Friday, 29 July 2016

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

Published by: Henry Holt & Co.
Publication date: 30th September 2014

Publication summary
HILARY MANTEL is one of Britain's most accomplished and acclaimed writers. In these ten bracingly transgressive tales, all her gifts of characterisation and observation are fully engaged, ushering concealed horrors into the light. Childhood cruelty is played out behind the bushes in 'Comma'; nurses clash in 'Harley Street' over something more than professional differences; and in the title story, staying in for the plumber turns into an ambiguous and potentially deadly waiting game.

Whether set in a claustrophobic Saudi Arabian flat or on a precarious mountain road on a Greek island, these stories share an insight into the darkest recesses of the spirit. Displaying all of Mantel's unmistakable style and wit, they reveal a great writer at the peak of her powers.

My Review 
I read the 4th Edition paperback copy but I so like the original cover (above) that I decided to use it.  The 4th edition (shown on the left) has an additional story entitled 'The School of English."  

This book is a collection of short stories and, as one would expect, some stand out more than others.  I will start with the ones that stood out for me.  I am going to refrain from providing too much plot description because I believe it is best to read them knowing as little as possible.

Sorry to Disturb.
In this comical story, typical British 'politeness' leads to a situation that spirals out of control.  For me it is about the clashing of cultural norms.  I felt like I was a fly on the wall, observing what was taking place in that Saudi apartment. 

The Long QT
What appears to be a predictable tale of infidelity turns into something entirely unexpected.  The story is short and yet has so much to offer. The narrator is an observer of an extra-marital affair who is indirectly affected by the consequences. 

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
This is the last story in the book and, in my view, the best.  A young woman whose flat is directly opposite the hospital where the prime minister is an in-patient receives a visitor under the pretext that he is an emergency plumber. Although, I would not have wished the title of the story a reality (I did not like the woman but I am a humanitarian), as a work of fiction it is simply brilliant.

This was my first read by Hilary Mantel. and, if it is anything to go by, the author certainly deserves the high praise she receives.  

 This book has been selected as one of my recommended 2016 Summer Reads


Friday, 22 July 2016

This One Summer by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki (Illustrator)

2016 Top Ten Read

Publication date: 6th May 2014
Published by: First Second
Genre: Contemporary fiction (Pre-teen & YA)

Publication synopsis
Every summer, Rose goes with her mom and dad to a lake house in Awago Beach. It's their getaway, their refuge. Rosie's friend Windy is always there, too, like the little sister she never had. But this summer is different. Rose's mom and dad won't stop fighting, and when Rose and Windy seek a distraction from the drama, they find themselves with a whole new set of problems. It's a summer of secrets and sorrow and growing up, and it's a good thing Rose and Windy have each other.

In This One Summer two stellar creators redefine the teen graphic novel. Cousins Mariko and Jillian Tamaki, the team behind Skim, have collaborated on this gorgeous, heartbreaking, and ultimately hopeful story about a girl on the cusp of her teen age — a story of renewal and revelation.

Sooz Book Reviews Gold Seal of Approval
My Review
This One Summer is a multi-award winning graphic novel including the Michael L Printz award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature.  

The main protagonist is Rose, a girl who has spent all her summers at Awago Beach since she was 5 years old.  Her age is not revealed in the story but I would say she is about 12.  With each visit she is reunited with her friend Windy who is about 10.

If I were to describe this graphic novel in one word it would be endearing.  There is no plot as such, and if I were asked to describe what it is about it would probably not seem like much on the surface.  That is because it is all happening below the surface.  

Rose and Windy are two ordinary girls trying to enjoy an ordinary summer vacation and this is demonstrated through Mariko Tamaki's brilliant story-telling and Jillian Tamaki's wonderful illustrations.  The drama taking place is happening to other characters on the periphery and the girls are mere observers - so we see it all play out through their eyes.  Essentially, it focuses on two female characters who are both going through a crisis.  One is a 15 year old girl and the other is Rose's mother.  Their crises are of a similar nature but on opposite sides of the spectrum - a good (but also hard) lesson in irony for the young observers. Rose is directly affected by what is going on in both these situations (To say anymore about this would be a spoiler).  She does not complain or act out but simply gets on with things.  And yet, it is clear that inwardly she is experiencing the turmoil of someone at that difficult phase in life (not a child but not a young adult either) - so not quite old enough to handle very adult problems, while being exposed to them. Sadly, her parents are part of the problem and there is no one grown-up she feels she can go to.  Thank goodness for Windy (who is an absolute sweetheart, by the way). 

Reading This One Summer was like being a fly on the wall of the lives of a bunch of people on vacation.  It is reality fiction. I particularly loved the part when Rose and Windy disagree about a particular issue and it is easy to see why they take the positions they do. (Let's just say Rose is seeing the situation through eye glasses tinted the colour of her name, while Windy is not.)  We then see the girls distance from each other for a little while and then slip back into their friendly routine in ways I am certain we all have done with our friends as children.  Another poignant undertone is knowing it is unlikely that such a friendship will last beyond that summer -  as Rose becames a teenager, Windy is likely to be left behind in favour of older teenagers - and how devasting that will be for her (Windy). 

As I have said before about graphic novels, their beauty is in the way they combine words and images to tell a story - which I know sounds obvious but what I mean is it is synergistic.  I haven't read many of them but This One Summer is the one that demonstrates this more than any other I have read.  

In short, it is a fantastic read with hidden depths.  It is literary food to nourish the soul and I believe that is why it has received the acclaim it has. 

It is really aimed at pre-teens and YAs and I have no doubt they will love it.  But this grown-up is happy she purchased her paperback copy, and she intends to hold on to it - and revisit it again, and again...

Although not a recent publication, 
This One Summer is a recommended 
2016 Summer Read


Saturday, 16 July 2016

Freedom/Hate by Kyle Andrews

Publication date: 19th April, 2016
Published by: Independent author
Genre: Sci-fi/Dystopia (YA)

Publication synopsis:
Collin Powers knows the truth. As a low ranking member of an underground movement, his job is to transport some of the most illicit materials in the city... Books. When a simple exchange goes wrong, Collin is forced to run. Now wanted for terrorism and murder, he is desperate and alone. The world believes that he is a monster, but the only thing Collin wants is freedom.

As news of the fugitive filters through the city, high school student Libby Jacobs is just trying to make it through her everyday life. A terrorist is murdering people in the streets. Her mother is sick, and getting worse every day. Her cousin is hiding a dangerous secret, which could threaten her entire family. The truth is something that Libby doesn't want to know. It will tear her world apart. It will bring her face to face with everything that she has always been taught to hate.

Warning: I fear I may be guilty of metaphor abuse in the writing of this review. 

My Review:
Freedom/Hate is a new offering of YA Dystopia in an ever extending line of novels that cover similar themes, such as Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games and Veronica Roth's Divergent.  For me, the one that it resembled most was Ally Condie's Matched series.  Both that book and this one owe a debt to Ray Bradbury's masterpiece, Fahrenheit 451.  There are no firemen who burn books for a living, but in both these oppressed societies, paper books have become virtually extinct and the ones that do are banned.  Only the government-produced electronic kind are freely available.  This theme is used to symbolise the loss of freedom of independent thought and, in today's world, I understand the motivation to do so. 

Collin Powers is an (accidental) hero who finds himself being used as the face of the (non-existent) terrorist organisation, Hate, made up by the society's rulers as their main form of propaganda against the (real) rebel organisation, Freedom.  Here it parallels with the Hunger Games - Katniss Everdeen's popularity was used by both the rebels and President Snow as a means of manipulation to either motivate or control the population.

Where this novel parts company with the above-mentioned YA Dystopia is in it's characterisation.  Freedom/Hate is very much character-driven (as opposed to plot-driven) .  Libby, the female protagonist, bears no resemblance to what is in danger of becoming the stereo-typical 'strong female character who, against the odds, rebels and takes on the powerful oppressors', type usually found in books of this kind.  Don't get me wrong, Libby is no damsel-in-distress, and she is not stupid, either.  But she has been drinking the Cool Aid and, as such, has been brain-washed into believing all the negative media coverage about Collin Powers and Hate.  I found this a refreshing change that made her interesting as a character.  I liked this about the book. She does not ask the questions she should be asking when things don't add up, instead preferring to accept the status quo, not because she is too dumb to see what is going on, but preferring to bury her head in the sand, because she wants as quiet and trouble-free a life as she can get.  I was also glad that her character is consistent throughout (it would have been disappointing if her behaviour would have 'flip-flopped' for the sake of contrivance).

If I were to offer constructive criticism about this book, it would be that the writing style does not quite work.  The book is mostly descriptive where it should be mostly demonstrative.  I think the latter is essential for Dystopian novels.  Unfortunately, as a result, the foundation laid down in the construction of this Dysoptian world is rather weak.  For most of the book it's not really clear what happened, why or how this terrible world came to be.  Although sometime in the future, it's not clear when the story is taking place.  The result was that I was not engaged enough to feel anything, which is a problem.  At times the characters have conversations that clearly serve as a way of explaining what is happening to we the readers, rather than to one another. I often thought, 'okay, if you say so narrator, I believe you.'  Instead I should have been drawing my own conclusions and anticipating what would come next.  I should have been engaged enough to feel outrage, anxiety for the characters, and all the other stuff  that makes a book Dystopian. Instead, I was completely detached.

The novel is a 'slow-burner' and, although there are some action scenes, a lot of it is about Collin and Libby trying to make sense of what is going on around them.  As is often the case with slow-burners, it does get more interesting as it progresses, and by the end there is intrigue and hints of even more interesting things to come in the sequel. Despite Freedom/Hate's flaws, I want to know where the story is heading, so I'll certainly be getting hold of a copy of Blood Rights when it comes out on the (appropriately timed) 4th of July, 2016.

Freedom/Hate is a recommended 2016 Summer Read

Friday, 8 July 2016

Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo

This Books is in SBR's
2016 Top Ten Reads 

Publication date: 15th September 2015
Published by: Henry Holt and Company
Genre: Fantasy (YA)

Publisher's synopsis

Ketterdam: a bustling hub of international trade where anything can be had for the right price—and no one knows that better than criminal prodigy Kaz Brekker. Kaz is offered a chance at a deadly heist that could make him rich beyond his wildest dreams. But he can't pull it off alone...

A convict with a thirst for revenge.

A sharpshooter who can't walk away from a wager.

A runaway with a privileged past.

A spy known as the Wraith.

A Heartrender using her magic to survive the slums.

A thief with a gift for unlikely escapes.

Kaz's crew are the only ones who might stand between the world and destruction—if they don't kill each other first.

Sooz Book Reviews Gold Seal of Approval

My Review 
Six of Crows is a sort of spin off from Leigh Bardugo's Grisha Trilogy.  I have only read the first instalment of that series - Shadow and Bone - but I recognised the 'landscape'. 
It appears to take place post the Grisha Trilogy and I got the impression that Ketterdam is a city far away from the setting of the previous series.  There are Grisha in Ketterdam - people with supernatural powers.

As mentioned in the above synopsis, Ketterdam is a place where you can buy anything - including people.  In this book Grisha are sought after by slavers who sell them into slavery.  Although slavery is illegal in Ketterdam, most of the Grisha there are 'indentures', the same applies to humans who have been trafficked and sold for the use of 'pleasure seekers'.

Kaz Brekker is a complex character.  He is a sophisticated grifter, high up in the pccking order of a gang of organised criminals.  He leads his own gang who have become successful in carrying out high-risk jobs and not getting caught.  Kaz is infamous in the Barrel (the area of Ketterdam where his gang operates) and has a reputation for being so violent and ruthless he is known as 'Dirty Hands'.   

Throughout the novel, the reader gets flashbacks of Kaz as a boy and in doing so his backstory is revealed.  The contrast between the sweet innocent 9-year-old Kaz and the 'Bastard of the Barrel', as he sometimes calls himself, is significant.  It sparked intrigue as I found myself wondering how he got from the former stage to the latter.  

Six of Crows is also about 5 other characters, all carefully selected by Kaz because they have a unique skill, to work with him to pull of a near impossible heist.  The risks are so great their chances of survival aren't great, but they are tempted by the huge payment they are offered if they can pull it off.  They are not motivated by greed but because for each of them the money is an opportunity to improve their circumstances, and in some cases, secure their freedom (or the freedom of loved ones).  The novel gives equal focus on all the characters and their backstories.  We get flashbacks similar to the ones mentioned previously.  The heist leads to countless nail-biting moments that make this book a real page-turner.

I was a little reluctant to read this novel because I have become rather tired of YA fantasy - having overdosed on ones that seem to follow pretty much the same formula.  However, this novel did not disappoint.  On the contrary, it restored my faith in YA fantasy.  Here is an author who is actually doing something different.  She is swimming against the formulaic tide.  And she is doing it extremely well.  In both Shadow and Bone and Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo has demonstrated that, when it comes to story-telling, she is an innovator.  We need innovators because they keep things fresh and they inspire others.

I am convinced that one of the books inspired by Bardugo's Shadow and Bone is The Bone Season by Samantha Shannon.  What is interesting about Six of Crows is that, although the story is very much it's own, the characters reminded me of Shannon's '7 seals', the gang led by Jaxon Hall in the same book.  I found myself comparing Kaz to Jaxon.  I suspect that these two authors are being influenced by each others' work, and the result is synergistic (the 2+2=5 effect).



If you want to read an alternative YA fantasy novel this summer, I cannot recommend  Six of Crows highly enough.  I can't wait for the next instalment.

This book has been selected as one of my recommended 2016 Summer Reads


Friday, 1 July 2016

Eligible (The Austen Project no. 4) by Curtis Sittenfeld

This book is in SBR's
2016 Top Ten Reads

Publication date: 21 April 2016
Published by: The Borough Press
Genre: Contemporary Romance

Publisher's synopsis
This version of the Bennet family—and Mr. Darcy—is one that you have and haven’t met before: Liz is a magazine writer in her late thirties who, like her yoga instructor older sister, Jane, lives in New York City. When their father has a health scare, they return to their childhood home in Cincinnati to help—and discover that the sprawling Tudor they grew up in is crumbling and the family is in disarray.

Youngest sisters Kitty and Lydia are too busy with their CrossFit workouts and Paleo diets to get jobs. Mary, the middle sister, is earning her third online master’s degree and barely leaves her room, except for those mysterious Tuesday-night outings she won’t discuss. And Mrs. Bennet has one thing on her mind: how to marry off her daughters, especially as Jane’s fortieth birthday fast approaches.

Enter Chip Bingley, a handsome new-in-town doctor who recently appeared on the juggernaut reality TV dating show Eligible. At a Fourth of July barbecue, Chip takes an immediate interest in Jane, but Chip’s friend neurosurgeon Fitzwilliam Darcy reveals himself to Liz to be much less charming. . . .

Sooz Book Reviews Gold Seal of Approval

My Review
When I first heard about this book, I felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation.  Pride and Prejudice is a much-loved classic and one of my all time favourite books. I had decided 'not to go there', but curiosity got the better of me in the end.  I didn't expect it to be any good, but I hoped I would be wrong about that.  I was wrong about that.  Apparently, I went in with a prejudiced frame of mind, much like Elizabeth.

It turns out Curtis Sittenfeld knew what she was doing.  She put a fair amount of thought into it and has come up with a really good retelling of the classic. This is not an easy thing to do.  I would have thought it impossible.  All of the significant characters are present, with some slight name variations in a few cases.  Charles Bingley is Chip, Mr Bennet's cousin the reverend William Collins is (step) cousin Willy (and every bit as undesirable as the original). Catherine De Bourg makes an appearance but in a different role, while Caroline Bingley assumes the role of her original and Lady De Bourg combined.  The infamous George Wickham is Jasper, who reminded me of Daniel Cleaver, Helen Fielding's rival to Mr Darcy in the also P&P inspired Bridget Jones' Diary (the one played by Hugh Grant in the film).

As well as providing a modern take on Pride and Prejudice, Eligible also seeks to highlight the vast differences between the early 1800s and present day.  In some ways we can breath a sigh of relief to have been born now rather than then, but in others Eligible demonstrates that the world we live in today is so much madder than back then.

The analogies Sittenfeld has come up with are quite clever.  For example, Mrs Bennett (of P&P) was an overbearing matriarch who lacked discretion and decorum, much to the embarassment of her eldest daughters, Jane and Elizabeth.  However, her main concern in life was to make sure her daughters were okay in the end.  She believed that, had they not been married off, they probably would have ended up homeless and destitute (or realistically have dropped from upper-middle class to lower middle-class, heavens forbid!).  The point is, she did what she felt she had to do, with good intentions.

I was curious to see how this character would be justified in Eligible.  After all, we now live in a world where woman no longer HAVE to marry to secure a roof over their heads and avoid poverty. Mrs Bennet (of Eligible) is preoccupied with finding husbands for Jane and Elizabeth because they are both 'pushing 40'.  Many mothers in present day probably would become anxious under those circumstances, and so I think this scenario works very well.

While transference of scenarios worked really well, what did not always work so well for me was the transference of characters.  It is unfortunate that Mrs Bennett and Chip Bingley come across more negatively than in P&P.  Unlike Austen's Mrs Bennet, Sittenfeld's character cannot justify insisting her daughters marry men who belong to America's wealthy elite.  I have a problem with the loss of humanity that existed in the original character and, as far as I am concerned, this new character is not Mrs Bennet.  Chip Bingley is so spineless it's really hard to see what Jane would see in him (besides his eligibility).  That he appeared as a star on a trashy reality show isn't the worst thing about him.  Claiming it wasn't his choice and that his sister nominated him for it is an example of what is.  Obviously, not all characters in a novel have to be likeable for it to work.  The two youngest Bennet sisters, Kitty and Lydia, also come across badly.  In P&P, they were shallow and (as remarked by their father) a bit silly, but, unlike the versions in Eligible, they weren't nasty. Yet, this transference worked fine since, unlike their mother, they do at least bear some resemblance to the originals. The flipping of the character of the nasty Lady Catherine De Bourg to the pretty descent feminist writer version, Cathy De Bourg is also fine, since (as mentioned above) she is not the same character as the original.

I really enjoyed Eligible.  If Pride and Prejudice is as beloved to you as it is to me, my advice is don't worry - it's fine.

Spoiler alert!
I particularly loved how the book concludes.  Not with Liz and Darcy but with Mary Bennet.  The point being, of course it is wonderful to find love, marry and live happily with that person.  However, it really isn't the end of the world if a person doesn't find love, isn't seeking love and chooses not to be coupled, let alone become someone's spouse.  After all, despite what society teaches us, being a single person (regardless of one's age) is a viable option.

Eligible is a recommended 2016 Summer Read 

More Austen Project reviews

Sense and Sensibility by Joanna Trollope (no 1)

Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid (no.2)

Emma by Alexander McCall-Smith (no 3)