Wednesday, 24 September 2014

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Publication date: 2nd September 2014
Published by: Jonathan Cape

My synposis

One Sunday night while at home preparing for the working week ahead, high court judge Fiona Maye's husband Jack of over 30 years tells her he wants to have an affair with his young statistician and would like her consent.  Furious and hurt she tells him if he does this it will be the end of their marriage.  Jack assures her he does not want a divorce, just one last passionate affair, since she is no longer interested in passion.  They argue and their argument is interupted by a phone call.  It is Fiona's clerk informing her that an urgent case has been assigned to her. 

Adam is a 17 year old boy with a rare type of Leukaemia.  He is in hospital undergoing agressive chemotherapy and he needs a blood transfusion to save his life.  Both Adam and his parents are Jehovia Witnesses and are refusing treatment.  The hospital where he is being treated is appealing to the courts to allow them to treat him against his will.  If they are unable to do so in the next two days he will die....

My review
The Children Act is a relatively short novel (224 pages long) but there is so much contained in it. 

Jack has noticed that Fiona has become distant.  He knows that something has happened that she has chosen not to share with him and he feels alienated because of it.  He feels resentful and enjoys the attention and distraction of another woman.  His declaration to have an affair is really an ultimatum - he is trying to force Fiona to open up to him.  Instead she does the opposite and asks him to leave. 

Fiona specialises in family law, dealing with cases related to divorce and child welfare. The nature of her job means she has to make decisions that affect the lives of children - and in some cases their lives depend on her decisions and one hard decision results in the loss of an innocent life.  It is revealed to us the readers that this decision in particular is the root of the problem that is affecting Fiona's well-being and causing the rift in her marriage - as she she is haunted by the consequences of her decision and is unable to talk about it. 

The case of Adam is an opportunity for Fiona to redeem herself.  That she is childless and not completely without regret about this means that she also develops a maternal affinity for him.

The novel demonstrates the contrast between Fiona's behaviour in her professional capacity - impartial, rational etc., and how she is in her personal life - unable to see beyond her heart ache, irrational, etc.

She rules in favour of the hospital and the outcome of her decision results in some unexpected developments in the story.

I thought The Children Act was a wonderful read and one I will revisit.  I highly recommend it.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Half Bad by Sally Green

Publication date: 3rd March 2014
Published by: Penguin
Genre:  Dark Fantasy (YA)

My Synopsis
Half Bad is the first instalment of the Half Bad fantasy series.  It tells the story of Nathan, a boy who has never met his father and whose mother died when he was very young.  All Nathan knows is that she committed suicide after both she and her husband came into contact with a powerful Black Witch who killed her husband and left her pregnant with him.  Nathan lives with his grandmother and half-siblings who are from a line of White Witches. 

The village where Nathan lives is run by a council of White Witches whose primary objective is to lure and kill Nathan's father.  As Nathan grows up he is constantly targeted by the council.  He has to attend regular assessements to determine whether he is truly 'White' or if he is 'Black'.  If it turns out to be the latter, it would have devastating consequences.  His grandmother has taught him how to evade classification. Nathan's grandmother and 2 out of 3 of his siblings keep telling him he is 'White', but as he grows up he increasingly shows signs of something 'other'.
The Council keeps issuing rules to half-bloods, e.g., preventing them from associating with Whites and having them get council permission to go beyond the boundaries of their home.  It is obvious who they are targeting.  Outside of his family only Annalise, one whom is among the purest of White Witches, will give him the time of day, and to his surprise, she is sweet to him.

His grandmother tries the best she can to protect him but she is no match for The Council and at 14, after Nathan is caught breaking council rules, he is taken from her and his siblings and kept in a cage by a 'guardian'.

After 2 years as a prisoner, Nathan is determined to escape and find Mercury, a Black Witch who, for a price, will help him achieve what is necessary for him to become a witch himself. He has to do this before his seventeenth birthday, and time is running out ...

My Review
Half Bad a is very well written and compelling read.  I enjoyed the story very much.  I also liked the prose.  Nathan tells his story alternating betweem the first and second person POV, depending on context and time.

This is a fairly dark tale of a young boy who is marginalised and discriminated against because his paternal bloodline is considered to be evil and as a half-blood he is seen as tainted (hence the clever design on the front cover). White Witches consider themselves to represent good while Black Witches are considered evil.  And yet, the way most of these White Witches behave suggests otherwise.  Who Nathan is and how he came into the world is not his fault.  There are not many Black Witches in the book but what we learn about Nathan's father would suggest things aren't what they seem.

Half Bad is a young-adult fantasy story with a serious message about racial discrimination embedded in the subtext. 

It only came out in March and the next one isn't due out for a while.  I can't wait!

Highly recommended.

I have also reviewed the second instalment Half Wild.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Kiss Me First by Lottie Moggach

Publication date: 9 July 2013
Published by: Bond Street Books

My Synopsis
Leila is a young woman who lives on the fringes of society. As a teenager she did not understand her peers let alone conform to their ideals. She finds popular culture baffling.  As a result, she is considered a freak in their eyes and was bullied.  The one friend she had moved away and the only family member close to her, her mother, died recently of a debilitating illness.  She is a loner who spends most of her time in her flat on her computer.  When she is not doing her computer-based job from home she is playing World of Warcraft or scouring the internet for websites that interest her. She discovers Red Pill; a website with what appears to be like-minded people who share philosophical ideas run by Adrian.  Adrian is a charismatic leader who has a certain amount of control and power over the site users.  Leila's participation on the site starts to gain her respect and admiration by other users and she is invited to become part of an elite group on the site that take part in intellectual discussions.  Adrian soon becomes impressed with Leila's contributions to the group and he starts sending her direct messages.  After some time Adrian asks for a face to face meeting with Leila and she agrees.  They meet in a public place, a park in North London, and he offers her a job.  It is a unique project which involves taking over the online persona of another woman who wants to 'check out'. In this way, when she disappears her friends and family will be none-the-wiser that she is no longer around.  Leila agrees to take on the project and is put in contact with Tess, the woman who she is to impersonate.

Leila begins working with Tess, learning all there is to know about her life in order to impersonate her.  In doing so, the two women get to know each other and develop a (strange) relationship. Tess is very different from Leila.  She is attractive to others, has many friends and is well cared about by the people close to her.  Now in her early 40s, she has had a very eventful life and there is much for Leila to learn.

The 'project' starts when Tess 'checks out' - telling her friends and family that she is moving to a remote island off the coast of Canada.  Leila takes on Tess' virtual life and discovers that the project is far more complicated to manage than she could have imagined.  She also hadn't anticipated the effect that Tessa no longer being around has on her.  In time, she also learns that there are things about Adrian, his relationship with Tess and the Red Pill site that could land her in serious trouble...

My Review
This book came out last year and was nominated for the Guardian first book award - and I can see why.  For me, Lottie Moggach shows the kind of imagination that any writer/aspiring writer would envy - I certainly do.  I wonder if I could ever come up with such a brilliant premise for a novel - sadly I doubt it. 

I love an underdog and am drawn to characters who are misfits [I'll even get behind the 'poor little rich boy/girl' if (s)he is being oppressed].  That said, Leila isn't necessarily easy to love.  This is because she makes a series of unwise choices - the kind that will have many readers rolling their eyes.  It is difficult to see someone as a victim when their misfortune is self-inflicted. However, her unwise choices result from her naivity and this is her saving grace.  As I progressed with the story Leila grew on me more and more and I came to the conclusion that the 3 major events that occur in her story (associated with her mother, Tess and Connor) have something in common.  They are all the result of unconscious acts of kindness on Leila's part (all be they extreme, unethical and not without risk to herself) and THAT is what makes her loveable.  This also suggests to me that, although she is literally disconnected from the real world, she is not emotionally disconnected from people - so there is hope.

I believe most people would consider Leila's choice to take on this project as an indication that something is not quite right with her psychologically, but her back story and her character makes it understandable.  I found the premise highly plausible and the characters realistic.

I liked seeing the world through Leila's eyes.  Her description of her peers demonstrates how perceptive the author is to the shallow and vacuous side of social networking.  As you can imagine, it is somewhat anti 'the beautiful people' and I suspect those who consider themselves 'too cool for school' aren't going to like this book at all.  I admit it has a melancholic undertone running through it but it isn't bleak like JKR's The Casual Vacancy or Lionel Shriver's Big Brother because it is hopeful and, in the end, has an uplifting feel to it.

I probably would not recommend this book to others because it really is a matter of personal taste - and if you hate it you won't thank me. Let me put it this way:  if you like watching the TV show 'The Voice' but cannot tolerate 'The X Factor'  you're more likely to be fine with it than if your TV-viewing preference is the other way around ; )

I will conclude by saying Kiss Me First is one of my favourite reads for 2014 and one I intend to revisit.

Friday, 5 September 2014

Mrs Dalloway by Virgina Woolf

Original Publication Date: 14 May 1925
This Publication: 28 October 2002 by Houghton Miffin Harcourt
Caution:  This review may contain spoilers

Publication synopsis
Mrs. Dalloway is a novel by Virginia Woolf that details a day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a fictional high-society woman in post-World War I England. It is one of Woolf's best-known novels.

Created from two short stories, "Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street" and the unfinished "The Prime Minister," the novel addresses Clarissa's preparations for a party she will host that evening. With an interior perspective, the story travels forwards and back in time and in and out of the characters' minds to construct an image of Clarissa's life and of the inter-war social structure. In October 2005, Mrs. Dalloway was included on TIME magazine's list of the 100 best English-language novels written since 1923.

My Review
I do not consider Mrs Dalloway to be an easy read.  On the contrary, it was a challenge.  Not in the sense that it was difficult to understand - I think it is open to all kinds of interpretation - but in the sense that it was hard to stick with. Even so, I found it to be one of the most thought provoking books I have read.  I would put it down in frustration and then find myself analysing the story so far, as I went along.  That is what kept me going.  I was compelled to pick it back up and see where it would go.

Here is my interpretation:
For me this book is about a woman who made the sort of choice that many women of her time and in her position made. Clarissa Dalloway is an upper-middle class woman who chose comfort and security in a husband over true love.  Twenty years on from that choice and she is still doing her best to come to terms with it.  She cares for Richard, her husband, and she loves her comforts, but I got the impression that a day has not gone by when Clarissa has not thought about Pater Walsh (whose marriage proposal she turned down in favour of Richard's), even if it is to contemplate what she considers to be his failures (no title, no position, a series of failed relationships and no children) and reassure herself that she made the right choice.  That is why it was not a coincidence that she would have thought of him the morning he arrives at her house (after a long period away in India).  The exchange that occurs between them is very telling.  They both experience intense joy which they do their utmost to conceal from each other and suppress.  When her daughter makes an appearance Clarissa exclaims "And here is my Elizabeth!"- as if to showcase her 'achievement'. Annoyed, Peter leaves quite abruptly and Clarissa is left to return to her thoughts.  She feels a sense of melancholy but cannot pinpoint what is causing it.  She puts it down to a jibe made by both Peter and Richard about her fixation with organising high society parties.  Could that really be what is causing her melancholia? Or is she in denial?

In parallel, the novel is also about a young man, Septimus Warren Smith, who has survived and returned home from World War 1 with his new Italian wife, Rezia.  Like most men in his situation, Septimus never speaks of what he experienced during the war.  Instead he does his utmost to conceal and suppress it. He is haunted by the horrors and starts to see dead bodies and talks to the dead.  Rezia just wants him to be 'normal' and fears he is mentally ill.  He talks of killing himself but his general practitioner is clueless and keeps saying there is nothing wrong with him.  Rezia's persistance enables a referral to a famouns psychiatrist, Sir William Bradshaw, who confirms that Septimus is very unwell. (At which point I was thinking Hooray!)  Sir William's suggestion for treatment is to have him committed for ... wait for it ... bed rest! It soon becomes clear that Sir William has his own unsympathetic ideas about what is wrong with Septimus and he becomes more of a hinderence than anything else.  Virginia Woolf describes someone experiencing post-traumatic stress before it had become a recognised condition and, as the reader knowing what they don't, I found myself getting exasperated with the doctors for failing him.

With Mrs Dalloway, Virgina Woolf demonstrates the absurdity and banality of British upper-class life, emphasised by comparing Clarissa's woes with those of Septimus.  With the exception of Septimus and his wife Rezia, it is hard to like or even care about these people - which I think is the point.  Should we feel sorry for Clarissa?  Peter is of the same social class as her so marrying him would not have left her poverty stricken.  As far as I am concerned, she made her bed and must lie in it.

I really liked the way Woolf seamlessly takes you in and out of the various characters' heads. Also, the subtle yet powerful way the two stories merge.

A challenging read but well worth it, in my view.