Thursday, 30 July 2020

Book #60

Ghosts by Dolly Alderton

32-year-old Nina Dean is a successful food writer with a loyal online following, but a life that is falling apart. When she uses dating apps for the first time, she becomes a victim of ghosting, and by the most beguiling of men. Her beloved dad is vanishing in slow motion into dementia, and she's starting to think about ageing and the gendered double-standard of the biological clock. On top of this she has to deal with her mother's desire for a mid-life makeover and the fact that all her friends seem to be slipping away from her.

Ghosts deals with many issues I’ve faced in previous years - tackling the impossible new culture of dating apps, struggling with friendships as life priorities take over, being insanely behind in the love marriage house buying timeline, and ultimately feeling the clock ticking with no real idea of what was bloody wrong with me.

Alderton shows us that ghosting can take place in many forms, whether it’s the gorgeous guy you’ve been on a few dates with who suddenly vanishes from the face of the earth, or friends who feel your single life has nothing in common with their baby-juggling, home renovation planning existence. We even see the most heartbreaking type of ghosting - a dad with dementia, whose great mind is slowly disassembling itself.

We live with our protagonist, Nina, through all of this, and see how she navigates it all. She’s a truly wonderful character, strong and independent, yet desperately lonely and lost. She’s a woman you’d see on the street and feel jealous of her togetherness, but truly there is much more going on under the surface. 

The careful handling of the dementia storyline was wonderful. Alderton dealt with this masterfully, with a subtlety that still reinforced the impact of the disease. There were moments of heartbreak alongside moments of hope, and it truly was very well done.

This was so relatable, and funny too. Nina’s descriptions of the types of men you see on these apps, the superiority of the married with kids friends, the totalitarian behaviour of the bridesmaid in charge of the hen do; all of this resonated with me as situations I’ve found myself attempting to escape in the past, and it’s such a comfort to know I wasn’t, and never was, the only one.

Thursday, 23 July 2020

Book #59

After the Silence by Louise O'Neill

Nessa Crowley's murderer has been protected by silence for ten years. Until a team of documentary makers decide to find out the truth.

On the day of Henry and Keelin Kinsella's wild party at their big house a violent storm engulfed the island of Inisrun, cutting it off from the mainland. When morning broke Nessa Crowley's lifeless body lay in the garden, her last breath silenced by the music and the thunder.
The killer couldn't have escaped Inisrun, but on-one was charged with the murder. The mystery that surrounded the death of Nessa remained hidden. But the islanders knew who to blame for the crime that changed them forever.

After the Silence is an interesting locked room mystery, where the locked room is much larger than usual - an island which, due to a ferocious storm, is impossible to reach or leave on the night of the murder. After ten years, an eager young documentary crew arrive to gather information, and interview the islanders on the murder.

I enjoyed the varying narrative style here, flicking from third person, to first-person plural, to interview style, whilst also narrating events as they happened ten years ago, then returning to the present. It created huge engagement for me, whilst constantly dribbling small drops of information to be pieced together, and creating a delicious amount of tension.

As far as the mystery itself goes, it’s not too difficult to point the finger at the culprit pretty early on, or at least whittle it down to just a few. But this isn’t really a murder mystery novel, it’s much much more hideous.

What’s far more important here, and arguably much better than the mystery, is O’Neill’s exploration of domestic abuse and its characteristics. Although the term itself implies physical hurt, we’re reminded by this story that abuse can take many forms, often psychological forms which leave no evidence on skin. It’s a terrifying ordeal for victims, who begin to question their own minds and behaviour, often reaching the conclusion that they themselves are to blame.

O’Neill also comments on misogyny, and how quietly it can sneak its way into becoming a normal reaction from any gender. Why didn’t she just leave her abuser? Why did she let that young woman into her home? Why has she aged so terribly, look at the Botox, whilst her husband has only become distinguished with age? O’Neill’s skill in showing us the subtle ways these things can manifest is expertly done, and truly, truly terrifying.

It’s twisty, it’s turny, it’s a deep character study with a thrill to its style. O’Neill presents an important work, and also shows us the truth is sickening, but holding it inside of you is a far worse ordeal.

Friday, 17 July 2020

Book #58

Reheated Cabbage by Irvine Welsh

In Reheated Cabbage you can enjoy Christmas dinner with Begbie and discover how aliens addicted to Embassy Regal have Midlothian under surveillance. You will meet a husband who values a televised Hibs v Hearts game more than his wife's life and see two guys fighting over a beautiful girl agree - after a few pills and pints of lager - that their friendship is actually more important. And you will be delighted to welcome back 'Juice' Terry Lawson, and to watch what happens when he meets his old nemesis under the strobe-lights of a Miami Beach nightclub.

Here I am again, emerging from the dark pit of human iniquity and psychological torment which I willingly lower myself into when reading a Welsh novel. I’ve just read of the most insane, immoral, and mind-bending situations, I’ve come away muddled and mishandled, and yet I always fucking love it.

We have a collection of some of Welsh’s earlier short stories, each of them differing in tone, setting, and message, but all seeming somehow to be coated in the grime of the human condition. We see some old pals, including Begbie and Juice Terry, and meet some new absolutely mad folk who I’d love to see again.

Welsh always seems an expert in digging into the alpha-male psyche and showing us how his scoundrel’s brains work, whilst ripping the pish out them at the same time. Talking your wrecked wife into taking a shortcut over the train tracks so you won’t miss the Hibs game. Starting a scrap in the dentist’s office because you can’t believe this other guy shagged your ex last night. Cracking your sister’s new boyfriend on Christmas day because he hit you on the back to stop you from choking. It’s all fucking hilarious, but there’s some deep-rooted commentary there on male pride, which is worthwhile.

This had a similar feel to If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work, where some stories are hits and some are misses, but there’s a pervading sense of Welsh being experimental, and seeing where it gets him. This does involve smacking us with aliens who love a snout, and a dentist getting a hard on when he sees the inside of a woman’s mouth, but in the name of experimentation, it’s a great laugh.

A perfect wee injection of darkness and morbidity until we can read more Welsh. Mon then.

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

Book #57

The Smallest Man by Frances Quinn

Nat Davy is a dwarf. He is 10 years old, and all he wants is to be normal. After narrowly escaping being sold to the circus by his father, Nat is presented to Queen Henrietta Maria - in a pie. She's 15, trapped in a loveless marriage to King Charles I, and desperately homesick. Nat becomes a friend to the woman who'll become the power behind the throne and trigger the Civil War, but in the eyes of the world he's still a pet, a doll to be dressed up and shown off. Nat longs to ride and hunt like the other boys at court. The real boys. But he will never be accepted. 

Nat Davy - the smallest man in England - is ten years old and eighteen inches tall. Despite his best efforts to grow, whether by magical or physical methods, his height remains significantly detrimental to his life. Add in a greedy, stone hearted father, and we see Nat narrowly miss being sold to the circus, only to be bought as a gift for the young queen of Charles I, ultimately surprising her by popping out of a pie.

Quinn perfectly weaves her story in mixtures of invention and truth. Although Nat was based on a real man, Jeffrey Hudson, his exploits only matched Jeffrey’s some of the time, and his feelings and emotion can only be guessed at. In contrast, Quinn paints a clear and true picture of the English Civil War, of the unrest, and its effects on both those in power and those in poverty.

It was gorgeous to see Nat’s relationship develop with the queen - both of them outcasts, both of them lonely, they find common ground and maintain a solid relationship. It’s an unlikely, yet beautiful friendship, and really disputes any preconceptions readers may have about how a queen would treat such an unusual companion.

There’s a lot going on here, and it can sometimes become difficult to keep up - particularly with the politics of war. The novel was split into three parts, and I felt differently reading each of them. The first allowed us to get to know Nat, and experience his removal from family, and his adjustment to his new lavish lifestyle; very engaging and emotional. The second moved the focus on to the political and royal side of the narrative, with the third winding things down to the ultimate conclusion. It was in these second and third sections where I didn’t feel as engaged, although I couldn’t describe why this was, other than they lacked something the first part had in abundance. It’s very strange for me not to be able to put my finger on this, but here we are.

I felt Quinn did an excellent job of showing us how people were treated in the seventeenth century, particularly those who were different. If you were disabled, you could expect stares and namecalling, to feel completely othered, and perhaps, even, to be sold to the circus by your father. Nat’s struggles were heartbreaking, and his stark wish - to be just like everyone else - remained a constant reminder of how we still treat others.

There was some interesting commentary towards the end where Nat considers where he would be in life had he grown to the same size as everyone else. He considers the places he’d visited, the people he’d met, and concluded none of this would have been possible had he reached an average height. I think there’s something there each of us can hold close - despite our flaws, our choices, and our regrets, the blessings we’ve had have only been possible because of who we are.

A gorgeous look at an unusual and heartrending protagonist, with (if you’re a dunce like me) some excellent historical knowledge to take away. Quinn has crafted something great here which will fascinate historical fiction lovers, and anyone who just loves a good underdog. 

Saturday, 11 July 2020

Book #56

Out by Natsuo Kirino

In the Tokyo suburbs four women work the draining graveyard shift at a boxed-lunch factory. Burdened with chores and heavy debts and isolated from husbands and children, they all secretly dream of a way out of their dead-end lives. 

A young mother among them finally cracks and strangles her philandering, gambling husband then confesses her crime to Masako, the closest of her colleagues. For reasons of her own, Masako agrees to assist her friend and seeks the help of the other co-workers to dismember and dispose of the body. The body parts are discovered, the police start asking questions, but the women have far more dangerous enemies.

Out is the terrifying reality of what can happen when one criminal act escalates out of control.

Four working class women, working in a factory together, become embroiled in the Japanese underworld when one of them kills her lowlife husband. As they work together to dispose of the body, small mistakes lead to them coming to the attention of people instrumental to their downfall.

Immediately after the horrific clean up, we see tensions begin to heighten between the women, as the reality of their actions and the circumstances take root. Kirino does a wonderful job of slowly creating small cracks in relationships, and showing that this initial act of sisterhood isn’t something that will bond the women further, but rather break them.

Kirino makes an excellent analysis of the patriarchal society these women are living in. Considered old women once over the age of 30, and limited to second class status both at home and in the workplace, it’s clear to see how each of our female characters ended up choosing the paths they did.

I was fully engaged with this for around the first two thirds of the novel, but I quickly began to dissociate as the story ascended to its climax. The style seemed to change, an atmosphere of inevitability set in, and I no longer cared what happened to the characters. Kirino also made the decision to write one of the final chapters twice, from the point of view of two different characters. At this point, I really was Out.

A bleak yet thrilling glimpse of Japan’s underbelly, and the lengths oppressed women will go to when necessary.  hat this initial act of sisterhood isn’t something that will bond the women further, but rather break them.

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.