually quite angry and bored with it all.

We Were Liars by E. Lockhart - published 2014
This is going to be another controversial one, isn't it? We Were Liars was one of the YA books of 2014: thousands of people of all ages appear to have been captivated by the story of the messed-up, super-wealthy Sullivan family spending their summers on their private island. Admittedly, there's a lot in this book to think about, and I have to say it's a really well-plotted story: there were some parts of it that I just did not see coming, although in retrospect they made a lot of sense, which is the mark of a good writer, I think. What actually bothered me about this book was the narrator: maybe Lockhart wrote her too well, but I just could not stand her, and as it was written from a first person perspective, I never got to get outside of her head. Again, I'm probably missing a point here, and maybe on a re-read I'll change my mind, but my first impressions were that it was a book full of self-pity with few redeemable characters and not all that much point to it.

Stoner by John Williams - first published 1965
This was an unexpected hit of 2013/2014 - Vintage Books released it as part of their Classics series, and suddenly a novel that had faded from modern memory experienced a revival, with many a person on Twitter expressing praise for it alongside the hashtag, #Weareallstonernow. It's this exposure on Twitter that led to me this book - that, and the fact that it sounded like the opposite to Any Human Heart by William Boyd. Instead of Logan Mountstuart's dazzling experiences, undulating careers and celebrity brushes, with William Stoner I'd be getting something more akin to real life: a man who lives a quiet life, doing quiet things, quite often making poor decisions. In many ways, this is the story's appeal: it's far easier to relate to, and therefore - theoretically - more resonant with its readers. Unfortunately, it tipped a little bit too far into 'real life' for me, and instead, I just got bored. I did, however, learn something from this: I learnt that I like books that transport me, that force me to imagine new worlds and experiences. Seeing as Stoner lived in a small world, and had few experiences, there just wasn't enough here for me. To be blunt, I think I missed the point of it.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler - published 2014
Yet another controversial entry (I'm sensing a theme), this is a book that everyone seems to be falling over themselves to praise, but I just don't get. This is probably more to do with my expectations of the book, and the mood I was in when I was reading it. See, I thought it was going to be one of those novels that, whilst dealing with some kind of Major Issue or Question, was still light-hearted in tone and left one feeling better once finishing it. I also hoped it would be this, because when I started reading it I was in hospital, and could've done with cheering up. It was not quite what I was expecting (or at least, not to my consideration) and it certainly didn't cheer me up. This may be clouding my judgement, so it may benefit from a re-read. However, my main issue with it was a lack of connection with the main character, Rosemary; simply put, I didn't like her much, and so I didn't like her story. Now, you can have narrators that you don't like, but are still enthralled by - Joe from You by Caroline Kepnes is such a narrator, as is Nick from Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Rosemary is, for me, not part of this group, mostly because I found her boring as well as unlikeable. Also - and I think this is a fault with the marketing of the book - it's made pretty clear that there is a BIG TWIST early-ish in the book (they even give a page number). Now, I don't know about you, but I (despite my accidental habit of giving away spoilers) don't like it when people tell me I've got a twist to look out for, so we got off on the wrong foot pretty early, because I was expecting a twist, and when it arrived it just confused me rather than amazed (as I think was the intention). After that, it was just downhill, and whilst I may read it again at some point to give it a fighting chance, my overwhelming impression of it was just disappointment.

The Shock of The Fall by Nathan Filer - published 2013
And again, another book that everyone else loved and I don't get, The Shock of The Fall (a beautiful title, I'll admit) won the Costa Book Award in 2013. Now, don't judge me too harshly for featuring this title in a 'Worst of' list: it's not here because I hated anyone in it, or didn't like the story. In fact, I quite liked the plot (if 'like' is the correct word to use) and I sympathised with the main character (indeed, all the characters). But I didn't love it, I wasn't stirred by it, it didn't make me reconsider anything and it didn't stay with me after finishing it. To tell the truth, I got a bit bored with it. I don't know why this was: I'm inclined to think that, as quite often happens, the hype surrounding it meant my higher-than-usual expectations weren't met. Then again, apparently everyone else thought it was worth the hype, so I guess the problem is with me setting the bar too high. Either way, the main reason this is on the list is not because it was a bad book, or because I didn't like the subject matter, or the people in it: it simply did not resonate with me, and it's hard to be pleased with a book you thought you'd like a lot more than you actually did.

Just What Kind of Mother Are You? by Paula Daly - published 2013
I got handed a free sample of this outside of a tube station one sunny morning; it featured the first three chapters or so of the book, finished on an appropriate cliffhanger and by the end of the day, I'd bought it, thoroughly impressed with what I'd read so far (the plot, by the way, centres around a frazzled mother-of-three, Lisa, forgetting to pick up a friend's daughter after school, who promptly goes missing). Sadly, the strong beginning gave way rather quickly to a soggy middle and a limp finish. It wasn't the characters this time - they were quite good, especially Lisa, who you're sympathetic to from the get-go - but more the plot: what started out as a fairly pacy novel with a twist on the missing-child theme turned into something a bit clunkier with the whodunnit element pretty obvious from a mile off - and this is me talking, who has rarely ever been able to correctly identify the perpetrator in any crime stories I've read or films I've watched. I guessed so early on that I have to admit, I assumed for most of the book that I was (as always) wrong, so when it turned out I was right  - well, the sudden pleasure at getting it right was quickly dampened by the reflection that actually, it was a bit obvious. When a book simultaneously makes you doubt yourself AND disappoints, you know you're not exactly on to a winner.

Under the Dome by Stephen King - published 2009
It all started so well. I was thoroughly hooked from page one: a town is suddenly and inexplicably sealed off from the rest of the world by an invisible, indestructible dome; no one can leave and no supplies can get in. A quickly-established cast of heroes and villains, combined with the political and social strains, get the plot going quite quickly. I especially enjoyed King's imagining of all the fates of those people who were in or around the dome as it appeared, such as a witness to a rodent sliced in half as it came down, or the plane that crashed into it; it all felt very convincing, very well imagined. The problem came with the length: after that initial plot-setting beginning, it just fell into a vicious cycle of: someone tries to foil the Main Villain's plans and gets foiled themselves; society crumbles a bit further; an attempt to solve the Dome problem fails; someone tries to foil the Main Villain's plans and gets foiled themselves; society crumbles a bit further; an attempt to solve the Dome problem fails. Foiled; Crumbles; Fails, over and over again. FOR NINE-HUNDRED PAGES. And then, after all that, the ending is just... not worth it. If I hadn't gotten so interested so quickly I may never have finished this - and I kind of wish I had just given up.

Any books that you've read recently that you didn't like? Were you told you'd love one, then found you hated it?

Sunday, 11 January 2015

2014: Best of the Year

In previous years, I have chronicled my favourite books over the previous 12 months by counting down the top 10 over 3 entries. This year, I was going to opt for something a little different. I WAS planning to list it by best book for each month, but this has proved more difficult than anticipated - basically, some months I read only good or so-so books, whereas other months yielded a bumper crop of amazing reads. So, instead, I'm just going to list the best 10 books I read in 2014 - there's no countdown here, just the ones I loved best. Otherwise, usual criteria apply: all books listed have been read by me FOR THE FIRST TIME in 2014, but weren't necessarily published in 2014:

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie - first published November 1939
This has a special place in my heart as it is the FIRST EVER Agatha Christie book I have read, and it was - to get all British on you - a ripping corker of a yarn. Ten complete strangers are mysteriously summoned to an island off the coast of Devon. Suddenly, during dinner on their first night all together, a record begins playing - revealing that each person present has been responsible for the death of another person, in one way or another. As the bodies start piling up - in eerily similar circumstances to a nursery rhyme, Ten Little Indians - the main question on everybody's lips is: who knows of their crimes and summoned them? And who will get out alive? It's a pacy, tense thriller with more than a few genuinely scary bits more akin to horror stories than crime novels, and you'll not fully know what's going on until the very last page. I haven't been this consistently misled by an author since reading Apple Tree Yard by Louise Doughty last year.

You by Caroline Kepnes - published September 2014
Many people describe books as 'unputdownable', but it's quite rare that I find one that actually is unputdownable; a book that you are almost surgically attached to from beginning to end. You can see where this is going now: You fits the unputdownable bill perfectly. From the moment I read those first few lines - 'You walk into the bookstore and you keep your hand on the door to make sure it doesn't slam. You smile, embarrassed to be a nice girl, and your nails are bare and your V-neck sweater is beige and it's impossible to know if you're wearing a bra but I don't think you are.' - I was instantly hooked: it's unusual to read a book that's addressed entirely to someone else in this fashion (I can only think of Dolores Clairborne by Stephen King as another example) and it is such a compelling and tricky thing to pull off. Yet Kepnes does it, and does it well, and suddenly you're inside a seriously disturbed young man's head as he pursues the girl of his dreams in a less-than romantic manner. It's surprisingly sexy, quite horrifying and whilst it does lag in a few spots, the pace picks up again pretty quickly. Can't recommend it enough.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng - published August 2014
This was one of those books where you inexplicably avoid it for ages, then suddenly pick it up and wonder why you took so long. Lydia, the middle child of three and the eldest daughter, suddenly disappears one night and whilst we, the readers, know from the first line of the book that she is already dead, that's a horror the family have yet to deal with: first, they must endure the fear and sickening worry of finding their child and sister is missing. It reminded me of The Lovely Bones by Alice Seabold, in some ways: the reliable daughter suddenly gone, the family left behind to pick up their lives, a pentagon made into a square. It's also a fascinating insight into the life of a Chinese-American family in 1970's America, with prejudices confronted and dissected in a straightforward, no-nonsense manner. It's far less depressing and sad than I've made it sound, with some positive moments amongst the misery, but it is less of a thriller than I was expecting - I thought that the many things Lydia never told were going to be more exciting and inflammatory than they actually are (which, in a way, makes it more realistic, and so much more relatable). Nevertheless, it was one of those books that sticks with you long after you've finished it, and makes you question exactly what you'd do if you were put on a pedestal you never wanted.

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton - published July 2013
You've probably heard of this book for several reasons: it won the Man Booker Prize in 2013; Catton is the youngest ever recipient of said prize; it's structurally dazzling. So I'm just going to focus on the story, which is, at it's core, a whodunnit. In 19th century New Zealand, a wealthy man has gone missing, a drunk is found dead with a small fortune, and a prostitute is discovered near death's door, apparently by her own doing. These three events are all connected to each other, and to twelve men who congregate to piece their versions of events together to solve the mystery - and possibly absolve themselves. Into all this walks Walter Moody, a man who seeks to make his fortune in the nearby goldfields, with his own contribution to the narrative. Yes, this story does drag in places; yes, thanks to the various accounts from each of the twelve men, there is some repetition - but stick with it, after the first third it picks up massively: it's an ambitious novel that deserves your attention, and you will be rewarded.

The Lemon Grove by Helen Walsh - published February 2014
I bought this because it's set in Majorca, which is hot and sunny and a place I've been to on holiday, and because when I first read it in March 2014 it was cold and wet and I wanted to be on holiday. So if you want a book to help you escape to sunnier climes in your mind, well, this is not it. I mean, yes, it does have that holiday air to it - snoozes in the sun, late-night dinners in tavernas, drinking too much and not caring - but this idyllic setting just sets off the dark edges of the novel perfectly. When Jenn's stepdaughter brings her new boyfriend, Nathan, on the family holiday, Jenn begins to develop a dangerous, obsessive attraction to him, which appears to be reciprocated. It's unexpectedly thrilling, more than a bit sexy and looks into the motivations behind the attraction between an older woman and a younger man - this 'cougar' thing that seems to have started with Mrs Robinson, gained steam with American Pie's MILF and just hasn't slowed down. It's morally conflicting, with fascinating - if unlikeable - characters and is another one to add to the 'unputdownable' shelf. Plus, at a mere 225 pages long, it's a short, pacy read with hooks that keep on coming until the very last full stop.

The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton - published March 2014
Firstly, look at that cover. JUST LOOK AT IT. Ain't it pretty? That cover is Reason One I bought a print copy not long after reading this for the first time on my Kindle. Reason Two, of course, is that it's a beautiful story, a fairytale in so many ways. As the title suggests, the novel circles around Ava, but she is only barely the main character - her mysterious and unusual relatives also share top billing. It starts with an immigrant family arriving in New York at the beginning of the 20th century. Various misfortunes befall the rather extraordinary family, leading to one member moving as far west across the country as she can, to Seattle, where Ava is eventually born. I won't give away too much more from here but - seeing as it's revealed in the first few pages - I do feel it's important you know that Ava is born with wings, and these unexpected appendages are what lead to the strange and beautiful sorrows of the title. It's a mournful book (as you might expect), slow and flowing, but the language used - especially in relation to food and weather - is just lovely. I don't want to talk too much about this book in case I either don't stop or ruin the magic, but it is magical, and if you're the kind of person who loved The Time Traveller's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, or The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman, I reckon you'd like this.

The Girl With All The Gifts by M. R. Carey - published January 2014
You've probably heard of this, if you've not been living under a rock, because it was one of the bigger sleeper titles of 2014 (not so big as The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton or I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes, but big enough). It's going to be a tricky one to discuss because there's a lot in this that can be easily given away, but shouldn't be; however, I will do my best to avoid spoilers. Picture a school where the kids are all strapped to their chairs; where they're supervised by armed guards; where they're barely fed more than once a week. Sounds like a modern horror story, doesn't it? Well this is, in many ways - because what if the kids are treated like this, because the adults are scared - terrified - of them? This is exactly what's going on: Melanie, a young girl kept in such an establishment, is a source of fear and hatred for many of the adults around her, except Miss Justineau, her teacher, who tries to treat the children like they're people, despite her revulsion. The story follows - amongst many other things - the development of the relationship between these two characters, against a backdrop of a dramatically altered England. I don't really want to say any more now because I'm getting close to giving too much away, and ruining it for you, but I will say this: the myth of Pandora, with the box from which she loosed all the horrors of the world, is a recurring motif throughout the book, and the more you read, the more you realise just why Carey was so inspired by that legend.

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood - first published 1985
I genuinely don't know how to start talking about this book, so forgive me if I lapse into stream-of-consciousness here. Firstly, I'd just like to state for the record two things: I LOVE Margaret Atwood, and she scares the hell out of me. She scares me because she seems to have an uncanny ability to not just call out humanity on it's darker tendencies - things claimed to have been done in the name of something greater, or for progress - but does so in a way that makes it perfectly possible that such-and-such an outcome COULD occur. That's pretty much what happens in The Handmaid's Tale; an ultra-Christian religious sect stages a coup in America and seizes power, instigating their version of an ideal society that involves a strict hierarchy, particularly for women who have basically no rights in this society. It's a fascinating, compelling, horrifying book which asks all sorts of questions over consent, control, fanaticism, religion and women's rights - particularly in regards to their own bodies. I'll stop there before I say too much, but I will leave it with the line that scared me the most in the entire novel, when the main character visits a place where the bodies of executed criminals are displayed:
"They were doctors then, in the time before, when such things were legal...They've been turned up now by the searches through hospital records, or - more likely, since most hospitals destroyed such records once it became clear what was going to happen - by informants."

Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton - first published 1991
This is going to be a bit of a short one because you must know what happens in Jurassic Park - you've surely seen the film. Well, that's a pretty faithful adaptation - all the main points of the book are covered in the film (the arrogance of man, chaos theory, life always finds a way etc.), so I don't need to discuss the plot. But the reason I enjoyed this story so much is because, despite there being a LOT more of the convincing-sounding-but-really-dubious science in it than the film has, it's pacy, fun to read, with better-developed characters and a few twists and character endings (NOT necessarily deaths!) that the film didn't find time for. It is a long book (my copy has 399 pages in it, with quite small print) so don't be put off if you were expecting some printed version of the film - I can honestly say that this book is better, and I happen to think that Jurassic Park the film is great, so I can't give much higher praise than that.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio - published March 2012
The last book in this list is coincidentally also the last book I actually finished in 2014, and what a final book it was. It's the tale of Auggie, who is born with a face very different to everyone else's - so different, he has to be homeschooled for most of his life as he's been too ill to attend regular school, and there is a concern of how other children will react to him. However, when his various necessary surgeries peter out and his life becomes less of a medical rollercoaster, his parents decide to enrol him in Beecher Prep, a local private school, which is where the story begins. Auggie, who knows his face is different but otherwise is a normal ten-year-old boy, expects children to react badly to him - and in some cases, he's completely right, whereas in others he's pleasantly surprised. It's an uplifting tale, albeit not without it's harrowing moments - it's amazing how unkind and prejudiced children can be, when you consider they're born with no such tendencies - and there are a few moments that may cause tears (the kind of tears, I may add, that The Fault in Our Stars by John Green never wrung out of me), but ultimately it's beautiful, funny, sweet and a reminder that judging by appearances is never the way to go.

And finally, a mention for the other great books I read this year, but didn't quite make this particular cut:
  • Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch
  • Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
  • The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
  • My Salinger Year by Joanne Rakoff
  • The Table of Less-Valued Knights by Marie Phillips
  • The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith

Did you read any of these recently? What did you think of them?