19 April 2018

Sal / Mick Kitson

Sal has decided to take matters into her own hands. She's planned everything meticulously, and gathered knowledge and equipment over many months. Then she killed her mother's abusive boyfriend and ran away to the woods with her sister.

Determined not to let anything split them up, Sal deploys remarkable survival skills and a resourcefulness that belies her tender years to start a new life with Peppa in the rugged landscape of Scotland's Galloway Forest Park. She's learned all about building a shelter, starting a fire, hunting, fishing and countless other things from YouTube videos and her trusty SAS Survival Handbook. Now the girls just need to bide their time while their alcoholic mother goes through rehab, then they'll fetch her and all live together in this silent wilderness.

But before they can carry out their scheme, they meet their "neighbour" Ingrid, a reclusive immunologist who lives in a rustic camp a few miles away and must deal with wounds of her own. She teaches them about baking bread in a stone oven, making bowls out of birch bark, communing with the Goddess and the importance of forgiveness. This encounter will have a profound effect on all their lives.

Switching between present circumstances and past events, Sal tells us her story in a very matter-of-fact way. She's extremely bright, despite being placed in a vulnerable learners programme at school owing to her severe dyslexia and unsatisfactory social skills, so it's fascinating to see "from the inside" how she deals with hurdles that would defeat many so-called well-adjusted adults. The subtlety with which nature as a source of healing was treated is another highlight.

Since I've always enjoyed fiction where people must cope with fulfilling their essential needs in strained circumstances, "Sal" was right up my trail, as it were. In that regard, if I may offer a vegan's perspective on the measures Sal must take in order to feed herself and Peppa, I appreciate that the author didn't shy away from the realities of taking an animal's life, but also didn't try to ennoble the act, for example by having Sal thank the animal for its sacrifice or "honouring its spirit" in some way.

I found this novel extremely compelling and moving. All of the characters felt completely believable, and I thought it offered an excellent portrayal of girls' and women's strength. I couldn't recommend this book highly enough!

I was provided with a free electronic copy of this book through NetGalley by the publisher, Canongate Books, in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: ****

16 April 2018

Little Fires Everywhere / Celeste Ng

Remember, Mia had said: Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground and start over. After the burning the soil is richer, and new things can grow. People are like that, too. They start over. They find a way.

The Richardsons live in a perfect house in a perfect town. Mia, an unassuming young artist, moves into their rental house with her daughter. The ties between the two families become increasingly close... then it all goes very wrong. And yes, it involves fire.

After a slow start for me, the book began to show some promise when, alerted to the presence in a local museum of a photo that appears to portray her new tenants, Mrs. Richardson agrees to use her journalistic skills to investigate. Alas, from insufferably rigid, she soon turned into an unscrupulous busybody and I lost all patience with her. Additionally, I wish I'd kept a tally of the coincidences that pop up over the course of the narrative, because I'm willing to bet it could rival Dickens. I freely admit to skimming the last 50 pages or so, and not because I was impatient to know the ending.

To be fair, it's not all bad. The characters are well drawn and believable; it's just that I felt no connection with and little empathy for them even in their moments of despair. I should have listened to my instinct when it told me that this wouldn't be my cup of tea... Add to this the fact that the title itself threatened to trigger my pyrophobia, and I only have myself to blame for a not very pleasant reading experience. However, if a suburban novel that deals with teenagers and their sex lives, mother-children relationships and interracial adoption sounds good to you, then I've little doubt you'll enjoy Little Fires Everywhere.

I borrowed this book from my local library.

Rating: ***

9 April 2018

The Glister / John Burnside

In the past few years, five boys have gone missing from a small town where land, water and people have been contaminated by a now condemned chemical plant. The local policeman maintains that they've simply run away. So why is he secretly cultivating a garden in the middle of the poison wood? And is the abandoned plant even more sinister than anyone has realised?

After hearing multiple reviewers of John Burnside's The Dumb House mention how weird and warped it was, I expected The Glister to be just as strange from the very start. Instead, we're presented with portraits of not particularly appealing people... I was ready to give up until we were introduced to Leonard Wilson, by far the most fleshed out character. His narrative constitutes the best part of the entire book.

Best friend to the latest of the "lost boys," almost-15-year-old Leonard has had to take over caring for his sick father and the house after his mother left. He's much too bright for his own good (he makes allusions to Proust and Julian of Norwich, for Darwin's sake!), sarcastic, a bit of a smartarse, and, like many others inhabitants of the Innertown, feels the irresistible pull of the slowly crumbling plant buildings. While he can't be bothered with most people, there are a select few with whom he forms some kind of relationship: his girlfriend Elspeth, John the librarian, and an itinerant entomologist he knows only as Moth Man. However, after a sixth boy disappears, Leonard is pulled in deeper with the gang of feckless, unstable kids whose influence he thought himself too clever to fall under.

Despite its setting on a wide-open headland, this novel feels increasingly claustrophobic; there seems to be no issue, nowhere but "here" — yet we know that there must be somewhere else, since Leonard's mom is gone and Moth Man travels around the country conducting his entomological surveys. This creates an ideal backdrop against which to silhouette the characters' quiet desperation, like insects drawn to a backlit cloth, trapped.

That's how the world works. The bad people win and the rest pretend that they haven't noticed what's going on, to save face. It's hard to admit that you're powerless, but you have to get used to the idea. That's why they have school, of course. It's there to train you in the vital discipline of being powerless. 

It's difficult not to give The Glister two distinct ratings... On the one hand, John Burnside gives his readers wonderfully vivid and eerie descriptions; for example, the  passage about Leonard's hallucinations induced by Moth Man's "special tea" is brilliant. I enjoyed his writing, moving as it does from the very tangible to the evocative and stirring.

This is how it happens: the dead go away into their solitude, but the young stay dead with us, they color our dreams, they make us wonder about ourselves, that we should be so unlucky, or clumsy, or so downright ordinary as to carry on without them.

On the other hand, I didn't find the story elements held together cohesively and, as I mentioned earlier, the majority of the characters in this novel aren't interesting or even necessary to move things along. Why include them when they have nothing to contribute? Irritatingly, girls and women are either bitches, slags or dimwits —  but then again boys and men don't fare much better under Burnside's pen.

All in all, I found this an unsettling read... and I'm still not sure how much of a laugh the author is having at our expense with the title.

I borrowed this book from my local library.
Rating: ***

5 April 2018

The Buried Giant / Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro's name may sound familiar to you, as it did to me, owing to the success of two of his novels and their equally popular movie adaptations: The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. If you've read and/or seen both, you'll know how dissimilar these works are, and here again Ishiguro invites us to follow him down a completely different path.

The Romans have left Britain. King Arthur is dead. Ogres and pixies are familiar annoyances, and a strange mist shrouds the memories of the island's inhabitants. Beatrice and Axl, an elderly Briton couple whose presence is becoming increasingly unwelcome in their collective hillside-dug warren, feel compelled to visit their son some distance away. Thus begins a journey through harsh landscape to a place they can't quite remember, in the hope of seeing someone whose face they've forgotten.

This tale is told in the tradition of adventure stories, with companions picked up along the way — an ancient knight in a rusty armour, a skilled warrior, a fierce-souled young boy —, perils, coincidences, separations and reunions, deception and betrayal... and, of course, a dragon (and a princess!).

While this novel, where hostilities between Britons and Saxons lie buried just below the surface and peace may prove just as fleeting as memory, could easily be viewed as an allegory, but I chose to read it as a fairytale for grown-ups. Kazuo Ishiguro's lively descriptions and dialogues contribute to making his world believable and the reader feel connected to his characters. The relationship between Beatrice and Axl managed to be simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking. Although slow moving at times, the plot remained gripping until the very last sentence. Seriously, that final chapter!

Now if you'll excuse me, I must go and read everything else Ishiguro has ever published.

I borrowed this book from my local library.

Rating: ****

2 April 2018

Fingersmith / Sarah Waters

     "Don't leave me, Sue!" she whispered. "I'm afraid of my own dreaming."
     Her breath was sweet. Her hands and arms were warm. Her face was smooth as ivory or alabaster. In a few weeks' time, I thought — if our plot worked — she would be lying in the bed of a madhouse. Who would there be to be kind to her, then?

How many times can a novel stomp on your heart? I lost count while reading Fingersmith...

Set in 19th century England, it tells the entwines stories of two very different young women: Sue, an illiterate orphan who, though coddled, grew up amongst thieves and receivers of stolen goods in a London slum; and Maud, who had a stern upbringing among her authoritarian uncle's books in a decrepit, isolated house. They find themselves trapped in a devilish plot to steal an inheritance, seemingly powerless in the face of terrible hardships... but everyone has underestimated them.

Gritty, wonderfully tactile and psychologically complex, this novel leads us into territories little explored, from the shallower layers of the underworld to the seamy underside of  literature and to the very brink of madness, witnessing acts of profound hatred and love along the way. Since Sue and Maud each give us their own account of events, we become intimately acquainted with their thoughts, emotions and motivations, providing us with fascinating, unconventional points of view from which to watch as they fight tooth and nail. Both are flawed but never seek to conceal that fact by putting themselves in the best light, making for uncomfortably frank reading at times.

In this rollicking tale of two girls vs. the world, Sarah Waters introduces us to characters drawn with such nuance that she succeeds in making us both despise and empathise with even the most initially contemptuous ones. Fingersmith could be called Dickensian in its portrayal of high and low classes and its many twists and turns — but it's Dickens plus sex and minus the humour.

This was a very intense read from beginning to end. I can't recall the last time a book made my heart pump this hard and had me saying "Oh no, oh no!" so often. However, please be warned: if profanity and frank discussion of sexual acts bother you, then perhaps you should skip this one.

I borrowed this book from my library network through ILL.

Rating: ****½

29 March 2018

The Hope and Anchor / Julia Kite

Julia Kite's promising debut novel of storytelling, belonging and unsuspected strength reminds us that we're constantly weaving and re-weaving narratives about places and people — ourselves as well as others.

Shortly before Christmas, Neely comes home to an empty apartment. Her girlfriend Angela isn't answering her phone and has left her epilepsy medication on the kitchen counter. Until that moment, Neely had believed that they were happy together; could she have been mistaken? Confident that she is "brighter than most," persuaded that no one else cares, she embarks on her own investigation and soon comes to a painful realization: the woman she loves bears little resemblance to the Angela her old friends know.

This original twist on literary crime fiction has its roots firmly planted in London's soil and is peopled by an interestingly diverse cast of characters. Although Neely occupies centre stage, it's Angela's sister Andy — steadfast in her Mother Bear role — who outshines them all.

I was provided with a free electronic copy of this book through NetGalley by the publisher, Unbound, in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: ***

26 March 2018

That Was a Shiver, and Other Stories / James Kelman

This collection has a certain tense, breathless quality, as though each story constantly threatened to trip and fall on its face yet by some miracle managed to remain upright. Given the difficulty of getting a firm hold on either plot or characters, we are left with a style that consists of repetitions ("so what" and "who cares" appear as a leitmotiv throughout), staccato sentences, and profanity aplenty. There are also frequently disorienting switches from vernacular to refined speech and back again — a daring move on James Kelman's part. I would be remiss not to mention the contrast between the protagonists' hesitant thoughts or utterances and the author's confidence of execution.

All in all, reading these stories felt like being stuck, either in some obsessive person's head, or on a nightmarish series of elevator rides with unsavoury strangers who insisted on describing perfectly banal, inconsequential moments in their lives in painstaking detail.

I was provided with a free electronic copy of this book through NetGalley by the publisher, Canongate, in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: **

22 March 2018

Le Dieu manchot / José Saramago

Je m'explique encore mal comment il se fait que je n'aie pas entendu parler de cet auteur avant le mois dernier. Pour une fois, vive Instagram, car c'est là que j'ai aperçu la couverture de son The Elephant's Journey; j'ai voulu en savoir plus, et j'ai choisi un titre parmi ses plus anciens. Voici donc ma première incursion dans l'univers de l'écrivain portugais José Saramago, Prix Nobel de littérature (1998).

Plus qu'un roman historique campé à Lisbonne et dans les alentours au 18e siècle, Le Dieu manchot raconte la grande histoire d'amour entre deux êtres un peu à l'écart du monde. Baltazar, dit Sept-Soleils, a perdu sa main gauche sur un champ de bataille et, selon le besoin du moment, sangle un crochet ou une broche à son poignet; Blimunda, elle, voit dans les corps et sous la surface des choses lorsqu'elle a l'estomac vide. Signe du destin, leur rencontre a lieu sur la grande place du Rossio, alors même que la mère de Blimunda reçoit son châtiment pour hérésie.

Le cours de leur vie sera fortement marqué par deux projets majeurs. Sous la direction du Père Bartolomeu Lourenço de Gusmão, précurseur de l'aérostatique (et personnage réel), ils construisent en secret une grande machine volante en forme d'oiseau, la passarole.

«Figure de la Barque inventée en 1709 par Laurent de Gufman Chapelain du Roi de Portugal
pour s'élever et se diriger dans les Airs» (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Balthazar trouve ensuite du travail sur le chantier mis sur pied par Dom João V, roi du Portugal, pour bâtir un monument cyclopéen à la fois couvent, basilique et palais royal, dont l'édification engloutira des sommes colossales et de nombreuses vies humaines (Cet édifice existe bel et bien, et est aujourd'hui appelé Palais national de Mafra.)

Malgré le sentiment de sécurité qui semble s'être installé au fil des années, Baltazar et Blimunda découvriront que rien ne demeure caché à jamais et que l'ombre de l'Inquisition plane toujours sur le Portugal.

Dès le départ, j'ai ressenti une impression de familiarité. Ce narrateur omnicient à la voix ironique, ces longues phrases érudites...  mais... on dirait Umberto Eco! (C'est loin d'être un défaut à mes yeux.) S'agirait-il d'une affaire de génération, les deux étant contemporains? Recherche faite, le seul point de rencontre entre ces auteurs semble être survenu dans Le Carnet, recueil de textes d'abord publiés sur le blogue de Saramago et duquel Eco signe la préface, où il démontre une connaissance affirmée de l'œuvre du Portugais.

Avant d'en prendre l'habitude, j'ai trouvé un peu difficile de m'y retrouver dans les phrases branchues et les dialogues en enfilade, dont les segments ou les répliques ne sont séparées que par des virgules et distinguées par des majuscule, phénomène apparemment typique du style saramagien.

Le Dieu manchot m'a beaucoup divertie. Saramago possède un don inouï pour maintenir l'intérêt, en veulent pour preuve les 26 pages où il raconte le déplacement d'une pierre gigantesque destinée à la construction du couvent... Je suis pourtant restée accrochée tout au long du périple, cœur palpitant et souffle coupé. Ça c'est du talent!

Petit fait amusant pour terminer : ce roman a été adapté en opéra, sous le titre Blimunda. Je serais curieuse d'assister à une représentation, surtout pour voir la passarole!

J'ai emprunté ce livre à ma bibliothèque locale.

Cote : ***

19 March 2018

A Blindefellows Chronicle / Auriel Roe

A Blindefellows Chronicle is a humorous novel with heart. In a series of vignettes set at irregular intervals over 40 years, it records the fortunes and misfortunes of an ambitious English boarding school. Lasting bonds are formed as the august institution deals with declining student numbers, unscrupulous masters, alliances and rivalries, internal politics, internationalisation, and technology.

Reading Auriel Roe's novel very soon felt like catching up with old friends, so engaging were the characters that she created and set off through her lively and frequently hilarious dialogue. The only admittedly minor check to my thorough enjoyment was the use of unnecessarily detailed descriptions, which at times curbed the flow of the narrative. Despite this, the highlights were many, among them the aptly named physics master William Japes and the school's 400th anniversary bash (I doubt those mental images will evaporate anytime soon). And oh! those last two chapters! I didn't expect to be so moved as well as entertained. 

I was provided with a free electronic copy of this book through NetGalley by the publisher, Unbound, in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: ****