Thursday, 24 January 2013

The Lighthouse

This is a brilliantly strange little book. What starts off as a seemingly ordinary story of a recently-separated, middle aged man going on a walking holiday gradually becomes an unsettling, ominous tale which slowly and subtly grips you.

The pace is initially ambling, as one could expect of a walking holiday. However, you soon begin to realise that all is not as it seems. Our main character Futh's first encounter on his holiday is Carl, a fellow traveller; Futh offers him a lift to his mother's house. "Do you ever get a bad feeling about something? A bad feeling about something that's going to happen?", Carl asks, sowing the seeds of discomfort in the reader's mind. This sense of unease pervades in both Futh and Ester's (a hotel landlady and fellow main character) segments, and increases to a gripping level in the final, dark chapters. Ester's dangerous dalliances with her husband in close quarters feel even more dicey as you learn their history and the kind of man Bernard is. As her story unfurls, Ester emerges as a troubled risk-seeker, craving love and attention. Similarly, as we get to know Futh, an individual deeply damaged by his mother leaving him emerges.

Although not much actually happens, I loved how this book played out. The main characters are lonely, lost souls and I empathised as they looked back on their lives. Futh's reoccurring reflection on the moment of his parents' marital collapse brilliantly captured how this has haunted him throughout his life. His relationship with his wife, meanwhile, was both sinister (she shares a name with Futh's mother, and frequently needs to remind him, "I'm not your mother") and sad. Alison Moore fleshed out his character through using details which made sense while we are in Futh's head, but make him look odd to anyone on the outside (spilling food and blood on himself, retiring to bed early on in his wedding reception, hitchhiking rather than learning to drive...). This was subtle, and I loved it.

Overall, I warmed more to Futh's character than Ester; Futh is portrayed as pathetic, ill-adjusted and forgettable among those who meet him (including Ester, as their paths only briefly cross). However, he's fundamentally well-meaning, simply weighed down by the baggage of his childhood. I wanted things to work out for him. Ester's story circles around revenge, which sets the reader's mind racing at the unresolved ending to this tale.

Alison Moore's novel is one of the most perfectly planned I've had the pleasure of reading. Every motif has its place and serves to link the disparate elements of the book together. I've seen The Lighthouse described as a story of smells. Futh works as a creator of synthetic scents, whilst Ester dreamt of being a perfumier; the eponymous lighthouse (or, at least, one of them) is an empty perfume bottle. Odours of violets, oranges, coffee and camphor reoccur regularly, linking Futh and Ester's memories together and into the present. As our senses play a powerful part in memory, I thought the frequent fragrance references fitted nicely.

As you can tell from the length of this review, there's a lot packed into The Lighthouse's limited pages. I was captivated, but I'm definitely going to have to reread as I'm certain I missed parts. Although you do need to concentrate to not miss subtle moments, Moore's words drew me into the mind of her characters; I was alongside the Rhine with Futh, right down to feeling the blistered feet and burning skin. So, for the reason that it lifted me away from the humdrum and into a different place, I'd definitely recommend this as a rush hour read.

(Image taken from Available in paperback. Kindle edition -

Saturday, 19 January 2013

The Fault in Our Stars

You know this is a story which won't have a happy ending. No tale where the main characters meet at a cancer support group is likely to be. Yet this did not stop The Fault in Our Stars being a brilliant, if emotionally battering, read.

Hazel, our chief character, is one of those teenagers you only really see in books and films (the sort my shy, bookish adolescent self longed to be). Smart, well-read and worldly, she has been living with terminal cancer since she was 13. A drug trial has proven somewhat miraculous and has extended her years; however, she will never get better and she lives with the realities of oxygen tanks, isolation from her schoolfriends and regular emergency dashes to hospital. Part of her world is attendance at a cancer support group and it is here she meets the handsome, equally smart and worldly cancer survivor Augustus Waters.

Augustus is also one of those books-and-films teenagers, a dashing, youthful, sporty prince. As a character, he is irresistible and you cannot help fall for him alongside Hazel. Although you know fate is against them, I was rooting for Hazel and Gus, hoping that she had not seen her last miracle. This was not only for the sake of our chief protagonists but also for their parents, who are strong supporting characters. In their support and suffering, the parents add a vital emotional element beyond the central plot of Hazel and Gus. Metaphors of violent destruction and war are used to bring home the impact of the loss of a child, with Otto Frank also serving as a timely reminder at a crucial turning point.

John Green's characters were perfect; although not self-pitying, they still felt and acknowledged their pain. There are no martyrs, but strong characters who have human limits. Humour carries this story and for the first half I was amused and moved as Hazel and Gus' relationship blossomed. John Green's attention to the little details rather than the big gestures made their romance true and at times made it easy for me to forget the big dark cloud that hangs over them. Alas, eventually said big dark cloud catches up with our young lovers, and despite knowing it was their particular destiny, it still hit me hard. I would advise any reader to ensure they don't make the same mistake I did - do not read the latter half of this novel without a tissue nearby!

Although the conclusion brought countless tears to my eyes, I loved this book for its lack of melodrama despite the subject matter. Again, Green's focus on the little details of death and dying moved me rather than big, sentimental moments. A truly expert touch from a great writer.

So is this a good rush hour read? It is a very well written novel and I truly lost myself in the world of Hazel and Augustus. Since starting the first few pages I've been raving to anyone who'll listen about how much I've enjoyed it. However, it did cause me a few awkward public transport moments. These included needing to immediately stop reading, look to the sky and repeat the mantra "it's just a story, it's not real" over and over in my head to prevent full on sobbing on the Tube. So, if you don't mind the occasional strange look from your fellow commuters, I would arm yourself with some Kleenex and absorb yourself in this brilliant book.

(Image taken from,,9780141345659,00.html# - available in paperback, hardback or Kindle edition from

Sunday, 13 January 2013

The Radleys

The Radleys is set in a sleepy Yorkshire village where, on the surface, nothing much really happens. However, behind the cosy world of dinner parties, book clubs and Radio 4 the Radleys are masking a secret from not only their neighbours, but their children too; they are abstaining vampires. The family do their best to maintain the facade of middle class normality, denying their instincts for blood in the meantime, until daughter Clara is attacked and their web of secrets begins to unravel.

This should be a fun read, I thought, and an interesting concept. I have generally shied away from vampire books, but Matt Haig's spin on a saturated genre intrigued me. What I soon realised was that to categorise this book early on would be a mistake. This is not a simple satire on middle class suburban life with a bit of vampirism thrown in for a twist. Yes, the story may focus around themes of repression and conformity, but it was also a whole lot more. Clara's attack was a brilliantly shocking scene, instantly shifting this story from satire to horror. The latter half of this novel also had shades of a great thriller, and a real departure from the attempts at everyday family life the early part focused on.

The world Matt Haig created was plausible and the episodic style of narration really helped add the details which made the tale so believable. Children Clara and Rowan's teenage angst and the marital woes of their parents make this story a great generational crossover, as the family struggle to fit into a lifestyle where even the hours they need to be awake present a fundamental challenge. Haig is also brilliant at adding moral shades of grey, portraying vampires as victims of blood addiction, questioning how they can reconcile who they truly are with what they want to be.

Finally, the villain. Uncle Will Radley was a compelling character, his amorality providing a brilliantly alternative perspective to his brother's struggle to deny his instincts and fit in with social norms. I loved his evolution throughout the tale, as family secrets unfurl and the Radleys are forced to choose how to live with what they are and what they have done.

One warning I'd give is admittedly rather silly, given it's about vampires; it is a little gory in parts. As someone who can't watch blood on TV without having to dive behind a cushion until I'm sure it's safe to emerge, I did find myself feeling slightly queasy in some of the more blood-heavy scenes. So if you are squeamish and take this on your journey to work, you may not make friends among your fellow commuters by being that person who takes ill in the carriage and holds up the service. For those with slightly less pathetic tendencies than I, I would definitely recommend this as an interesting, well-flowing read which is more than it seems. Its short, punchy chapters filled with fun, fear and family feuds will see your commute whizz by (and maybe tie your scarf extra tight around your unblood neck - just in case...)

(Image taken from

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Genie and Paul

If I had to liken this novel to anything it would be a snowball in motion. The story starts rolling on a seemingly gentle slope with two episodes; in the aftermath of a cyclone a young boy's new friend washes up on a distant shore. Six weeks prior, Genie awakes in a London hospital, abandoned by her brother. Natasha Soobramanien then slowly increases the incline as the tale of the titular siblings unfurls to its dramatic conclusion.

This is a unique book, and one I quickly came to love. In a loose reworking of Bernardin de Saint Pierre's Paul et Virginie, Genie and Paul are siblings struggling to reconcile love, identity and family against their shared, but different, backgrounds.

Soobramanien is a fantastic talent and I loved the simplicity of both her prose and the messages at the heart of this book. Genie's unconditional love for her brother sees her travelling across continents, forgiving him beyond expectations. Meanwhile, Paul seeks out the land of his childhood memories, a land that has changed to the point of no longer existing outside Paul's recollection, and sets off on a doom-riddled road to fulfil his quest. Along the way we meet a range of characters who provide their perspectives in short chapters that almost felt like police evidence statements. This worked brilliantly in moving on the story, particularly in Genie's sections, as I felt like I was gathering the clues with her and finding out the story as she did.

Although this book straddles locations (Mauritius, Rodrigues and London), familiarity with any of these places is not necessary to enjoy this book. Themes of family and identity, of love and loss, are unquestionably universal and Soobramanien is masterful in creating a raw tale which not only made me think but saw me scrabbling back through my Kindle to re-read and re-capture the best bits. The prologue is definitely worth a read after the final page as your impression will completely change.

Initially I was unsure how this would be as a Tube read. Being greeted with dense text on opening a book usually means difficulty in the necessary dipping in and out commuting demands. I'm glad I was proven wrong. Easy to read with beautiful turns of phrase, I know this book will stay with me for some time.

(Image taken from

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Tigers in Red Weather

Wow. I didn't expect that when I started reading this book!

Told through five diverse voices, Klaussmann peels away layers to reveal the aftermath of a terrible incident which slowly destroys a family. Although the first few pages suggest this is a classic tale of moneyed cousins from the East Coast, oozing gin, glamour and post war optimism, Klaussmann shifts the focus in the latter part to produce a pacy read which surprises and entertains in its closing pages.

The opening chapters set the scene gloriously. Cousins Nick and Helena's relationship is close, although hints are made at their eventual drift. I felt myself longing for more with Nick's section; her charisma is evident throughout and I felt she needed more than a Revolutionary Road-style American Dream critique. Still, this story laid the path for intrigue that followed; hints at Helena's marital issues, evidence of Hughes' less than perfect past - I was definitely lusting for more. It's a shame Helena's rogue husband Avery did not play a greater role, although on balance his strength is in both his absence and his presence through the damage seen in his wife and son.

The final two character studies were particular stand outs for me. The stories of handsome husband Hughes and sinister son Ed really force the pace of the novel; the latter in particular drew gasps from me. Although elements are slightly predictable, the conclusion had me gripped; I'd recommend saving the final few pages for when you're curled up on the sofa rather than risk being interrupted by your stop on the way home from work.

Although this novel was slightly disjointed, Klaussmann created an irresistible world of sticky East Coast summers, endless martinis, lust and glamour, with Ella Fitzgerald's voice calling through the breeze. The book is very dialogue-led which makes for quick progress; in wintry, gloomy January, this tale was a great tonic which surprised. A definite recommendation for the "to read" list.

(Image taken from