Monthly Archives: January 2014

A CUPBOARD FULL OF COATS by Yvette Edwards

A cupboard full of coats by yvette edwards

This was a recommendation made a few years back that I’ve only just got around to following up and I wish I had done so sooner. Jinx’s mother was murdered by a violent partner when she was just a child and she is eaten up with guilt at the role she played. Fourteen years later the man responsible is about to be released from prison and Lemon, his oldest friend, and not so secret admirer of Jinx’s mother, comes knocking on Jinx’s door. His appearance and his determination to talk about what happened force Jinx to revisit the painful memories she’s tried hard to keep buried, but which have prevented her from fully living and loving ever since. Lemon sets about trying to heal Jinx with a mixture of West Indian cooking and confessions, triggering her to finally admit that her mother would still be alive had her daughter not interfered that fateful night. But Lemon’s take on the tale is very different and as both seek to absolve the other we are reminded both of the destructive nature of guilt and jealousy, as well as of the power of confronting your demons.

The narrative shifts between Jinx and Lemon’s memories, and the present that Jinx finds so painful to inhabit. Separated from her son’s father, she is emotionally paralysed by the past and struggles to cope with even the occasional visits from her son. Her only solace is in her work as a make up artist at a mortuary and when she pounds the streets of east London trying to run away from her rage and her despair. But this isn’t a bleak book, on the contrary. It’s a positive one, that celebrates the enduring nature of love, that is a reminder it’s never too late to make amends, and that is a tribute to all those who have ever battled to forgive themselves. It’s also very much about the joy of the moment, which will only be revealed fully if you read the book too.

Edwards as a tendency to drop bombshells that take a while to fully explode. The meaning of the cupboard of coats of the title is just one example and I won’t spoil the effect by telling all here. Suffice to say it’s touching, chilling and brutally honest  – much like this novel as a whole.

 

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CHAOS WALKING TRILOGY by Patrick Ness

chaos walking trilogy

Confession time – I was given a Kindle for Christmas. I really like it. I still really like books too but for trilogies like this, when I want to read every installment in fast succession but don’t necessarily feel the need to buy the books, I think it will serve me well.

The Chaos Walking series is set on another planet, not hugely dissimilar to ours but with some key differences – the most notable being that its indigenous population, the Spackle, and its creatures can all hear one another’s thoughts. The men who arrive there from planet Earth are afflicted with this same “noise” but the women are immune, a state of affairs that has threatened the success of efforts by the early settlers to establish a new society. We first meet Todd, one of two main protagonists, as he approaches his coming of age in New Prentisstown, a settlement presided over by a clever but cruel mayor hell bent on controlling his citizens through their “noise” and who has eradicated all the women – an act which has been subject to some revisionism and blamed on a germ. When Todd discovers a “noise free” blip in the landscape, his brothers decide he must flee in order to save himself from the potential implications.

So begins an epic journey in the company of Viola, source of the anomaly that is “silence” and presage of a new generation of settlers. The mayor is hot on Todd and Viola’s heels, however, bringing an army with him and the two young people struggle with the knowledge that whomever gives them refuge will soon be caught up in a war. They head for the planet’s biggest town, Haven, but get separated on arrival, Todd ending up be captured by the Mayor and Viola falling in with a group of women healers, led by Mistress Coyle, sworn enemy of the Mayor. Haven’s capitulation to the Mayor’s advancing army means he’s in charge and he sets about bringing the population of the town to heel. Todd’s put to work alongside the Mayor’s son and keeping guard over a  group of Spackle prisoners, facing tough moral struggles in the fight for survival. Viola becomes involved with Mistress Coyle’s resistance movement, the “Answer”, and she too faces difficult choices as the group turn to violence and sabotage. Appropriated by two opposing factions, Todd and Viola must fight hard to regain the connection and trust they built up over the long journey to get to Haven.

They are not the only ones fighting. It’s not long before Haven is descended upon by an army of Spackle and the “Answer’s” soldiers, the whole town erupting into war and chaos. Meanwhile the arrival of a space ship load of new settlers on the planet draws near and both Mistress Coyle and Mayor Prentiss want to be the ones to greet them and enlist their help.

Viola and Todd try to reason with their respective factions to make peace and to find ways to settle things with the Spackle. What they don’t know is that one of the Spackle who has taken up arms is an escapee from the group Todd previously helped hold prisoner. Christened the Return by his people, this man is anxious for revenge against his human captors and forms a close bond with the Spackle leader. So too does another man, Ben, Todd’s brother, left for dead but found by the Spackle and kept alive for the information he can provide.

When some of the new settlers land with missiles, medicines and opinions about whether to wage war or peace, it seems to be a game changer. But between Mistress Coyle, the Return and Mayor Prentis, there are no foregone conclusions and Viola and Todd need every ounce of their strength and determination to steer things in the direction they think is best for every inhabitant of the New World.

Ness’ writing is extraordinary – like that of Cormac McCarthy only better in my view. He addresses some of the big questions that we face as societies – is taking a life justified if it means saving so many more, for example – and Ness’ treatment of religious influences is far more satisfying than Veronica Roth’s in Allegiant. He has created a series of strong, credible, consistent but never predictable characters and given each a powerful voice. The power struggles and relationships he crafts are particularly well done and Mayor Prentis’s hold over Todd is riveting. In New World he gives us a fascinating place too, with just enough sci fi to make it interesting and enough of now to keep it real. One reviewer writing in the Guardian considers the trilogy will one day be considered ” one of the outstanding literary achievements of the present century. ” Only time will tell but I suspect he may be right.

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THE BRIEF HISTORY OF THE DEAD by Kevin Brockmeier

the brief history of the dead by kevin brockmeier

Coca-Cola have bought the Antarctic and are planning a new marketing slogan: “Coca-Cola, made from the freshest water on the planet.” They’ve backed it up with a controversial viral campaign that lives up to its name when terrorists decided to exploit the drink’s centralised manufacturing processes and global reach to unleash a deadly bacteria. Within weeks the world’s population has all but died out.

Laura Byrd, a scientist employed by the company, is cut off from all of this with two colleagues carrying out research in the Antarctic. When their communications systems fail the other two go in search of help, but as the days stretch out Laura fears they may never come back and must decide whether to follow in their footsteps or slowly die in one of the most remote parts of the world. Her journey is a remarkable tale of survival and discovery, as she starts to suspect she may be the last remaining person alive on the planet and sustains herself with memories of her family, friends and brief encounters.

The book opens with an explanation of the concept of the sasha, or living dead: those who are not wholly dead, for they still live in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likeness in art and bring them to life in anecdote. And interspersed with Laura’s story we meet the living dead kept alive by her memories; people gathered in a city together that’s undergoing dramatic change as the world’s inhabitants die off, until the only residents left are those whose paths at some time crossed with Laura’s. Their stories, their connections and their reaction to being given a second chance transform this novel from a straightforward but exciting adventure into something more thoughtful.  There are clear parallels with Christianity in the idea of redemption, of passing between different worlds and what’s kind of an anti-Purgatory, but the book avoids any dogma, posing questions rather than providing answers.

It’s a very interesting concept and on one level it works. But by trying to share so many stories of the living dead, the author prevents us from making a really strong connection with any one character. As a result, those sections felt like a distraction to me – I was always keen to get back to the main event that was Laura’s journey. I also found the closing sections unsatisfying, unclear and lacking consistency, which is a shame because the story sets itself up with the potential for a cracking culmination. Not one of the best reads but certainly not one of the worst either, I suspect I  it will pass from the world of the living dead to the well and truly forgotten in no time at all.

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LIKE WATER FOR CHOCOLATE by Laura Esquivel

like water for chocolate by laura esquivel

I loved this book when I first read it some 15 years ago and I still love it. From the recipes to the way that the emotions of the cook seep into each dish that’s prepared, from the soap opera like installments to the passionate love story that’s the main feature, from the backdrop that’s the Mexican revolution to the cast of strong opinionated women.  It’s glorious and evocative comfort food for the soul and the perfect antidote to the grey skies outside and the looming end of the holidays. Love it, love it, love it.

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ONCE IN A HOUSE ON FIRE by Andrea Ashworth

once in a house on fire by andrea ashworth

The real life memoirs of growing up with one abusive step father after another, ONCE IN A HOUSE ON FIRE is  at times excruciatingly painful to read. It’s also often funny, making the hurt all the sharper by contrast. Ashworth details the physical and emotional abuse inflicted on herself, her siblings and her mother with a rare and raw honesty, brilliantly capturing the ups and downs of their lives, the relentlessness of hope in the most hopeless of circumstances, and the incredible resilience of the human spirit. She also manages to inhabit her childhood self incredibly successfully, giving herself a voice without any sense of the adult she now is intruding on the memories, her judgement or her self awareness.

Bleak though the subject matter is,  Ashworth’s refusal to be crushed and destroyed by the fists lashing out around her lends the book an enormously positive power – she fights back in a variety of ways, including by escaping into literature, discovering boys and carefully crafting an at school persona that gives her the control and respect she lacks at home. And yet it’s all too fragile, ready to collapse in an instant, granting the narrative a tension that’s lurks in the pit of your stomach in a way that even the most cleverly constructed suspense conjured by writers of thrillers and horror stories cannot evoke.

One of the most striking things about the book is that Ashworth’s mother is not unusual in being beaten black  and blue on a regular basis, indeed several of her friends endure the same treatment, even seeming to expect as much. The insight we get into the complex reasons these women all too often stay with their partners is invaluable, coming as it does from someone who has lived through the nightmare. So too is the narrator’s understanding of the backdrop to their decisions; in particular the working class struggles of 1970s and 80s Britain, the way that being long term unemployed destroys people’s self esteem, and the  lack of economic opportunities for women. All this ensures the book is not overtly moralistic or one sided. Ashworth doesn’t shrink from the horrors she lived through but nor does she reduce the abusers to caricatures of monsters, to do so would not do justice to her story or the real people at its heart.

ONCE IN A HOUSE ON FIRE is heart wrenching, heart breaking and heart lifting. It also proved to be a wonderfully nostalgic book to read, set as much of it is in South Manchester where I lived for 15 years, and charting as it does my childhood landscape of the A team and Dynasty on TV, of angel delight and curly wurlys as treats, and of ra-ra skirts, winkle-pickers and pedal pushers.

I know it’s only the first few days of January but I suspect this may well prove to be one of the most memorable books I read all year.

 

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