Tag Archives: Book

The Crane Wife by Patrick Ness

9780857868718Bestselling and award winning writer Patrick Ness is probably best known for his YA writing and his ability to make me cry. While The Crane Wife takes him to different extremes, bizarrely this new novel actually holds a few similarities with his other writings. This predominately appears within the folklore feeling that abounds this story and transforms what would usually be a contemporary piece of fiction into a fairy-tale. This is magical realism at its height. Man helps Crane recover in his garden, Crane magically becomes the centre of his world as a beautiful woman. It is a story that imaginations were created for.

Ness is retelling a folk tale and placing it in the modern world. One night, George is woken in the middle of the night by an odd and misplaced sound. Upon venturing into his garden he discovers a beautifully perfect white crane that has seemingly plunged to earth after an injury. Once George helps the crane, his life will never be the same again. Kimiko walks into George’s shop and from that moment the novel becomes a surreal dreamscape that contains humour, passion and ethereal themes.

Kimiko becomes a centre point in which the plot, characters and metaphor revolves around. She is a puzzle to be unravelled within the journey from first page to last and while she appeals in many aspects, at times the vagueness of her personality can grate. In fact, the same can be said for the entire book. Ness’ writing twists and turns with grace and pirouettes through glorious prose, however there are aspects to the plot where the surreal becomes a little too much. This is mostly towards the close of the book as all the intricacies of Patrick’s ideas come to a head.

It’s an enigmatic novel that captures the heart despite the small flaws in the construction. While I floundered a little towards the tail end I still found myself utterly enamoured by the flow of the writing and the prose chosen by a talented wordsmith. The reader falls for Ness’ abilities in the same way the cast falls for Kimiko, it becomes passion between reader and writer – Between ordinary and magical.

Published by Canongate. This book was kindly sent for review by the publisher.

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Fanny and Stella by Neil McKenna

9780571231904Fanny and Stella is a book that acts as a keyhole to our Victorian past that allows readers to spy on the activities and atrocities that occurred during the time of Fanny and Stella. Activities that may be raucous to overly sensitive minds and atrocities that make us both realise how far we have come as a society, but also how much further we have to go. The idea of two gay men wanting to dress and act like women in the 21st century barely raises an eyebrow, but when Ernest Boulton and Frederick Park dared to be different it caused outrage and scandal.

The book is meticulously researched from the appearance of each person to crop up down to the minutiae of the court case that followed the arrest of Fanny and Stella. Of course, in Victorian times every nuance of these men (or as is preferred to call them; ladies) was seen to be illegal and an affront to the Queen. The book is a fascinating look at the lives of these ladies and the attitudes of the men who opposed them. Not only is it an interesting read but an important one for us to look at our history and for the LGBT community.

At times it is hard to relate to Fanny (the plain one) and Stella (the pretty one) as their lives are so utterly different to what we see today. They lived in a time of vice and corruption. Prostitutes were two to a penny, disease also as common and early death was also something to fear. They were dark times and Fanny and Stella were exploring parts of society that were deemed darker. Obviously the book treads in specific territories within the LGBT world. There are some very graphic depictions of sodomy and anal examinations, but they are par for the course in a book that wants to be honest with its readers.

Neil McKenna is a wonderfully passionate author who writes about what he believes in and what is important to him. That passion comes across in the way this story is told. There is a pace to the situations that makes it feel like fiction, although the photographic evidence of Fanny and Stella and their courtroom documents prove that these men really lived through their ordeal. Among the tales of theatre, drag and lifestyle there is, of course, a tense courtroom drama that unfolds with both tension and hilarity. Because Fanny and Stella is a funny book, I suppose it needs to be when it wear its heart on its sleeve.

As someone who doesn’t usually read nonfiction, I was sceptical as to how the book would read. Thankfully McKenna injects enough personality to stop the book becoming dry and dull. It is a fascinating look at history and one that is told by the underdog. This isn’t a snapshot of history likely to be told elsewhere, it needs someone who cares and respects everyone – not just the winners or victors in life.

Published by Faber and Faber. This book was kindly sent for review by the publisher via NetGalley.

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Chatting to Elizabeth Day

l9l056bj590_Elizabeth-day-author-journalistAfter reading and reviewing Home Fires by Elizabeth Day, I was very interested in many of the details that crop up within the pages. I was lucky that Elizabeth said yes to me asking a few questions about her latest book. In fact she treated us with very in depth answers, so a massive thank you goes to her for that. For those who don’t know much about Elizabeth; She is an award winning author and journalist. She currently writes for The Observer and appears on Sky News newspaper review. Her debut novel Scissors Paper Stone was critically acclaimed and I’m sure the same will be said for her new novel – Home Fires.

What was the initial spark that kick started Home Fires? And did your work at The Observer, etc, help solidify the idea?

There are three main, interconnected storylines in Home Fires and so there were three initial sparks that seemed to fit together when I was thinking about what to write. I’ve always been fascinated on the impact war has on the home front because I’m interested in unexamined bits of history. It struck me that although lots had been written about men’s experience of the First World War – the men who died in the trenches, or those who came back suffering from extreme shell-shock – not that much had been written about the women who coped with the aftermath. I was intrigued by the idea of a man who – on the surface, at least – survived the Great War unharmed and who returned home to a daughter who had never really known him and a wife who had been surviving for four years without him. It must have been the cause of pain for so many families – the women struggling to understand and the man unable to find the language to convey what he had been through. I was hugely influenced by Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, which does detail a woman’s experience with such ferocity and emotion that, after reading it, you never look at the First World War in quite the same way again.

The modern strand was definitely influenced by my day-job. For a while, as a journalist, I was coming into contact with a lot of parents who had lost their children in Iraq or Afghanistan, many of whom felt let down by the government who had sent their beloved children to war. I wanted to explore this in Home Fires, as well as the idea of a woman who is angry in her grieving, rather than docile and accepting. I wanted to look at the corrosive nature of loss and also ask a deeper question about whether it is better to die a hero than come back a damaged man.

The third element, which I think is crucial to the book, is a study of ageing. Andrew’s mother has suffered a stroke and is reliant on others, which is a cause of immense frustration to her. I think we shy away from examining the indignities of age and it was important to me to get across how difficult it is both to care for the elderly and for the elderly to cope with their own infirmity. This came from seeing my own grandmother go through something similar – and the impact it had on my mother looking after her. It’s partly why Home Fires is dedicated to my wonderful grandparents.

You must have put in a lot of research while writing. What were the most important things you learned and did anything shock or surprise you?

Yes, I did, but it was research I enjoyed because it mostly consisted of reading other books! I read a lot of contemporaneous accounts of the First World War but also a lot of novels set in that era – everything from Rebecca West to Pat Barker and a lot of non-fiction accounts of the period. I also looked into the psychological impact on children of fathers returning from war. There was hardly anything written about that for the 1914-1918 conflict, but there was a lot more research available for the post-1945 period when people were beginning to talk in those terms and to record their experiences on the home front in diaries or as part of Mass Observation programmes.

The interesting thing about doing research into a period that is so widely taught in our schools and universities is that we think we know a lot of it already but actually, being confronted with first-hand experiences when you’re a bit older can be incredibly moving. It struck me with renewed force how unbelievably young the men who went to fight on the Western Front were – 17, 18, 19, barely even adults and filled with idealised notions of what war was. Reading Vera Brittain brought it home to me how hard it must have been to attempt to go back to a “normal” life after suffering the brutal loss of your loved ones. Brittain lost her fiance, her brother and her two closest male friends over a four-year period. When the war was over, she was still only 22 and went to Oxford. She recounts so vividly how awful it was going to university and being surrounded by lots of giggling undergraduates who had no concept of what she had been through and who dismissed her as being overly serious and bitter. It surprised me just how much I could relate to that, the immediacy of it: imagine having endured such suffering and not being able to communicate what it felt like to her peers.

I did a bit of research into the equipment provided to modern-day troops in Iraq and Afghanistan too. That was surprising – and saddening – because it made me realise how thinly stretched the resources for our armed forces are. There are soldiers out there at the moment, fighting in our name, who have had to buy their own knee-pads. In an era of austerity cuts, I worry that will only get worse.

How was it dabbling in two time frames?

9781408807613I enjoyed the challenge. My first novel, Scissors Paper Stone, was set in the current day, with brief flashbacks to the 1970s. Going back to 1920 was both exciting and panic-inducing because, as a History graduate, I’m extremely picky about trying to get things right. (I’m sure, now I’ve said that, a litany of historical inaccuracies will be pointed out to me…) In the end though, I do truly believe that fiction is about portraying an emotional truth rather than a factual one. If I’ve managed to convey a feeling with precision, that’s more important to me than whether I’ve described someone using the right kind of teapot.

Having said that, I think I made it slightly easier on myself because a large portion of the earlier time frame is written through the eyes of Elsa, a 98-year-old woman who is losing her mind: her memories are intense but fractured and don’t always make chronological sense. That is deliberate, but it did mean I could write a bit more freely.

Anger plays quite a large part of the novel, as does depression. How did you personally feel as you put the words down onto a page?

I felt, at every stage, that I was writing what I needed to write. I hope that doesn’t sound hopelessly pretentious. What I mean is that I feel some fiction tries to prettify things, to make things neater and more digestible. Some readers need their characters to be likeable, with easily understandable motives for their actions and they need their endings tied up. Whereas in real-life, people don’t always act in reasoned, obvious ways and there are hardly ever clear endings to particular life phases where all the loose threads are knotted together and that’s what I try to convey in my own writing. People are complex and can do bad things and then they can try and forget they’ve done those things, or lie about them, or bury them away and think they’ve moved on: they think they’re being honest, but deep down, they know they’re not sharing everything. I wanted to get under the skin of that human paradox: the fact that we are who we are because of what we’ve experienced, but sometimes we almost want to deny the experience itself. I also feel that all my characters continue to live their lives beyond the final page of my book – that’s why not everything is explained and brought together by the last chapter. There are some unexploded bombs waiting to go off in all of their lives, but that’s for the reader to imagine. I don’t want to be too prescriptive.

I didn’t feel depressed or angry while writing Home Fires. I think that possibly if you’re writing anger, it’s a good way of getting it out of your own system! I did feel upset at points though – there’s a scene at the Cenotaph later on in the book that I remember writing in a cafe on a weekend morning and I had a cold and was a bit under the weather anyway and when I got to the end of the scene, I felt like you do after you’ve been crying for hours: that sense of exhausted calm. And writing about grief certainly brought up my own experiences of having lost loved ones. I drew on those and, in a way, writing helped me to process how I felt – but that wasn’t why I was writing; it was more of a fortunate by-product.

Did you find it difficult creating such intense sadness on the page? You captured it so well, in my opinion.

9781408828670Thank you. I was very, very worried about whether I’d be able to capture it. I was aware that, potentially, there would be people reading this book who had lost a child and I was deeply concerned about paying tribute to their experience rather than trivialising it in any way. That added an extra layer of anxiety to what I was writing. But I think it goes back to what I was saying about emotional truth. The novelist’s role is to imagine and to render that imagination onto the page in a way that can connect to the reader. It isn’t to live through everything and then recount it. I worked hard at it though. And I looked at my own grief too: to how I’ve reacted when people I’ve loved have died. I had to force myself to be honest about that which was difficult but necessary, if that makes sense. I felt I needed to write it.

Were you scared as to how the public would react to a novel that touches on such a current and tender issue?

Yes! I’m still scared. The writing of Home Fires has been a real journey. I wrote the first draft and my editor felt it wasn’t working so I had to go away and revise it quite substantially. There was an entire character I’d written in the first person which I then transferred to the third person to make it feel less claustrophobic. That process dented my belief a little and made me question what on earth I was doing for a while – I began to doubt my own instincts. But I think that is part of the process of re-drafting and now, looking back, I’m so, so glad I did it and that my editor told me to do it because there’s absolutely no doubt that the book is better as a result.

I was very worried that readers wouldn’t warm to some of the characters because they do act in difficult ways, but then they are living in an extraordinarily pressurised situation and grief can make you do things you don’t think you would ever do otherwise. I wanted the reader to understand why they were doing things and yet not to over-explain and that’s a tricky balance.

Then there’s a further layer of complexity when you write your second novel. With your first, when you give it to friends or family in manuscript form, they are generally so astonished you’ve managed to write a book, that the reaction is very positive. By the time you do your second, it’s become the thing they expect you to do and their critical faculties are more engaged! In a way, it was helpful because it made me re-edit myself much more than I might have done otherwise. Ultimately, though, you need to remember why you’ve written the book, why you felt the story needed to be told in the first place and stick by what you think, instead of just taking on board what other people suggest. I’m getting better at that!

It’s still very early days in terms of gauging how people will react to Home Fires. So far, I’ve been immensely touched by some of the responses – particularly from two reviewers on Amazon who I’ve never met and who took the time to write what they thought before Home Fires was even officially published. That meant so much to me because they were real readers, who didn’t know me and who completely got what the book was about.

Lastly, what part or character did you bond with the most during the experience?

I ended up loving Elsa more than I thought I would when I set out to write Home Fires. The more I wrote, the more I got to know her and the more her back story developed. I hope I managed to show that the way she behaved was a consequence of her own vulnerability. I also completely adored her husband, Oliver, who only has a couple of walk-on parts but who is quite possibly the nicest, most solid character in the entire novel. And he likes Twiglets. What more could you want in a fictional character?

Home Fires by Elizabeth Day

9781408828670Within the first 100 pages of Home Fires I was blown away by both the attention to detail and the writing prowess of Elizabeth Day. Her writing is beautiful in its metaphor, lyricism and flow. Her description of scenes is well constructed and allows the reader to be transported – to become a fly on the fictional wall. The prose is meticulously well crafted; it paints a clear picture of the emotions that Elizabeth is trying to portray. This is a novel that tells of parental bereavement and its on-going depression.

“In this room, it is only the spaces that have been left behind”

The initial emotions of a grieving parent are well imagined, accurately researched and handled with care. Home Fires tells of a family left in the wake of a soldier being killed in action in Sudan. Caroline and Andrew are the distraught and lost parents. Elsa is the 98 year old mother of Andrew who is suffering from dementia and the result of a stroke. Each has their own story to tell. The novel flits expertly between present day and Elsa’s childhood. We see how Elsa coped with the return of her father from the First World War and how Andrew and Caroline are coping with the death of their son.

Each character is well defined through their traumas. Day paints a grim picture of returning soldiers after the First World War. She accurately describes their despair and fear as they attempt to readjust to normality. Elsa’s father returned a very damaged man and he, of course, passes that damage on to Elsa as he beats her furiously. It lends a tense sadness to Elsa’s past and indeed, the entire book. The underlying aspect here is his belief that he is a coward, he cannot readjust and we’re left wondering whether he would rather have died. The idea of readjustment is the theme of the entire book.

“Because, after all, what is the point of a mother if she cannot protect her only child?”

The depiction of anger caused by trauma is a brutal cut that causes the emotion to bleed from the page and stain the reader. This anger is felt throughout each member of the ensemble. Most noticeably the parents of Max go through a turbulent time in trying to deal with their anger and the distance that Max’s death is pushing between them. A picture of fractured love is created by using Max’s death as a way of looking at these relationships, as if through a kaleidoscope.

When Elsa is brought to live with Caroline and Andrew as her health deteriorates the tension is ramped up to breaking point. There is a particularly wonderful section that highlights the fragility of life. It comes as Caroline and Andrew take delivery of the equipment to take care of Elsa.

“In the last few days, they have taken delivery of a bed with a sliding metal bar at one side, a mechanical hoist to lift Elsa off the mattress when necessary, several industrial-sized packets of baby wipes and a red panic button alarm device that is worn round the neck. So much paraphernalia. The process reminds Caroline of the provisions they had made for Max’s birth – stocking up on nappies and Babygros, building the cot, hanging the mobile – a natural symmetry between the beginning and end of life.”

My biggest issue with the novel didn’t appear until the final third. I felt that Day could have explored consequence a little more and break down the importance of Elsa’s history. While I found Elsa’s chapters interesting and enthralling, they lacked any purpose. It is almost as if Elizabeth wanted to write two stories and combined the two. The history of physical abuse for Elsa explained her attitude in life but was only a tenuous link to the story of Andrew and Caroline. So, while I enjoyed this backstory, I felt a little lost in its conclusion.

The same can be said for the consequences of certain actions undertaken by Andrew. While I won’t give away the situation itself, I will say that I was disappointed that Day didn’t explore the results. I was left feeling that Caroline was explored with the utmost intricacy. Every nuance of her personality and experience was dissected wonderfully, but Andrew was left floundering a little towards the tail end of the story.

Regardless, Elizabeth does a tremendous job of telling the reader how it feels to be emotionally bereft by the loss of a child. Her depictions are exact and this heightens the sadness of the situation. While Home Fires does suffer from minor flaws in the plot, it is a book worthy of your attention, if only for its intense ideas and beautiful prose.

Published by Bloomsbury. This book was kindly sent for review by the publisher.

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The Machine by James Smythe

9780007428601When I first sat down to read the latest offering from James Smythe my passion for his writing took quite a knock. In this new novel, James is experimenting with differing styles, including a lack of speech marks. This is a pet peeve of mine unless it is used for narrative purposes and serves the story well. My faith in this aspiring author was solidified as James takes the reader on a tour de force through a myriad of feelings and emotions that truly benefit from the lack of dialogue punctuation. In fact, it is in this minute change where the novel holds its power.

Why mention this at the start of a review, as if it holds such import? Well, because this is James taking a chance. This is his most ambitious and personal novel to date. While The Machine holds very similar notions as Testimony and Explorer – in that it is dark and brooding – it explores other aspects of life and mind. I think it is well established that I am a fan of Mr Smythe and I will be nothing but honest about his work. The first fifty pages of The Machine was hard work. It is a slow opening that requires a lot from the reader. That isn’t to say it’s a bad opening, but James is vague about the plot and he lets it unfold organically as the pages turn.

At the root of this tale is a love story that is riddled with emotion and the macabre. James shows how far one would go to rebuild a love lost. Beth has lost her husband. His body is merely surviving, but his mind is lost to the Machine. James explores the idea that to remove the stress of trauma one needs to remove the memories and only the Machine can do that. Little is explained about the tech and development of the Machine, we know its function and we know what it looks like. It is a dominating, severe and surreal Machine that surely symbolises the void left in the patients who succumbed to its use.

To be honest, the entire feel of the novel has a tense and overbearing aspect to it. Beth is telling her story in the near future. Things have happened, waters have risen, teenagers are becoming more of a danger on the streets. Each page drips with suspense and nerves. Smythe fills the reader with the same burdens as his central character – when she is tense or confused, we are led to feel that way too. As the book progresses situations become even more dreamlike and manic, leading to a conclusion that leaves the reader reeling.

When starting the novel, and knowing that I’m not a fan of a lack of speech marks, I thought this would be the roadbump in my love of Smyths writing. When I put the book down I was left feeling confounded by it, I didn’t know what to feel. After a few days the memories of The Machine were burning and I found myself pondering certain aspects of it. It is only then when I realised that this is James’ best book yet.

Published by Blue Door. This books was kindly sent for review by the publisher.

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