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review 2018-10-01 12:49
"The Queen Of Bloody Everything" by Joanna Nadin - Highly Recommended
The Queen Of Bloody Everything - Joanna Nadin

"The Queen Of Bloody Everything" is an astonishingly good novel that tells the story of Dido Jones and her relationship with Edie, her unconventional mother.

 

Daughter of a flamboyant, convention-challenging. larger-than-life mother and absent any knowledge of her father, Dido has no greater desire from the age of six to thirteen than to be normal and in a "real" family. She satisfies this desire initially by adopting the family next door, weaving herself into their lives so thoroughly that her presence is taken for granted.

 

Starting with six-year-old Dido moving from a London squat to an Essex village in the exceptionally hot summer of 1976 and carrying on into Dido's adult years, "The Queen Of Bloody Everything" captures the language and attitudes of the times perfectly, displaying them to through the eyes of a child and the adult remembering being that child.

 

The storytelling is very accessible despite following a clever and complex structure. It starts in the present day, with Dido talking to her hospitalised mother, and reveals itself through a series of recollections of Dido's life in chronological order, interspersed with commentary in the here and now.

 

It is a riveting read, filled with strong, believable characters, realistic dialogue that is crammed with life and truth and scenes that capture moments of triumph, deep cringe-worthy embarrassment, abuse and loss and sometimes, a little bit of hope. 

 

Dido's understanding of herself and her mother is deeply shaped by her reading and the gap between the worlds she reads about and the life she's lived. In the beginning, the chapters have names that refer to children's books: "Heidi" or "Third Year At Mallory Towers". Later, the literary signposting of the chapters becomes more adult with titles like "The Bell Jar" or "Brighton Rock".  

 

My heart was captured by the characters but what really intoxicated me was Joanna Nadin's ability to help me to see the same thing from multiple points of view at the same time: how I felt then, how I feel now, what I failed to see then, what I wished I could do now and so on. She embraces the complexity of real life where questions have more than one answer and narratives overlay one another over time like layers of lacquer on our lives.

 

Both the ambition and the craft of this approach are shown on from the first page of the book. It starts:

Now

So how shall I begin? With Once upon a time, maybe. The tropes of fairy tale are here after all - a locked door, a widower, a wicked stepmother, or a twisted version of one at least. But those words are loaded, tied; they demand a happily ever after to close our story, and I'm not sure there is one, not yet.

 

Besides, Cinderella was never your scene: 'Don't  bank on a handsome prince, Dido,' you would sneer through the cigarette smoke that trailed permanently in your wake; that cloaked you, tracked you, like a cartoon cloud in Bugs Bunny. Like Pig-Pen's flies. 'If they bother to show up it'll be late, and then they'll only beg or borrow. Or worse.' And the twelve-year-old me would roll her eyes , like the girls in books did, and think, Those are your princes, Mother, not mine. And I'm not you.

 

But I am, aren't I? Though it's taken me four decades - half a lifetime - to admit it.

I fell in love with the tone of this writing from the first page and stayed faithful to it to the last.

 

"The Queen Of Bloody Everything" was intense, sometimes funny often painful but always felt like the truth to me. The ending is perhaps a little more hopeful than one finds in real life but even that felt like a benison of sorts to the characters and the reader.

 

I strongly recommend the audiobook version of "The Queen Of Bloody Everything". Kelly Hotten's narration is perfect. You can hear a sample of it below.

 

I liked the book so much that, having listened to it happily, I went out and bought I a hardback copy so I can keep it to hand.

 

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/395802951" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]

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review 2018-08-08 00:42
"The Water Cure" by Sophie Mackintosh - abandoned after 25% - too worthy for me. I don't want my reading to be a chore.
The Water Cure - Sophie Mackintosh

I picked "The Water Cure" as one of four books to read from the 2018 Man Booker Longlist.  I liked the speculative fiction premise of young women, raised in isolation in a post-apocalyptic world, encountering men for the first time and having to reconsider what they think they know. 

 
"The Water Cure" got off to a slow and difficult start but was intriguing enough to keep me interested. I liked the rapid succession of short chapters, written from the point of view of each of the three sisters. This worked well in the audiobook version I read, where each sister get's her own narrator.
 
The we-only-know-this-island innocence of the sisters means that they take their exotic situation for granted and do little to explain it to the reader. 
 
It soon became clear that this was not going to be your typical post-apocalyptic dystopian novel. I was reminded more of  "The Tempest" if Miranda had had two sisters.
 
After the ten per cent mark, I started to get bored and a little angry. I got bored because, although many short chapters shot by, NOTHING HAPPENED in any of them except the young women sharing the details of the strange rituals (called therapies) that dominate their lives. I became angered by the abuse these young women had suffered.
 

I get the need to pace the book so that I can  FEEL the stifling effects on the sisters of isolation and ignorance combined with forced ritual intimacy, but enough already.

I began to feel as if I were  trapped in the middle of a front row at "Waiting For Godot" and I'm so embarrassed by what other people will think of me that I stay in my seat long after my boredom threatens to be terminal and I suspect Beckett of being a sadist with a wicked sense of humour.

 

I made it as far as the twenty-five percent mark because the voices of the sisters were  strong and distinct and because I could no more look away from the spectacle of the Bennet sisters transported to an island where they are subjected to abuse that they've educated to understand as sympathetic magic, than I could look away from a building about to be demolished by well-placed charges.

 

I'd hoped that the arrival of the men would change the pace but it didn't and I finally admitted to myself that I was reading this book because it was "worthy" rather than because I was getting anything out of it. I'd promised myself I wouldn't do that anymore so I abandoned "The Water Cure" at twenty-five per cent mark.

 

It may win the Mann  Booker prize but it didn't make a place for itself in my imagination.

Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample of the book.

 

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/447441624" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]

 

 

 

 

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review 2018-06-23 18:33
"Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng
Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng

 

I knew, on finishing "Little Fires Everywhere" that I had enjoyed the book and that it was a first-rate piece of writing, excellently narrated. Yet I wasn't clear enough about what I thought of the book to write a review. So, I've let a few weeks pass, let the ideas and the images settle and gotten a little space from the characters and now I'm starting to see some shapes.

 

I think my inability to see the whole book at once is a consequence of how the book is designed. The authorial voice is used throughout, guiding us through the thoughts and emotions of the characters as they react to the little fires of passion, most of them to related to motherhood, that challenge and or define them. Yet, although I hear the author's voice all the time, by the end of the novel, the author had not given me any unequivocal answers as to whose side she is on. I think this is one of the key strengths of the book. It refuses to be didactic or polarising. It puts forward the views of both sides and asks you to think, to access your emotions. Perhaps to start a little fire of your own.mo

 

The book brings together two families, Mia and her daughter, who live a nomadic life, with Mia working on her art as a photographer while raising her daughter, and the Richardsons, mother, father and four children, raised in the idyllic, safe, solidly upper-middle-class Shaker Heights. Mia rents an apartment from Mrs Richardson. Their children, all in their teens, start to spend time together, Mia starts to work part-time cooking and cleaning for the Richardsons so that she can observe the family her, previously independent and possibly lonely, daughter has fallen under the spell of.

 

This "compare and contrast lifestyles" set-up is used to examine choices on motherhood, different types of mother-daughter relationships, the rights and wrongs of adoption (especially of a Chinese baby by a childless white couple) of abortion, and of surrogacy. It looks at whether families are born or made or both. It contrasts choosing to follow rules with choosing to follow your passion and asks if either choice makes sense.

 

It does all this without turning into an ethics essay. It stays focused on the people, the choices that have made them who they are and the potential that they have for changing and or for becoming even more deeply that people that they have already become.

 

The issues the characters deal with are controversial, have a high potential for conflict and speak deeply to core beliefs. So how do I get to the end of a novel told in the authorial voice and not know what the author's answer is?

 

Well, I needed to step back. I think Celeste Ng didn't set out to take sides on the issues. She wants us to understand that there are no simple answers. If there were, these little passion-fed fires wouldn't break out everywhere. 

 

The message I took from the book was that little fires are both inevitable and necessary. If we're lucky, they give us the passage to find an answer that is right for us. Yet the fires are dangerous, They can get out of control. So we are all faced with a choice on what to do with the fires? Do we damp them down, avoiding risk by starving them of oxygen? Do we spread the flame to others? Do we limit the damage? our passions, cutting off their oxygen to avoid risks?

 

Good questions. In "Little Fires Everywhere" Celeste Ng shows us all of those choices but leaves us to decide which to take for ourselves. Along the way, she builds up some memorable characters that start to feel like family.

 

To give you a flavour of the prose and the use of metaphor, I've quoted a section from the middle of the book, where the author shares Mrs Richardson's thoughts on passion and rules. 

"All her life, she had learned that passion, like fire, was a dangerous thing. It so easily went out of control. It scaled walls and jumped over trenches. Sparks lept like flees and spread as rapidly. A breeze could carry embers for miles. Better to control that spark and pass it carefully from one generation to the next, like an Olympic Torch. Or perhaps to tend it carefully like like an Eternal Flame A reminder of light and goodness that would never, could never, set anything ablaze. Carefully controlled, Domesticated. Happy in captivity.  The key she thought was to avoid conflagration."

 

"Rules existed for a reason. If you followed them, you would succeed. If you didn't, you might burn the world to the ground."

If this appeals to you, I recommend the audiobook version. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample of Jennifer Lim's narration.

 

[soundcloud url="https://api.soundcloud.com/tracks/349277108" params="color=#ff5500&auto_play=false&hide_related=false&show_comments=true&show_user=true&show_reposts=false&show_teaser=true&visual=true" width="100%" height="300" iframe="true" /]

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review 2018-06-22 00:40
"Winesburg, Ohio" by Sherwood Anderson
Winesburg, Ohio - Sherwood Anderson

I found this book through a slightly unusual route. I was reading "Fire Touched" an urban fantasy book and there was a description of the books on the desk of the Marrok, leader of the North American werewolves. Sherwood Anderson was one of the authors he was reading.

 

My ignorance of classic American Literature is boundless, so I'd never heard of Sherwood Anderson. The idea of a new classic book appealed to me so I picked up Anderson's most famous work, "Winesburg, Ohio".

 

"Winesburg, Ohio" is a series of linked short stories about the residents of Winesburg. It was published in 1919, the same year as Virginia Woolf's "Night and Day" and P.G. Wodehouse's "My Man Jeeves" yet it reads as if it had been written a century earlier.

 

The premise of "Winesburg, Ohio" is very similar to Elizabeth Strout's "Anything Is Possible": each story builds on a central cast of characters and their influence on each other's fate is revealed.

The writing is very different. "Anything Is Possible" paints deeply nuanced, intense portraits of the personal landscapes of individuals who know each other."Winesburg, Ohio" feels like a set of sketches drawn with stubs of pencil, full of energy but rudely formed.

 

The writing is long-winded, self-consciously portentous and consistently remains at a distance from the minds of the protagonists.

 

At first, I thought I might be seeing a sort of text-version of Fauvism - all the passion with none of the form.

 

As I read on I put that idea aside and saw the book as a poorly constructed rant against the people in small-town Ohio, who the author sees a being driven insane by truths that have turned sour by being held on to too tightly. The author's voice is so all persuasive that his agenda and passions shine more brightly than any of the characters in the book.

 

To me, this book can serve only two purposes: as an historical artefact to show how far the American Novel has evolved, or as an instrument of torture to be used to turn Highschool kids off the idea of reading to themselves.

 

I can imagine essays being written about the emergence of post-rural America and the shifts in mores as small towns forsake their frontier history and try to embrace the modern. It's all there but it's not all good.

 

It seems to me that Sherwood Anderson is a polemicist with no real talent for storytelling.

 

This is a great example of a book that is a classic because it's a hundred years old and has been kept in print by the school curriculum long after it has lost any popular appeal.

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review 2018-06-03 16:14
"Sal" by Mick Kitson - an original and engaging read that works perfectly as an audiobook
SAL - Mick Kitson

 

"Sal" is an original, engaging, story that deals with child abuse with empathy and compassion without turning the children into victims defined by their abuser. It made me think, cry, smile and get angry, sometimes within the course of a single page.

 

Sal is a thirteen-year-old girl who, after months of planning, has fled with her ten-year-old sister, Peppa, from their home in Glasgow to the forests of the Scottish Highlands, where, with a Bear Grylls knife, a compass, waterproofs, a first aid kit and what she's learned from the SAS Survival Handbook and watching YouTube videos, she intends to survive.

 

The main strength and the main limitation of the novel are that it is told entirely from Sal's point of view. Sal has a unique voice, that Sharon Rooney brings to life with wonderful clarity in the audiobook version. When Sal is describing the mechanics of survival, from making a bender to shelter in or snaring, skinning and cooking a rabbit, she is matter-of-fact, competent and well-researched. When she thinks about her past, the reason for their flight and what she had to do to achieve it, she is initially much more oblique and finally heart-breakingly dispassionate.  Only when she describes her sister, the always energetic, irrepressibly optimistic Peppa does real joy enter her tone.

 

I was quickly invested in Sal and her endeavours and then, as I slowly began to understand their cause and their cost, deeply worried for her.

 

The first half of the book was totally engrossing but I couldn't see how the Sal could resolve the situation she was in. Then a new character is introduced, a doctor in her seventies, who is living in a bender in the forest. She helps the girls both to survive and to resolve their situation. 

 

The Doctor an interesting history: childhood in wartime Germany, trauma in the fall of Berlin to the Russians, being a doctor in the DDR and defecting to Scotland, building a life here and then the choices that led to her woodland life. One of the problems is that we learn all of this from Sal, filtered by her understanding of the story and her fact-focused way of collecting a story. I found the Doctor to be a little too much of a plot device.

 

Yet the plot remained original and surprising. The final resolution was perhaps a little too neat or perhaps Sal just doesn't want to talk about the messy parts or isn't willing to see them yet.

 

"Sal" is a very satisfying, thought-provoking but accessible novel. Sal herself is someone who will live in my memory for a long time. What more can I ask of a novel?

 

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