Tuesday, 26 March 2013

The Shock of the Fall

Sometimes it's hard to truly capture how you feel a book. For me this applies to The Shock of the Fall, and I hope I do it justice. So here goes...

I'd heard great things about this title, so was excited to download it from NetGalley ahead of the UK publication date. I wouldn't quite call this a story; more a portrait of a very vulnerable young man. Following the childhood death of his brother, The Shock of the Fall is in parts the coming of age tale of Matthew, a teenage schizophrenic, but mainly a chronicle of his descent into mental illness.

Nathan Filer's style is no holds barred but also full of charm. Matt is charismatic and Filer's style is a masterful combination of coherent and chaotic. The latter captures Matt's desperate state of mind as he recounts his thoughts via the computer in his day centre, or at his typewriter in his lonely flat. The former is cleverly achieved to weave the tale of Matt's background into the narrative of someone battling mental illness.

This is very much a character-led piece. The reader inhabits Matt's world, seeing what he sees, including the schizophrenic visions of his deceased brother. Filer's approach is subtle and his experience in mental health nursing shines through to create a heart-renderingly beautiful portrait of an unwell mind. The scenes in which Simon, his brother, keeps appearing were particularly well done and moving. During Matt's 18th birthday, he describes how "everyone broke out in a loud chorus of Happy Birthday. Simon joined in too. He was in the flames. Of course he was in the flames. A nurse quickly grabbed hold of my wrist, leading me quickly to the cold tap. I had no idea what I had done, only that I had been trying to hold him".

In a society where mental illness remains something of a taboo and too often hysterical in its portrayal, Filer has provided a strong and sympathetic voice in Matthew. He creates sympathy and pathos for what he sees and feels, as his treatment makes him lose his brother all over again. You want nothing more than for him to get better, but this is a realistic portrayal of an illness that won't be simply cured.

So would The Shock of the Fall make a good rush hour read? I found it a very compelling book and a very honest account of grief, loss and mental illness. Its themes are more heavy ones, but despite this it's highly readable and impressive. In my view this is a brilliantly different and important piece of writing and a real privilege to read. It shows strong promise as a debut and I can't wait for more from this author!

(Released on the 23rd May 2013. Available for pre-order via Harper Collins or Amazon)

Monday, 18 March 2013

The Dinner

I shall have to tread carefully with this one, as one false word and I'll spoil everything...

Two brothers and their wives meet for dinner in a fancy restaurant in Amsterdam. The air is thick with history and old resentments as they greet and exchange pleasantries, putting off the real reason why they are there; they need to discuss their troubled children.

I love an unreliable narrator, and Paul is as unreliable as they come. What seems to be simple fraternal irritation at his brother Serge's mannerisms and the persona he's adopted to enhance his political career soon become something deeper, darker. At first you chuckle along as he grows irritated with the niggly details of fine dining and the related pretensions. However, as the story progresses, there is clearly more to Paul's pedantry than meets the eye.

Paul's descriptions of his oafish brother and his faux sophistication, his weariness with pretentious waiters and  his sharp observations as his thoughts meander made this book almost comedic in its first half. Indeed, for me it had Dutch echoes of Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon's tour of Northern eateries in The Trip. Then, slowly and subtly, the observations and Paul's recounted reactions adopt a darker turn, less everyday, and you start to question just how much you do relate to Paul after all...

I found this a brilliantly dark read and a real journey; from one page to the next I had no idea where I would end up. Herman Koch creates a false sense of security throughout, then throws in twist after twist, each one still catching you out every time. This book had me truly gripped and the ending left me genuinely surprised. The one thing you couldn't criticise The Dinner for is being predictable.

There are quite a few loose ends in this story; a lot of the tales told are quite fragmented, as Paul dictates exactly what you as a reader need to know. I'm not sure how I felt about this as a narrative style and it's something I know I'll dwell on later. I would love to have known better the character of Claire, Paul's wife, but she was something of an enigma and my main criticism would be that I never really knew what made her tick. In some ways this is a tale of strong males where females blend into the background. I'm not sure if this is particularly a criticism, however, as this was perhaps more a reflection of the strong narrator and his equally strong resentment for his brother.

So, all in all, I would highly recommend The Dinner as a rush hour read for its subtle twists and subplots, somehow managing to be a slowburner and a rollercoaster all in one. Definitely a fine foray into the world of Dutch literature!

(Available in hardback, paperback, Kindle and audio through Amazon. For more information on this and other great reads, please visit the Atlantic Books website)

Sunday, 10 March 2013

The Death of Bees

"Today is Christmas Eve. Today is my birthday. Today I am fifteen. Today I buried my parents in the backyard. Neither of them were beloved."

And so begins The Death of Bees. This beginning (along with the opening chapters' gruesome detail on the disposal of said parents' bodies) suggested this novel should have been somewhat shocking. Set in a Glasgow council estate, sisters Marnie and Nelly have grown up with addicts; drugs, abuse and alcoholism are part of their norm. Yet, despite these heavy themes, The Death of Bees had me gripped from the beginning.

Told through a series of short chapters, we shift perspectives between Marnie, Nelly and their elderly neighbour Lennie. They are a diverse set of characters; Marnie is tough, streetwise and academically gifted. Her narration is often cold, her hard exterior masking how desperately underloved and abandoned she has been. Nelly is different; a gifted violinist, she talks like something out of a Bette Davis film, and her innocence masks the horror of her life so far.

After trying to cope on their own, the sisters begin to forge a close bond with neighbour Lennie; mourning the loss of his lover, he relishes the opportunity to look after the girls and have company again. He is cultured and shows them a kindness they have never known. However, their arrangement is threatened by the appearance of the sisters' sinister grandfather, desperate to know the whereabouts of his daughter, as well as a local drug dealer owed money by their father, and Lennie's dog's habit of digging up bones from under the lavender bush...

As mentioned earlier, there are so many issues crammed into this novel; addiction, abuse, abandonment, sexuality and underage sex amongst others. Lisa O'Donnell, however, shows real skill in not trivialising the issues, but not allowing the story to become bogged down in them. This is a tale about survival and the importance of love and kindness. As a result, the issues they face are obstacles they overcome, and the outcome is a powerfully uplifting read which serves a slice of (not always comfortable, but always true) real life.

This is a gritty, truly unique read and one I flew through. I was so disappointed whenever my commute ended and I had to put this one away; thank goodness for the weekend when I could finish it in one sitting! This is a fantastic debut and one I cannot rave about enough. Lisa O'Donnell has masterfully created a world of cruelty where kindness wins through. Every character is perfect and form a cast you can't forget. It's a definite must read, and a great addition to any commute.

(Available in paperback and Kindle edition at Amazon)

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Infinite Sky

I've mentioned before I like a bit of a morbid read. The prologue to Infinite Sky promises this with gusto; Iris, our heroine, is at the funeral of a 15-year-old boy. Her devastation is piqued by the question, "is it possible to keep loving somebody when they kill someone you love?". So begins the tale of woe, with echoes of a 21st century Juliet and her Romeo.

This opening is a delicious teaser for the reader, casting a shadow throughout the story as you try and guess who will end up the boy whose "coffin's the same size as a man's would be". Iris will soon be in mourning, but is it for her wayward brother Sam, or her first love, Trick? Readers expectations are set and, in this exciting debut, C.J. Flood quickly guides us into the summer that changed Iris' life forever.

Iris is a country girl, her mother having recently left to find herself in Tunisia. Since she left their house is chaotic (wonderfully symbolised by the choice of Fiasco for the name of their dog); their family is struggling to adjust. It is at this time a group of gypsies move into their paddock. Her father is enraged, predicting trouble and planning to evict them from his land. However, Iris is intrigued by their lifestyle, which parallels with the one her mother has left them for. In particular, she is intrigued by their son Trick, and the two form a close friendship. Iris falls for him, the only person who seems to listen to her apart from her distant mother on the end of a phone line.

Against the backdrop of a beautiful summer, Iris struggles to maintain order as her father fails to retain control of his family. As a result of his guard dropping, Sam goes off with the wrong crowd and becomes increasingly troubled while Iris spends time with Trick. The siblings' separate rebellions come to a crashing and gripping conclusion; although I knew this was coming, I was absorbed and shocked in equal measure.

I really enjoyed Iris' voice as narrator. On the cusp of adulthood, she is struggling to find who she really is (as seen in her realistically tumultuous relationship with shallow best friend Matty). She still views the world with a childlike innocence that allows her to step away from the prejudices of her father and brother. Her naivety prevents the story from becoming a debate about the rights and wrongs of the Traveller lifestyle, nor a caricature. It is a simple, moral tale of the destruction wrought when hatred pervades. Iris and Trick have much in common, but as the worlds into which they are born and the suspicion their families have for each other align, their fate can only lead in one direction.

This is a story where nobody is blameless. Funeral scene aside, it's not overly sentimental; the strength of C.J. Flood's writing is in it's subtlety and simplicity. No comment is needed, no thread is left loose. You sympathise with every character, despite their wrongs. The themes in the tale are as old as time, but Flood's echoes of Montague and Capulet and the end of innocence provide a fantastic read. A powerful, punchy and thought-provoking book, I'd definitely recommend popping this in your handbag to see you through the rush hour.

(Available in hardback, paperback, audio and Kindle edition from Amazon)

Monday, 4 March 2013

Thursdays in the Park

The "women's fiction" genre is not one that tends to be my cup of tea. I usually find the stories too predictable, the happy endings too obvious and the writing style too similar to every other book of its kind that's been produced. However, Thursdays in the Park seemed a little different. For one, it's characters are not twenty/thirtysomethings who live Sex & The City-lite lives. So, when it appeared for 20p on Amazon, I downloaded and thought I'd give it a go.

Jeanie is approaching sixty and in a safe but unsatisfactory marriage, which changed inexplicably one night when George, her husband, physically rejects her and spends the next ten years sleeping in a separate bedroom, not listening to Jeanie's thoughts or desires. Her escape is through visits to the park with her granddaughter, and it is on these visits she meets fellow grandparent, Ray. The two fall for each other, and this emphasises to Jeanie that the best days of her marriage are behind her.

Jeanie is bound by duty; as George is solid and not a bad person, she doesn't see the need to rock the boat. However, as her birthday approaches and George makes a decision, backed by her self-absorbed daughter Chanty, to up sticks and retire to the country, Jeanie feels increasingly trapped. Meanwhile, her relationship with kindly, sympathetic Ray develops she starts to pick up the courage to take control of her life; that is, until George tells her the real reason for his rejection in a shocking twist which obliges Jeanie even more to continue the path which leads her away from a future with Ray.

This was an interesting tale of family duty and obligation and a lesson that love and passion are universal across all decades of our lives. How to combat the rules we tie ourselves to which force us to remain in safe but unhappy situations is a theme applicable to all age groups and did force me as a reader to question just what action is best; the one that works for those I love, or the one that will make me happy? I also found George's character brilliantly frustrating; patronising, controlling and yet sympathetic all at the same time.

Sadly, as I progressed through the story, it wasn't these positive elements that stayed with me whenever I stopped reading to make way for my tube stop. There were a few stylistic things that distracted me. They were strange little things too. For example, it became something of a joke for myself trying to predict the length of the gap in pages between references to alcohol. Every scene seemed to contain at least one reference to a "chilled white", a "nightcap", a "delicious Rioja" etc etc...I wouldn't be surprised if a sequel to this was based in a rehab clinic. Joking aside, this formed one part of a checklist of slightly painful middle class cliches in this book. Jeanie owning a health food shop...tick! Daughter with a silly name...tick! That's before I even get onto the Polish shop assistant's inability to include the word "is" in sentences...

Anyway, enough of that. This was an easy read which was very enjoyable - if you like chicklit I think this is a great alternative perspective. Alas, I think it'll be a rare read where I'll rave about a book of this genre unless it is a complete departure from current rules of the form. But before you hold me to my word, you may wish to check out this great review from The Book Jotter.

(Available from Amazon in paperback or Kindle format)