Sunday, 5 July 2020

Book #55

How It All Blew Up by Arvin Ahmadi

Eighteen-year-old Amir Azadi always knew coming out to his Muslim family would be messy--he just didn't think it would end in an airport interrogation room. But when faced with a failed relationship, bullies, and blackmail, running away to Rome is his only option. Right?
Soon, late nights with new friends and dates in the Sistine Chapel start to feel like second nature... until his old life comes knocking on his door. Now, Amir has to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth to a US Customs officer, or risk losing his hard-won freedom.

Being part of an oppressed community is difficult. The lack of understanding, the preconceptions, the stereotypes, even the outright hatred directed at you - all of it is impossible to deal with. But being part of two oppressed communities, in this case LGBT and Muslim, comes with double the pressure.

Enter Amir, our protagonist, to tell us all about it. He’s eighteen, Muslim, gay, and not out. Coming out to his parents is a terrifying thought to him, and he carries out quite possibly the most extraordinary avoidance technique of all - he flies to Rome to get away from them, to escape disclosing the inevitable truth.

There’s something horribly heartbreaking about Amir feeling this was his only option. That he wasn’t able to speak about the person he truly is without fear of consequence, fear of loss. And yet, this is sadly true for many LGBT people, no matter how many oppressed groups they belong to at once. That fear makes them hide who they are, robs them of living their lives, and ultimately creates feelings of isolation, of otherness, which are difficult to untether from.

I enjoyed living Amir’s new, out life with him in Rome. I loved meeting new friends with him, seeing him in romantic entanglements, feeling his new emotions at finally finding a sense of belonging. The Italian setting was perfect for depicting an entirely different word - beautiful European architecture contrasting with high school lockers - really making the reader feel Amir had found his real home.

The story of acceptance and togetherness was truly heartwarming, and it’s an important piece of LGBT literature, particularly for the intended YA audience. I did feel there could have been more detail on Islam, on why Amir felt this was a factor in how his parents would accept them. Although as a family, they remained true to their Persian culture, they didn’t seem to be overly religious, and Islam played no part in the story. I would have liked to have been able to understand more about this aspect of Amir.

An important novel, normalising homosexuality, and giving us some nice romantic European scenes, which will instill hope and aspiration for LGBT teens.

Friday, 3 July 2020

Book #54

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Four seekers have arrived at the rambling old pile known as Hill House: Dr. Montague, an occult scholar looking for solid evidence of psychic phenomena; Theodora, his lovely and lighthearted assistant; Luke, the adventurous future inheritor of the estate; and Eleanor, a friendless, fragile young woman with a dark past. As they begin to cope with chilling, even horrifying occurrences beyond their control or understanding, they cannot possibly know what lies ahead. For Hill House is gathering its powers - and soon it will choose one of them to make its own.

Often lauded as the paragon of the haunted house novel, The Haunting of Hill House is a dark and malevolent collection of words designed to unsettle, perplex, and ultimately terrify a reader. Jackson’s skill here is outstanding; my anxiety levels were consistently intense for the entirety.

Four very different people arrive at Hill House to carry out an experiment on the reported supernatural activity emanating from its walls. Although written in third person, we see the house through the eyes of Eleanor Vance, a lonely and susceptible young woman who longs for acceptance and belonging. If this type of person strikes you as the kind most likely to be cajoled by dark forces, you’d be absolutely correct.

Of course, odd things begin to happen; of course it quickly becomes a house of horror, a house of tension, and a house of fraught relationships. We see each of the characters’ mental states waver, but Eleanor most of all. Jackson subtly asks us to consider whether the apparent ghostly happenings are a product of the house, or a product of someone within the house. If the answer is the latter, the theory could remain that the house is still to blame.

Jackson’s prose here is perfectly Gothic, and perfectly, deliciously, haunting. Her words seemed to ripple, to create dread, to encourage disorientation. They created a jarring and disjointed account, propelling us almost into the same emotional state as those who were in the house. She gives, she keeps things to herself, she produces the most sickening churning in the stomach.

I also really enjoyed some of the subtle commentary on social issues in the fifties. Theodora lives with a ‘friend - a clear indication of her sexuality these days, yet perhaps not quite clear enough for people at the time. This subtly would have been essential for Jackson if she didn’t want to incite outrage. Eleanor, who lives as a single woman with her sister and her husband, can pack the entirety of her belongings in a box - was this the worth of an unmarried woman back then? Her feelings of isolation and not having a home reinforce this, and heartbreakingly so.

My favourite, and the most wonderful thing here is that Jackson never explains; everything is left for the reader to interpret, and decide for themselves what happened. I feel as though I’m still reeling, still futilely trying to understand, unable to accept that I never will.

The mark of a true horror novel - one which haunts you and leaves questions behind.

Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Book #53

This Little Family by Inès Bayard

Life is going well for Marie. She and her husband, Laurent, live a comfortable life in a large apartment in the eleventh arrondissement in Paris. Laurent has a good job at a big law firm and Marie enjoys her work at a bank, where she feels appreciated by her clients and colleagues.
Comfortable and secure, and ready for family life, the couple begin to try for a baby. But not long afterwards Marie experiences a shocking encounter which threatens to derail their plans completely, and her world slowly starts to fall apart.
Less than two years later, the family’s apartment is cordoned off by police tape as forensic officers examine a horrific scene in the family apartment. Three bodies around a dining table. Marie, Laurent and their little toddler, Thomas, in his high chair. All three of them have been poisoned by Marie.

We open with a scene of devastation - Marie has killed her husband, her infant son, and herself; poisoned them all at the dinner table. Marie sits in her chair ramrod straight, the baby’s head on his plate, the husband on the floor. Why would a loving wife and mother do such a thing to her family?

Soon, we are pushed backwards through time to see the lead up to this tragic event, and how Marie came to take this decision. It’s harrowing, it’s traumatic, and it’s so so dark. Bayard makes some excellent commentary, and poses subtle questions to the reader on moral issues, social expectation, and how others accept us.

Bayard explores what makes women women; not the male ideal, but the female experience and independence of choice. She shows us Marie’s persona and power being stripped away from her, and makes some stunning comments on pregnancy, and how an unborn baby is often, if not always, placed in a higher position of priority than the mother, as though she were merely a walking womb.

It’s a difficult read, made so by Bayard’s raw and stark writing style. Despite the obvious emotion affecting each of the characters, we read a stark, factual account of events. It mirrors Marie’s mental state, that simplistic, monochromatic outlook on life and tragedy that can happen after trauma. This is how things are, and this is what I must do, this is what I will do. It only adds to the horror.

A truly awful yet important tale of consequence and chaos converging after trauma. It spoke to me as a woman, left me numb, and reminded me of the importance of speaking out, no matter what people may think.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

Book #52

The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky by Ken Dornstein

In this stunning, emotionally charged memoir, Dornstein pens a heartbreaking but profoundly hopeful book about finding beauty in the midst of tragedy. Dornstein weaves his own coming-of-age story with that of his brother David, who was killed in the 1988 crash of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.

This a book filled with grief. In 1988, Ken Dornstein’s brother, David, died in the plane crash over Lockerbie. An awful bombing, with awful consequences, and this has, naturally, impacted Ken’s life forever.

I picked up this book because Lockerbie was one of those morbidly fascinating things that happen close to home. Something you need to wrap your head around, something horrific happening in a place you’ve been, a place so close, a place which could have been your own had the bomb gone off slightly later. I was desperate to know more.

Yet, instead of a deep dive into the happenings and consequences of the bombing, The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky is more of a memoir encompassing both brothers’ lives. It’s painful to read, full of memories and discoveries which felt like old and new wounds simultaneously. Ken considers his brother’s last moments, his hopes for the future, his ambition to write the Great American Novel. And yet, he fell to earth, landing in some poor woman’s garden, with his personal effects finally being posted over to his family in America.

This is a strange collection of thoughts, with disjointed chronology, odd behaviours, and a multitude of self-deprecating passages. Ken seemed almost to feel guilt at his remaining alive whilst his brother didn’t have this freedom. It’s clear to see the effect the death had on his mental health, then and still. I can only hope writing this novel has helped release some of the grief, and allow some healing to begin.

Despite all this, despite the overload of emotions, the difficult lives the brothers had already led before this catastrophe, the sheer horror of it all, I felt detached somehow. There was something about his writing which left me in the cold, despite my curiosity over Lockerbie, despite my need to learn more, and despite my compassion. I struggled to read through, found it more and more sluggish the more I read. I connected with the emotion, but only partially. I understood the grief, but not entirely. There was something clinically offsetting about the whole thing. I can’t put my finger on it.

Nevertheless, it’s clear The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky is a labour of love, and I respect that. I truly hope both brothers, wherever they are, are at peace. 

Friday, 26 June 2020

Book #51

The Great Godden by Meg Rosoff

This is the story of one family, one dreamy summer – the summer when everything changes. In a holiday house by the sea, our watchful narrator sees everything, including many things they shouldn’t, as their brother and sisters, parents and older cousins fill hot days with wine and games and planning a wedding. Enter two brothers – irresistible, charming, languidly sexy Kit and surly, silent Hugo. Suddenly there’s a serpent in this paradise – and the consequences will be devastating.

Imagine having a summer home on the beach, which you visit every summer, for weeks at a time, with your family. Imagine the serenity, the freedom to do whatever you like, no work, no responsibilities, the sun beating down, nature all around. This story is of a family in such a peaceful situation, who soon discover their summer is not going to be like any of the others.

One of the siblings acts as our narrator, and seems to be an omnipresent reporter of chaos and calm. They describe the long family summer which is usurped by two American brothers descending on their party. Describing everything, the family quirks, the rituals, the new strangers, the melancholy, the heartbreak, the narrator remains the one constant. We don’t ever learn their name, nor gender, and this lends delicious feelings of doubt and curiosity to each of their words.

The Godden brothers, the strangers, the deposers, present as two opposites - one, golden and gleaming, possessing charm and good looks, the other darker and brooding, a quiet thinker who prefers solitude and silence. As the elder begins to rip apart the serenity of the summer, the younger tries to overcome his familiar aloof persona to try and limit the damage.

Rosoff’s writing is beautifully light, and she masters her setting, making sure those dreamy summer days amongst nature and the coast seem idyllic to us. And they really did. A summer house on the beach, with nothing to do but swim, sail, ramble, eat, talk. Her prose had the perfect balance of bliss and nostalgia, making me long for a place I’d never been.

I also felt Rosoff did well here with her commentary on toxic masculinity, particularly for a young adult novel. It’s important to highlight the small ways someone can be abused, even gaslit, and despite Rosoff’s other subtleties, I think this message was delivered with skill.

My only criticism would be how short this felt. I wanted to explore more deeply into the characters, wanted a slower and more tantalising build-up to the finale. I felt as though I was just beginning to settle into the novel when it was all over. This didn’t take away from my enjoyment - I just wanted more.

It’s just a wonderful, summery and dreamy read; I was swept away. It felt as though a snake had been thrown into a basket of kittens as I watched, completely unable to anything but watch what unfolded.