Monthly Archives: August 2015

THE NIGHT CIRCUS by Erin Morgenstern

the night circus by erin morgenstern

I remember seeing this book in the shops, reading the back cover and deciding that, for some unknown reason, it didn’t really appeal. But someone recommended it to me recently and I am really glad I gave it a second chance.

Marco and Celia are bound from an early age into a contest between two schools of magic, with a circus full of “possibilities you cannot fathom” acting as the arena. Each creates spectacle after spectacle to rival the previous, in what turns out to be an elaborate courtship ritual, but neither understands the rules of the game nor how a winner will be declared. In the meantime, Celia in particular carries the circus on her shoulders and in her hands. She casts all kinds of magic on the troupe to keep them safe and to protect the adoring fans who visit the circus night after night, as well as its original creators. But it requires an immense effort of concentration and total control of her own emotions to stop the growing circus from breaking apart under the strain of the contest, so much so that when she even contemplates unleashing her growing love for Marco she places the whole endeavour, and the lives of those she holds dear, at huge risk.

Morgenstern has created a stunning ensemble of characters, from the troubled designer of extravaganzas, Chandresh, to the twins Poppet and Widget that come into the world on the circus’ opening night, but the real star is the circus itself. Appearing overnight, without warning, it’s a black and white affair that, like the novel, is sensual, elaborate and dazzling. Made up of interconnected circles, that encourage you to wander, dream and get lost. The writer really can conjure with words and this is a visual feast of a book that celebrates the mystery and glamour that surrounds circuses. It touches on something a little deeper from time to time – there’s some darkness with the light, and everything is not black and white after all – but the overall effect is pretty rather than edgy, with even murder and spilt blood getting the theatrical treatment.

Some books are so magical you cherish every page, willing them to last forever, and this is one of them. This one hasn’t changed my perspective on the world, challenged what I think I know or feel, even got under my skin. Nor is it what Widget, towards the end of the novel, describes as “a tale that takes up residence in someone’s soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose”. Rather, the book, much like the night circus for which it is named, is a captivating escape from all that’s dreary in the real world – a place to experience joy, sadness and love. A place of “wonder and comfort and mystery all together”. An illusion, if you like, beneath which there’s nothing very substantial but which, nonetheless, is hugely enjoyable.

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ALIVE: BOOK ONE OF THE GENERATIONS TRILOGY by Scott Sigler

alive by scott sigler

This book opens quite promisingly, with teenagers waking on their 12th birthdays trapped in what they think are coffins. On breaking free they realise they are actually much older than they thought and recall very little about their lives to date. It goes downhill from there. The teenagers, led by Em, explore their surroundings and find lots of empty rooms full of skulls, bodies in various states of decomposition, other coffins, marble pedestals and crumbling pillars. After what seems an interminably long time they find some other teenagers, join forces with them and then find a room that’s home to a garden, some pigs (and some obvious attempts to channel LORD OF THE FLIES) and some fruit trees. Here they get the chance to drink and eat before doing some more exploring, which brings them face to face with what they think are monsters but are actually incredibly old people. They find out they are on a space ship (not trapped in a vast pyramid as it seemed to me), a thousand years worth of travel away from earth and headed for life on a new planet. The teens also learn that they are replicas of the very old people, their bodies and minds destined to be taken over when the time is right.

Some relatively interesting considerations about memory, human survival instinct, gender differences and similarities, our inherent squeamishness about death, religion, and the nature of leadership and power, don’t quite distract from the fact ALIVE is a little like the environment into which the Birthday children, as they dub themselves, are born: confusing, limiting and repetitive. “I don’t need memories to know right from wrong”, says Em at one point. Well, I don’t need my memories of much better other books of this genre to know I am unlikely to bother with books 2 and 3 of the trilogy.

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EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU by Celeste Ng

everything i never told you by celeste ng

The Lee family is in free fall when favourite daughter, Lydia, goes missing from a small town in 1970s America. She has long been the focus of both her parent’s unfulfilled dreams. Mother, Marilyn, is desperate for Lydia to become a doctor and compensate for her own own career plans being thwarted by falling pregnant with Lydia’s elder brother, Nath. Father, James, wants her to fit in, be popular, go to prom, because, as the son of Chinese immigrants who cooked in the school kitchen and tended the school grounds, he has spent his life desperate not to be different, to be accepted. Lydia has successfully carried the combined weight of their expectations thanks in large part to support from Nath but, as he prepares to leave home for a new life at Harvard, she is now terrified of being crushed by her parent’s hopes. She finds a temporary outlet in neighbourhood bad boy, Jack, but, as the family’s youngest member, Hannah, observes in her own quietly perceptive way, that’s not as straightforward as it seems.

Ng’s narrative moves smoothly between past and present, resulting in a well paced story that reveals itself, and new angles, very deliberately. As the family disintegrates, we learn what has bound them together in the past and in particular about the overt racism that has shaped their lives. It’s about the only thing that is overt in their emotional landscape.The Lee family are masters of the unsaid, at locking things away and at self control. We know we are witnessing a family in acute crisis and yet most of the emotion is beneath the surface, between the lines, erupting in the form of sneaker imprints on the ceiling and hair clips burrowed away in pockets. EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU, it soon becomes apparent, refers not only to Lydia’s secrets, but also to the things unsaid between siblings and between Marilyn and James.

The book is marketed as a literary thriller but I don’t think it quite fits the bill – or at least not compared to what I expect from that type of writing. It’s been Amazon’s Book of the Year and also favourably compared to THE LOVELY BONES (which I’ve read but not reviewed here). Despite some strong similarities, as far as emotional impact and pure gut wrenching fear are concerned I don’t think it’s a patch on Alice Sebold’s debut. Whilst Ng is resolutely true to the struggles of the characters she has created, to her vision of the destructive nature of non-communication, and to the burden of making and overcoming history,  something real and raw gets lost in all the layers. As a result,  I really only got an intellectual sense of the despair and guilt that accompanies a child going missing. Rather, my overwhelming emotion on completing the novel is anger at the Lee parents; for the pressure they place on Lydia, for the things they’ve left unsaid, and for the way they neglect Nath and Hannah.

EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU is an acutely detailed anatomy of private breakdown – and Ng’s writing captures many of these details with wonderful understatement – but, ultimately, like Lydia, it suffers from being the subject of unrealistic expectations. Unlike her, it can be redeemed if you approach with that knowledge.

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WE WERE LIARS by E.Lockhart

we were liars by e lockhart

A sad, sweet, slightly quirky portrait of the wealthy Sinclair family, where illness, failure and weakness are prohibited and “the accumulation of beautiful objects is a life goal. Whoever dies with the most stuff wins.” The Liars of the title are our narrator, Cadence; Mirren, who is sugar, curiosity and rain; Jonny who is bounce, effort and snark. The first born children of three sisters, they spend every summer on the family island just off Martha’s Vineyard, sailing, eating shrimp, playing tennis and swimming. The Liars are required to attend family meals, brag about their achievements and generally live up to their grandparents expectations. The Liars look down on their siblings, the Youngs, don’t know the name of the hired help, love the family dogs, the Goldens, and are self obsessed observers of their mothers’ drinking, arguing and inconsistencies.

Cadence is head over heels in love with Gat Patil, who is contemplation, enthusiasm, ambition and strong coffee. He is also son of one of the aunt’s new boyfriend, whose presence on the island is barely tolerated by the older generations of the family, symbolising, as he does, the truth that is divorce and the difference that is having Indian parents. His step mother’s previous failed marriage does not fit either with the Sinclair’s external projection of perfection, nor with their internal, delusional, narrative. Gat makes the Liars four, but he’s never quite one of the them, always an outsider –  he doesn’t get that they are not supposed to mention it when the family matriarch, Tipper, dies, for example, and keeps sharing memories of her. This is how he challenges the other Liars, opens their eyes to some of the family’s hypocrisy, the decay and secrets behind the gild.

One secret remains hidden though: what happened to Cadence during summer fifteen to make her wash up on the shore, dressed only in her underwear and with no memory of how she got there?

Two summers later, plagued by migraines and addicted to her medication, Cadence is back on the island and desperately wants to remember. The other Liars are doing their best to help, but have been warned she needs to find out in her own time, otherwise the shock might be too great. Damaged, confused and confined to her bed for days by old crones and scavenger birds pecking at her skull, Cadence is exhorted by her mother to “Be normal now. Right now. Because you are. Because you can be.”

Seeing that a much loved maple tree, where she and the other Liars used to swing from a tyre, has gone from the island, overwhelms Cadence with sadness; “We never told the tree how much we loved it. We never gave it a name, never did anything for it. It could have lived so much longer”. She writes down what people will tell her about summer fifteen and uses the notes to paper her bedroom wall. She weaves fairy tales in which three daughters of a tyrant king variously escape to pursue true love or are doomed to remain locked up in a castle forever. And she tells us about her project to give something of her own away each day, an innocent bid to be different from the three daughters who “had the best educations, a thousands chances, a thousand connections, and still they ended up unable to support themselves”.

Then Cadence finds out what happened – and all becomes clearer, cleaner and more open, like the new house her Grandfather has built on the island: “He’s erased his old life by spending money on a replacement one.” Grief, guilt and ghosts deliver an earth shattering revelation for Cadence and for the reader too. I literally gasped. The novel is transformed from that moment onwards into something more poignant, tragic and, ultimately, life affirming. This is a ticking time bomb of a book that’s special shaped stones, hide and seek and shattered lemonade bottles.

 

 

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A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS by Khaled Hosseini

a thousand splendid suns by khaled hosseini

In the reading notes that accompany my edition of this book, Hosseini writes: “I couldn’t think of a more riveting or important or compelling story than the struggle of women in my country. Dramatically speaking, every other topic paled in comparison.” Having read A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS I am minded to agree. Hosseini has created a novel that’s remarkable both for its powerful narrative and for the the light it shines on the role of women through a 30 year period in Afghanistan. He has also woven a story the reading of which unraveled and reduced me to tears. Repeatedly.

The two women at the heart of the book are Mariam and Laila. The former is the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy cinema owner from Herat, who lives for weekly visits from her father and is taught by her bitter, impoverished and epileptic mother that a woman’s lot in life is to endure. At 15 Mariam is  forced into marriage with Rasheed, a business man 3 times her age, and moves to Kabul. At first Rasheed treats her relatively well, but when she fails to get pregnant his kindness turns to cruelty – both emotional and physical.

Laila lives on the same Kabul street as Mariam. Raised by liberal parents who believe in education as empowerment, as a young girl Laila freely walks the streets of the city with her girlfriends with her neighbour’s son, Tariq. Laila first sighting of Mariam is when she sees Rasheed with his burqua clad wife in tow but, unlike the reader, she doesn’t yet know much about the women behind the veil. That soon changes as the turmoil of Afghanistan’s history forces Laila and Mariam together and to form a binding, relationship that helps them survive the violence and brutality that surrounds them.

Hosseini pays great attention to the political and domestic forces that provide the backdrop to Mariam and Laila’s story. We experience the world through Mariam’s eyes as she dons a burqua for the first time, sharing her discomfort at the “suffocating way the pleated cloth kept pressing against her mouth”, her reliance on senses other than sight and appreciating the invisibility it gives her, as a one way window onto the world, “no longer worried that people knew, with a single glance, all the shameful secrets of her past.” When the Russians leave Afghanistan, the war lords fight over Kabul and the Taliban take power, we get a history lesson, as well as finding out what it means for the people caught up in the changes. The novel doesn’t necessarily dispel perceptions about Afghanistan but it does flesh them out, give them context and, particularly interesting, explore the different freedoms enjoyed by women in Kabul as compared to the rest of the country under the Russians.

Survival and resilience are key themes, individually and as a society, with rules and the breaking them a parallel feature. One of the most memorable parts of the book is when Laila needs a Cesarean to deliver her son but is turned away by the majority of hospitals, which have been ordered by the Taliban to only treat men. At the one women’s hospital there is mayhem, power outages, no medication and Laila’s C-section is performed without anesthetic. A nurse checks the corridor every few moments in case there’s a hospital inspection and the woman surgeon is caught defying an order to operate in her full burqua.

This kind of detail brings the story to life and is the perfect counterbalance to a hurtling narrative that’s sometimes overwhelming for the scale and frequency of the tragedies that befall Laila and Mariam. Hosseini doesn’t just give us a story about women, he gives us a tribute to the love between women, the sacrifices they make for one another and the enduring nature of friendship – the memory of Mariam, he tells us, “shines with the bursting radiance of a thousands suns” in Laila’s heart. I don’t often feel male writers excel at creating interesting, complex female characters but Hosseini tries hard and, for the most part, succeeds. The only thing that lets him down is a lack of depth of emotion – we get immense range but no real breakdown of Laila or Mariam’s despair or joy. We are told what they are going through, see, smell and hear it in glorious technicolour, but never quite feel it with the intensity deserved.

This is doubly disappointing because, whilst A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS might be fiction, the lives and losses the two women suffer are all too real facts for the women of Afghanistan.  Thankfully, this weakness doesn’t detract too much from the tribute to their struggle Hosseini set out to write. Nor do the slightly contrived concluding chapters , which with the benefit of several years distance feel naive and simplistic too. Hosseini has an almost a palpable desire for a more hopeful and positive ongoing story for his homeland. Sadly, as this remarkable and moving testimony to the individual lives behind a troubled history amply demonstrates, when politics and religion join forces, happy endings are rare.

 

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THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins

the girl on the train by paula hawkins

Rachel is an alcoholic – unhappy, not especially likeable, needy and alone. She takes the same train to London each day and day dreams about the people she sees from the window, about their perfect lives, their loving relationships. These day dreams provide a contrast to her own life, the happiness she has lost and the loving relationship she had with Tom, stolen from her by Anna. Tom and Anna have the child, Rachel desperately wanted but couldn’t conceive. They live together in her old house, sleep in the bed where Rachel and Tom used to sleep. They live on the same road as the couple Rachel has named Jess and Jason, and whose perfect lives she glimpses from the train.

One day Rachel sees Jess, who turns out to be called Megan, kissing someone other than Jason, or Matt as he is really called. Then she reads in the newspapers that Megan has gone missing. Convinced she can help, Rachel goes to the police. So begins her involvement in their not so perfect lives and the slow realisation that she may know more than she realises about Megan’s disappearance.

This is a clever novel that relentlessly plays with the reader by way of a series of unreliable narrators; the wife who doesn’t want to see the truth, the alcoholic prone to black outs, the damaged serial adulteress.  Throw in an ex tested to extremes by the drunken stalker like tendencies of his former wife and a husband driven mad by suspicion and grief into the mix, and you never quite know where you are. Clever too in that it plays with identities to great effect. What we glimpse of other people’s lives from the distance of the metaphorical train carriage is rarely the whole story and this is demonstrated by the way our understanding of each character constantly shifts and evolves, based on what we know – or think we know.

There are obvious parallels with GONE GIRL, though in Rachel we have a far more credible lead, as well as someone subconsciously duping herself rather than deliberately manipulating others. That makes for a far more satisfying conclusion and, at the same time, packs a huge emotional and narrative punch. A brave and emotionally literate page turner, I can see the film credits rolling already.

 

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THE GOOD GIRL by Fiona Neill

the good girl by fiona neill

This book really spoke to me. Not just because of the subject matter – a family torn apart when their teenage daughter makes a sex video for her boyfriend, which ends up going viral online – but because Neill really seems to understand, like and respect teenagers, their thought processes and their decision making.

The teenage daughter in question here is Romy, the reliable middle child who has, to date, given her parents no cause for concern. But when the family leave London for Norfolk and she falls for their new neighbour’s son, Romy suddenly finds herself at the centre of a crisis affecting everyone she loves. Things are especially tough for her mother, Ailsa, a headteacher who must deal very publicly with what her daughter has done and what’s been done to her. Inevitably,  there’s a whole load of backstory, secrets, unresolved tensions and messy relationships brought to the fore by events and which hugely effect how the family respond to and support Romy. Many of these felt a little superfluous but they do contribute nicely to the running theme about which bits of ourselves we choose to share with the world and which we keep to ourselves.

Issues of teenage sexuality, privacy in an internet age, the tightrope parents must walk and their status as role models all crop up. Neill also tackles head on the  eternal question of whether it’s better to know secrets or let them lie. Romy’s dad is a neuro-scientist and we are treated to numerous explanations of how teenage brains are different, less able to delay gratification and more likely to succumb to addiction, and yet, interestingly, it’s the adults in the book who are generally far more likely to display these traits. They are also less well developed as characters overall, to the extent they lapse into caricatures at times or, especially in the case of Ailsa, act entirely inconsistently . The teenagers, on the other hand, are far more credible, thoughtful and emotionally mature by contrast. Neill has invested a lot in them and, as a result, they easily carry the story.

THE GOOD GIRL seems a bit of a departure from this writer’s previous novels and I don’t think I’ll be hunting the others down –  one’s called THE SECRET LIFE OF A SLUMMY MUMMY – but it definitely fulfills my criteria for a good summer holiday read: not too intellectually demanding but engaging enough that it stops you falling asleep on the sun lounger.

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