Monthly Archives: August 2014

THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS by M.R Carey

the girl with all the gifts by m.r.carey

I picked this up on the spur of the moment whilst waiting for someone at Waterloo station, attracted by the advice “if you only read one thriller this year make it this one”. The back cover was summary of the opening pages in which we meet Melanie as she is strapped into a wheelchair to be wheeled to lessons. “Don’t worry, I won’t bite” she offers as assurance, but nobody smiles.

I am not quite sure what I was expecting – something along the lines of WHEN SHE WOKE I think – but this is totally different.

Set about 20 years into the future the world has descended into chaos courtesy of a highly efficient parasite that latches onto its host’s brain turning the infected into single minded hunters – the Hungries. Attracted by the smell of blood and flesh they devour anything and everything in their wake – with humans being their meal of choice.

Those who have survived so far can only do so by smothering themselves with e blocker to mask the smell of their pheromones and by keeping their wits about them. A team of researchers is studying captured Hungries in the search for a cure and to find out why some of those infected seem better able to resist the parasite.

So basically the UK is awash with zombie like cannibals – and the remaining humans must battle against being totally wiped up. Really not the kind of book I would have read if the cover had given any of this away!

And yet it’s beautiful. Deeply moving and much less of a gore fest than I feared it might be once I realised what was going on.

At the heart of the book is Melanie whose high IQ and apparent ability to resist the urges that drive most Hungries have intrigued the scientific team studying her and other captured “specimens”. Her gradual realisation about what she is, and the profound implications, the relationships she builds with her captors, and the choices she makes as the novel reaches an amazing climax are treated with great sensitivity. This is definitely not your average scary story – it’s haunting, heartbreaking and had me hooked from page one.

The novel poses questions about what makes us human, the meaning of civilisation and whether it’s possible to rebuild society if all it means has disappeared. And it answers those questions convincingly too – including with an ending that blew me away.

So thank you publishers for not giving anything away about this book from its cover and tempting me into an impulse purchase that I don’t regret. I only hope this review doesn’t put off readers similarly pre-disposed to avoid books like this as they’d really be missing out.

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THE GOLDFINCH by Donna Tartt

the goldfinch by donna tartt

Occasionally – very, very occasionally – I read a book that is near perfect. This is one such occasion.

It opens in a hotel room in Amsterdam, where the novel’s central protagonist, Theo Decker, is examining newspapers to find out whether a crime in which he has been involved has come to light. Then we are rapidly taken back in time to New York and the hours preceding a meeting between Theo’s mother and headteacher to discuss his suspension from school. It’s a meeting that never happens, derailed by an explosion and the events that eventually lead to the hotel room in Amsterdam.  Theo’s life is defined in many ways by tragedy but also by some remarkable – if complicated and troublesome – friendships. Betrayal, suspicion, lies, guilt, loyalty, obsession and art all feature.

A study of the connections between what happens to us and the choices we make, of the line between innocence and culpability, of the nature of guilt, of the immense power of beauty, in the hands of a less skilled writer THE GOLDFINCH could so easily be sentimental and overdone, but Tartt avoids that mistake.  She draws us hook line and sinker into Theo’s life but her writing is actually quite dispassionate – interestingly I didn’t shed one tear reading this book despite it being full of heart break. Not one sentence is unnecessary, not one episode superfluous and the suspense and action of the opening scenes is finely balanced with reflection, dialogue and some incredible descriptions of antique furniture restoration (I kid you not!). Through Theo, and the often mundane happenings and details of everyday life (as he waits for news of his mother after the explosion we learn which book she was reading, the colour of the cardigan left draped over her armchair), Tartt tackles big subjects, and these two angles are brought together in the final pages, to powerful effect.

Her attention to these details and grasp of when they should mean something – and when they don’t – is what makes the novel really sing. Tartt’s depiction of how adults deal with the tragedies that befall Theo is remarkably good – the counsellors who are too wrapped up in their own notions of what he should feel to notice the boy’s actual response. So too is her understanding of addiction and pain – one chapter is entitled Morphine Lollipop – of loneliness in a city like New York compared to the deserts surrounding Las Vegas where Theo finds Boris, the friend who perhaps more than anyone changes his life, of grief and of the complicated nature of father son relations.

Above all – and unlike many award winning novels – the plot is at least as good as the character portrayal, the descriptive prose and the emotional range. Each stage of Theo’s life is almost a novel in itself – the comparisons with Dickens are deserved in this respect – all bound together by a painting—the 1654 Carel Fabritius masterpiece,The Goldfinch.

There’s so much more I could say about this book – because a lot happens to Theo – but all that really needs saying is this: Occasionally – very, very occasionally – I read a book that is near perfect. This is one such occasion and I hope you will read it too.

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LITTLE MERCIES by Heather Gudenkauf

little mercies by heather gudenkauf

Ellen is a social worker who tries to protect young children at risk. She’s often the one removing them from their families or picking up the pieces when a parent or carer turns violent or abusive. One morning she is called by a young girl who has locked herself and her younger sister in the bathroom to hide from their mother’s drunk boyfriend. The girls can hear their mother’s screams as she is hit over and over. Ellen calls the police, reassures the girl and heads straight over to the house herself, hoping to be a friendly face when the girls are brought out. But her single minded focus on the task at hand means she neglects to pay attention to her husband’s instructions about their own daughter, Avery. With devastating results.

10 year old Jenny has been abandoned by her mother and has an alcoholic for a father. He is good to her but their lives are chaotic, marked by uncertainty, hunger and a stream of “friend girls” who always end up moving on to something better. During a slap up meal at Happy Pancake, he tells Jenny they are moving to a new town with new job prospects. The pair then carry out their usual trick of leaving the restaurant without paying. A few days later, with all their belongings safely stowed in a sports bag, Jenny is sitting on a coach waiting for her Dad to come back from doing a bit of business so they can make the journey to their new lives. Jenny then spies her Dad being cornered by two men and the police weighing in. Before she can react, the coach pulls away and Jenny is on her own.

Alternate chapters of LITTLE MERCIES tell us Jenny and Ellen’s stories until the point at which they cross, and both find out more than they wanted to about Jenny’s Mum.

An easy read, this is a bit too Jodi Picoult for my liking though, with most of the characters very flat and undeveloped. There’s a moralising undertone I didn’t much like and the ending is far too pat and unconvincing. All of which is a shame because it has the makings of an interesting story. I really liked the first book I read by this writer (ONE BREATH AWAY) but she’s going down in my estimation and although I’ve already bought her other one featuring social worker Ellen (LITTLE LIES) I am not in any rush to read it now….

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THE CARHULLAN ARMY by Sarah Hall

the carhullan army by sarah hall

So I am in France, lazing by the pool in the sunshine, happy, relaxed, on holiday and reading my Kindle. Then the words ‘data lost’ appear on my screen. I read on, thinking it’s part of the story (not entirely implausible given this is sci-fi of sorts) but then get confused that I have missed a key moment. Flick back. No I haven’t been reading too fast, there’s actually a bit missing from the book. OK I’ll keep going, I can figure it all out. Then I get to the climax of the book. An all out attack by feminist revolutionaries on the town that’s home to the dictatorship that’s outlawed them. And the same thing happens. I am speechless. Furious. Robbed. I have to drink a beer and jump in the pool before I feel better.

Ah first world problems eh?

That which I did read was poetic. Raw. Striking. Vital. Should the hand that rocks the cradle pick up the gun?

I will post again once I have done battle with Amazon, have a full copy, and can do justice to what I think may turn out to be a remarkable novel.

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VIRGINIA WOOLF IN MANHATTAN by Maggie Gee

virgina woolf in manhattan by maggie gee

When I realised that the premise of this book is that Virginia Woolf has come back from the dead I experienced a moment of intense frustration – that’s a stupid and impossible idea, I thought, what is Maggie Gee thinking? It took me a while to recover and, as a result, I didn’t really like the first third or so of this book. The final third is also disappointing – although it did help me understand some of the earlier threads better. But as ever, with Gee’s writing, there are moments of sheer brilliance in what’s a slightly quirky and beautifully alive novel.

The premise with which I have such issue does allow Gee to explore some interesting ideas, most notably the differences between the life of a modern novelist and one like Woolf, their interaction with readers, with publishers and the  nature of the book industry. There are some real gems of moments when Woolf is struggling to understand things like the internet, cosmetic surgery and elevators. There’s also a powerful sense of what made her such an exquisite writer, her vivaciousness, how she felt the world around her, delighted in its colours, smells and sights whilst at the same time pained by it too.

Gee has created a character entirely in keeping with the woman we think we know from her novels and diaries, yet also challenges the myth and the icon that is Woolf – and at times even tramples all over it. Her modern day companion, Angela, considers at one point:

Did I know her at all? Had all my reading of her books meant nothing? How much did we ever know anyone?

I’d thought all her characters were part of herself, that by adding them together, you came up with the author,a shifting composite, the details uncertain but the basic shape, against the light, constant.

Of course, she is wrong and yet in the final section of the book Gee references much of Woolf’s writing, something that helped me enormously in my understanding of the earlier parts. I think I would get have got much more from the novel if I knew more about Woolf (I haven’t read any since my degree days, over 25 years ago). And although Gee insists the book stands alone, she also admits it’s heavy with meaningful parallels with Woolf’s life and own writing. For example, Woolf first appears in Manhattan in a private library from which she is at risk of being kicked out if seen, and women not being allowed into Oxford Library is how A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN begins. So whilst Gee actively questions the idea that Woolf is the woman we have met in her own writing, she also simultaneously reinforces it.

Woolf is reincarnated in the presence of a self-centred modern novelist, Angela Lamb, who also appears in Gee’s THE FLOOD (by far my favourite book of hers). Both struggle with the relationship that has been thrust upon them and, in true Gee style, neither evoke much sympathy from the reader. They are selfish, self obsessed and lacking in self awareness. Both are given a voice to comment on the same experiences and situations, sometimes switching line by line, thereby highlighting the vast difference between their responses and feelings, interpretations and understanding.  It can make for a slightly fragmented read at times but overall I liked this approach and the way it’s used to draw out the competitiveness between the women is wickedly clever and funny.

The presence of another novelist adds to Gee’s point about never really knowing whether what’s written is an insight into the writer or not. And the use of both women’s voices, on the heels on one another, demonstrates the extent to which even what we say, seemingly as ourselves, is shaped by how we want others to see us.

Interwoven with Angela and “Ginnie’s” voices, we also hear that of Gerda, Angela’s precocious and slightly neglected daughter, unhappy at her boarding school and teetering between childhood and becoming a young adult. The most honest voice in the book, Gerda is just learning how words can determine how people see and treat you, their power to do good and to cause harm, the escape they can offer and the trap they set. She’s a useful foil to the word weary published novelists and is my favourite character in VIRGINIA WOOLF IN MANHATTAN. I hope Gee writes her a book of her own.

Angela is in Manhattan to carry out research for a paper she is giving at an international conference in Istanbul. A conference about Virginia Woolf and to which she ends up taking the Bloomsbury writer. It’s a trip down memory lane for Virginia, who went there with her sister, and also an opportunity to change some of the past from which she has been woken. So she has a brief love affair, buys a new hat and finds peace with the idea of writing for the here and now, rather than worrying about how history might pass judgement. Realising “We live in others. We live in words” allows her to let go of the present.

Turkey also creates a space in which the two writers perspectives can be partly reconciled – they are both feeling their way in a new world, in which religious extremism seems to be centre stage, trying to figure out what it means. For once, neither has the upper hand, both can respond from the heart and Angela’s voice begins to echo Virginia’s – she smells the city, bathes in its light and tastes its flavours. Gerda helps with this reconciliation and in doing so reveals something of herself to Angela, something we hope means there will be a little less neglect in future.

The conference itself is much too contrived and then there’s a terrible scene on an aeroplane during which we learn, a la Dallas, that it was all just a dream. But I can forgive Gee a great deal, for she never fails to dazzle me and I have to recommend this book simply on the basis that surely nobody else would have the audacity to write anything like it!

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THE CRY by Helen Fitzgerald

the cry by helen fitzgerald

Joanna is a harried mother on board a flight to Australia. Her new born baby is distressed and crying, she struggles to cope and snaps at the other passengers and crew who try to help. The father, Alistair, on the other hand, is the epitome of calm. He supports Joanna, takes the child so she can rest, is reassuring, understanding and kind. Or is he?

The tension on that aeroplane is palpable and it builds and builds as the story unfurls. From babies that disappear from their car seats to vengeful alcoholic ex wives, from abandoned daughters setting traps via social media to betrayals by best friends, THE CRY is packed with action and with characters worthy of a great psychological thriller. A novel about manipulation, passing judgement and what we might be capable of in our darkest moments, this is nothing more and nothing less than what it sets out to be.

It’s difficult to review THE CRY without giving too much away but if you loved GONE GIRL you might just like this. My only criticism is I wanted more twists and turns, more drama and more nail biting moments – it was all over far too soon.

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