Monthly Archives: January 2017

THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE by Neil Gaiman

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I was in Brighton last week and unexpectedly given a copy of this book by someone who had come across my blog and was amazed that I’d made it to this point in my life without reading any Neil Gaiman. I didn’t have time to explain that this blog only covers the books I’ve read since turning 40, especially as he was correct – there has been a Neil Gaiman shaped hole in my life until now. He comes highly recommended and not just by my friend. Of THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANE, Joanne Harris declares “Some books you read. Some books you enjoy. But some books just swallow you up, heart and soul” and the novel won Book of the Year at the National Book Awards in 2013. So what’s all the fuss about?

A fairy take of the dark and dangerous kind, rather than the saccharine reinvention of the genre, Gaiman’s book captures the powerlessness, fear, beauty and trust of childhood. At it’s centre is an unhappy, lonely boy (nobody came to his 7th birthday party), whose name we never learn and who lives in the Sussex countryside next door to the remarkable Hempstock family, consisting of 3 generations of women. Lettie Hempstock, a few years older than him, offers to help out when an opal miner, who was lodging with the boy’s family, ends up dead, his kitten disappears and he has nightmare about a coin getting stuck in his throat that turns out to be real. Lettie explains these odd things are happening because a supernatural being has found its way into the world. But when the pair try to find the spirit and bind it, another force sneaks through the tear between two worlds via a worm hole that lodges itself in the narrator’s foot.

Enter Ursula Monkton, who takes up residence in the boy’s home as the new housekeeper. She seduces his father, deceives his mother and indulges his sister. It’s only our narrator who sees Ursula for the evil, destructive being she really is. Alienated from his family and locked in the attic by a vengeful Ursula, the boy flees to his neighbour’s one night, escaping via a window and down a drain pipe, surely what many a child dreams of doing though few wish for the horrors that require it. The Hempstocks come to the rescue and it involves some powerful magic. They remove the fragment of Ursula’s escape route that’s buried in his foot, confront Ursula and, when she refuses to leave voluntarily, call on “hunger birds” to devour her. These scavengers are ruthlessly efficient and once they’ve seen off Ursula, they turn their attention to the tiny bit of her that lives on in the boy’s heart, and will not return to their world unless they can fully complete their task. The Hempstocks try to keep him safe but the birds are angry at being thwarted and  start to destroy the surrounding world instead, devouring trees, sky and, our narrator fears, his own family and everything else besides. Unable to bear the weight of such responsibility, he runs out from the safety of the Hempstock’s farmhouse to offer himself up, but Lettie is on his heels and as the birds swoop in, she tries to protect him. Lettie’s grandmother finally sees the birds off but not before her granddaughter is badly hurt.

Gaiman’s story starts and ends in the present when our narrator is a grown man who occasionally visits his childhood home. When he’s there he recalls what happened to him as a boy, but those memories don’t get carried into his future, and nor does he tend to remember that he’s made previous visits. On each occasion he sees the Hempstock family, who feed him the wonderful meals that nourished him as a child, let him gaze upon the two moons that appear on different sides of their house, and reassure him that Lettie is safe and well, travelling in Australia. They also let him sit by the ocean at the end of the lane, which may only look like a small pond but which contains universe upon universe and whose waters contain knowledge about the nature of everything.

This is a beautifully written book in which the monsters and horrors of magical realism are nothing like as frightening as those the boy encounters in the real world. I was especially struck by how he tackles the idea that damage done to our hearts as children translates into emptiness and loneliness when we reach adulthood; by how big everything is, and how small we are in comparison, doesn’t have to be frightening and can be quite comforting; and by how a childhood where you realise adults are not invincible can feel like the most terrifying place on earth. Mythical, poignant and utterly convincing, Gaiman’s tale did indeed swallow me up.

 

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CRASH LAND by Doug Johnstone

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There’s been a BBC series I enjoyed recently called Shetland and this book’s only saving grace was that I could picture events happening in the beautiful location I’d seen on the TV (and that was stretching it a bit to be honest, as the book is set in Orkney but you get the idea…)

Finn is an art student that gets chatting to a glamorous older woman as they both wait for the delayed last flight off the island before Christmas. He’s been visiting his grandmother and is headed home to Dundee and his girlfriend, Amy. The temptress at the airport is called Maddie and, as their half empty flight eventually takes off, she’s being hassled by one of the other passengers, an oil worker. Finn goes her to defence, starts a fight, and it all ends in the plane crashing. Maddie walks away unharmed and disappears, only to later make contact with a badly injured, deeply ashamed Finn, who is tormented by the loss of life he has caused. Turns out Maddie has a big bag full of bank notes and an abusive husband. The husband later turns up dead. Despite his instincts telling him to stay well clear, Finn is besotted by Maddie and helps her escape the island, embroiling his grandmother and girlfriend in the increasingly messy events surrounding the crash.

The opening premise of CRASH LAND seemed like a good one but things went rapidly downhill from thereon in, and most of the time I was mentally berating most of the characters in the book for their stupid decisions. The scenes in which Finn consults the skulls at the island’s Tomb of the Eagles are more comedic than atmospheric, and whilst I did keep turning the pages, it was more out of incredulity than anything else. Utterly ridiculous, unconvincing and infuriating.

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THE GIRLS by Emma Cline

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sleek and thoughtless as sharks breaching the water

Evie is haunted by her past. A past in which she spent one summer at a free love commune, in thrall to the dangerously charismatic and delusional Russell Hadrick and, perhaps even more so, to the girls that hung around him. The summer ended in mass murder.

Unhappy and bored as she waits out the weeks before being dispatched to boarding school, Evie lives with her mother, cringing at the recent divorcee’s efforts to find herself, a new boyfriend, and her inner thinner more beautiful being. Best friend Connie and even her older brother are an increasingly ineffective distraction, so when Evie encounters the long haired, sullen, provocative Suzanne, stealing toilet roll from the store, she is immediately smitten by the prospect of breaking out of her dull existence.

Suzanne invites Evie to the ranch that’s home to Russell and hangers on, and it’s not long before she has her first sexual encounter with him. But it’s her encounters with the girls that really change and shape Evie and Cline has captured perfectly that time in a teenager’s life when girlfriends are your entire world and everything is viewed through the prism of how they might react. She’s also nailed the underlying cultural norms that contribute to such behaviour, along with the vulnerability, desperation and poor self esteem that makes some young girls so at risk of exploitation and abuse.

At one point Evie reflects: “I waited to be told what was good about me” and “all that time I had spent readying myself, the articles that taught me life was really just a waiting room until someone noticed you – the boys had spent that time becoming themselves.” Being noticed is a recurring theme for Evie, unable to hide her longing to be someone else. As an adult, she is hugely sensitive to the young girls she finds campaigning for their own existence, “before finally giving up”. And as a teenager, the only time she seems to notice the absence of absence inside her is when she takes drugs or fills up with hatred for her mother: “it was almost nice, how big it was, how pure and intense”.

No wonder she’s so drawn to Suzanne, the first person to really look at Evie. Whose “face answered all its own questions” and who seems the very opposite of the resignation, being overlooked and being backed into someone else’s corner that Evie assumes is her fate.  Suzanne represents a turning point, with life before “limited and expected, objects and people occupying their temperate orbits” and life afterwards “come into sharp, mysterious relief, revealing a world beyond the known world.” The other girls on the ranch are similarly drawn to Suzanne’s combination of worldliness, affection and challenge. She is a skilled prophet too, proselytizing on Russell’s behalf, delivering his judgments and girls.  When Russell incites murder, it’s Suzanne who makes it all happen, who eggs them on, and it’s Suzanne who, whether deliberately or not, ensures Evie isn’t implicated.

It’s almost impossible to read this book apart from the knowledge of the events that inspired it – the Charles Manson cult and the murder of Sharon Tate and her family. One of the Manson cult’s trademarks was to break into empty houses and disturb them a little, to mess with the occupants’ heads. The girls do the same. But Cline’s sympathy for the fictional girls, who are portrayed  as victims as much as killers, is strongly evident and is what ultimately stops this being a simple retelling of the Manson story. Rather, it’s an attempt to understand how such things can happen – even a warn that they are perhaps not so unlikely once you understand the way girls are made to feel, and the way men feel they are made to behave.

Evie says of her teenage self, “At that age I was, first and foremost, a thing to be judged, and that shifted the power in every interaction onto the other person.” What’s striking about the sections of the book set in the present is that she seems to still be inhabiting that space – as well as projecting it onto others. This is never clearer than in the closing scene, when she’s running on the beach and expects to be confronted, if not attacked, by a man coming towards her. A man who, headphones plugged in and  lost in a world of his own, has in fact not even noticed her. It’s an ending that I found immensely frustrating at the time but seems very fitting now, with some distance. After all, being noticed only matters if you define yourself in relation to others. Or, as Cline puts it, “even at the end, the girls had always been stronger than Russell”.

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LIFE AFTER LIFE by Kate Atkinson

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A Christmas present from the friend who introduced me to Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie series – CASE HISTORIES, ONE GOOD TURN, WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS, and STARTED EARLY TOOK MY DOG. Like that friendship, Atkinson’s books just seem to get better and better and LIFE AFTER LIFE is no exception.

Ursula Todd, born February 11th 1910, lives different versions of her life. In one she falls from a window as a child, in another she lives. In one rendition she succumbs to the Spanish flu brought home by the family’s maid, in another she pushes the maid down the stairs to prevent a trip into London for the end of the First World War celebrations and her coming into contact the with flu. One teenage Ursula is raped by an arrogant American friend of her brother’s named Howie and dies following an abortion. An alternative  survives the abortion but  goes on to marry a mild mannered man who turns out to be a bully that beats her to death. In another life she simply enjoys a delicious innocent kiss with Howie and in a further version again she avoids him completely and instead encounters a neighbour’s son upon whom she is rather sweet. She dies in a Nazi bombing raid on London and on another occasion is part the rescue team pulling bodies out of the same rubble. In some narratives she ends up in Germany, and in some of those is friends with Eva Braun. At times, Ursula seems aware of the points at which her lives diverge, whilst deja vu and thinking one is seeing ghosts take on new meaning in this context. Some versions of herself are clearly less attuned to what’s going on, “We only have one [life] after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.” But in one thread she actively chooses to die and follow a particular path that sees her attempt to stop her treasured younger brother, Teddy, being shot down from his plane with an assassination attempt on Hitler that she hopes will avert the whole Second World War.

Amidst all this change, some things remain constant. The housekeeper Mrs Glover’s piccalilli; the haven that is her childhood home, Fox Corner; being her father Hugh’s favourite child and nicknamed Little Bear; the wallpaper on the stairs, trips to the seaside and, in this very English of novels, the weather. The essence of each characters remains true too, from Ursula’s incorrigible aunt Izzie’s flightiness to her older brother Maurice’s pomposity. History is haphazard, and whilst its remembering is important for the way it shapes our lives, who we are and what we choose to do seems far more interesting and impactful in Atkinson’s hands.

When I first began reading the book, I feared that the groundhog day element of it would prove tedious but nothing could be further from the truth. Whilst details and people recur, the stories are sufficiently different at each telling to captivate anew. And, of course, there’s the humour which Atkinson does so well. Ursula’s mother, Sylvie has the best one liners. From bemoaning the messiness of childbirth and asserting that if she’d been in charge of designing the human race she’d have opted for “a well fitting hatch somewhere modest for escape”, to declaring drily and with wonderful timing “sometimes…one can mistake gratitude for love.” When she attends a Third Reich rally with her daughter, Sylvie has little to say other than that the colours of the flag and banner bedecked street are rather dull “as though she were considering asking the national Socialists to decorate her living room.” Somehow this lightness helps ground what could be the rather fanciful notion at the heart of the novel in a reality that is gritty, banal and full of magic.  Atkinson’s ability to capture time and place like few others writers plays a similar role – from velvet hair ribbons to the smell of boiled cabbage, each detail is perfectly chosen to ground her novel and make it sing.

Funny, sad, unusual, startling and as comfortable as a well worn pair of pjyamas this is the kind of writing, story telling and characterisation that I love, especially on a cold winter night, curled up on the sofa. Roll on the sequel,…A GOD IN RUINS.

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A MONSTER CALLS by Patrick Ness

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“Stories are wild creatures. When you let them lose, who knows what havoc they might wreak?”

I was expecting to weep bucket loads at this but managed to get almost to the end before shedding a tear. The very premise of the book is sad and painful though and when I did cry, I really cried. Conor is 12 and his mum has cancer. His life is one long struggle with school bullies, overly sympathetic teachers, a stressed grandmother and a regularly occurring nightmare. One night at 12.07 the yew tree he can see from his bedroom window comes alive as a monster. It tells him three stories with unexpected endings and then demands that Conor reciprocates with the story of what happens in his nightmare.

The monster’s stories are designed to illustrate that we all have good and bad within us and that it’s our actions that count in the grander scheme of things, not what we think. They reveal the contradictions that make up most of us, the power of being honest with ourselves yet how difficult it can be to tell the truth. Simple fairy tales on one level, they go far beyond your standard moral fables, and Conor’s angry and physical responses to the monster’s words do nothing to detract from the sense that multiple and complex interpretations are possible, each one depending on our unique experiences, feelings from moment to moment and openness to different ideas or meanings. The layers of understanding and sensitivity woven through each page make this  a wonderful book for children and adults alike, whether dealing with loss, grief and guilt or not.

What I didn’t know until reading A MONSTER CALLS is that the idea originally came from another writer, Siobhan Dowd, who died of terminal cancer before she could finish writing the story. By all accounts, Ness has done her great justice and I very much hope the film adaptation retains the simplicity and clarity that allows the book to make such a profound impact.

NB The Kindle version I read isn’t illustrated and I’d really recommend reading a hard copy.

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