Monday, 20 April 2015

Review: The Good Doctor by Damon Galgut

The Good Doctor by Damon GalgutThe Good Doctor (2003) by Damon Galgut

Following two men working in a rural, near-deserted South African hospital, Damon Galgut's The Good Doctor is an ambiguous story, in which nothing happens, and everything happens; a book of thick and palpable atmosphere. Frank Eloff is the long-established deputy director of the hospital, perpetually waiting for a step upwards to the top spot, a move that has been repeatedly promised, but never quite happens. At the beginning of the story, a new junior doctor, Laurence Waters, arrives - having apparently insisted upon this location, despite the fact that there are so few patients, the existing team find themselves with hardly anything to do. Laurence is everything Frank is not: endlessly upbeat, hopeful and incredibly, perhaps even wilfully, naive. But he also has a sinister streak, and when the two doctors are forced to share a room, Frank finds himself more and more distrustful of Laurence.

The plot also weaves in small stories that build up a picture of the surrounding area and its people. Built to serve the capital of a now-defunct homeland, the hospital is located amongst arid wasteland and an entirely deserted town. It's a setting Galgut exploits to full effect, creating a vivid image of an eerie, empty backdrop perfectly suited to the lost individuals who inhabit it - 'a strange twilight place', as Frank calls it. Secondary characters come into their own as representations of this place's limitations and its chequered history. There's Maria, a local married woman with whom Frank has had a long-running, erratic and distinctly odd affair; Tehogo, a hospital orderly who exerts an inexplicable power over the other staff; and 'the Brigadier', the self-styled former dictator of the homeland, who may or may not still be alive and exists as a shadowy presence on the fringes of both the town and the story.

The book opens with Frank's first impression of Laurence: 'The first time I saw him I thought, he won't last.' Later: 'I wanted to say, you're very young. I wanted to tell him, you won't last.' Yet lonely Frank finds himself unable to reject Laurence entirely - the newcomer is 'like two people', one an unwanted, clingy shadow, the other a much-needed confidant. There is always something vaguely disturbing about Laurence's presence, and always some suggestion he is not quite telling the whole truth about his own past; at other points, there are hints of an always-formless sexual tension between him and Frank. These various suggestions remain, for the most part, suggestions, and The Good Doctor never reaches the simmering pitch of a thriller. Despite that, it's an engrossing story that had me completely captivated from the first page onwards.

Who is 'the good doctor' of the title? It could be either Laurence, with his puppy-dog optimism, or Frank, who is far more down-to-earth, realistic and practical. But the book keeps the answer from us, highlighting the characters' faults - Laurence's damaging and possibly deliberate guilelessness and Frank's jaded, unhelpful cynicism - too clearly for either to be truly worthy of the name. There again, The Good Doctor is also, arguably, an allegory, with the protagonists' attitudes illustrating different approaches to the 'new' South Africa and the flaws within them. Frank is stuck in his ways and resists change, unless it benefits him. Laurence, on the other hand, wants to enable change, but goes about it in all the wrong ways, blindly doing what he thinks is right or useful rather than what is actually necessary or helpful to the impoverished community. Both men struggle to relate to their non-white colleagues, and in the end this will play a pivotal part in their respective failures. Near the end, Frank's boss Dr Ngema confronts him about his innate racism, but he resists, and thereafter the two are simply 'carefully nice to each other' - he still hasn't learned.

I loved the graceful voice and controlled tone of this spellbinding novel. Nominated for the Booker Prize in 2003, it's lost none of its power and feels incredibly fresh. I can't fault it - undoubtedly the best book I've read this year so far.

Rating: 10/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Buy on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Things We Have in Common by Tasha Kavanagh: A twisted coming-of-age tale

Things We Have in Common by Tasha KavanaghThings We Have in Common (7 May 2015) by Tasha Kavanagh

Have you ever read a book so hungrily, and quickly, that afterwards it feels like a hallucination, dream or nightmare? Perhaps a less melodramatic comparison would be a film: some stories make you feel more like you've spent a couple of hours watching a movie, seeing it all play out vividly right in front of you, than a few days on-and-off reading a book. I breezed through Things We Have in Common in just a few hours, during which my absorption in the story heightened to increasingly feverish levels, and afterwards it felt like something I had seen - almost physically experienced - rather than read. I had this mental picture of the setting, clouded in a summer haze, that still lingers. I could see the colour palette of the film version.

Yasmin is fifteen years old and unhappy. She's friendless and the victim of school bullies; she has a strained relationship with her stepfather, and therefore also with her mother; she's overweight, and endures visits to a patronising dietitian whose advice she ignores anyway. The shining light in her life is her obsession - a combination of idolatry and desire - with a radiant classmate, Alice Taylor. We meet Yasmin when she is staring at Alice - but also watching someone else do the same. This is the first 'thing she has in common' with her co-observer, a stranger with whom she immediately feels a bond. But this person is no fellow pupil: he is a middle-aged man.

Samuel, as he turns out to be called - although there's some ambiguity about whether this is his real name - is a chameleon-like character who moves from sinister to thoroughly innocuous so swiftly and frequently that it's (no doubt intentionally) impossible to get an angle on who he is. Yasmin's initial, childish idea that he's a predatory paedophile seems to be upended when she actually meets him, finding instead a dog-lover whose mother has recently died - lonely, awkward, but apparently harmless. Yet it's precisely the potential of dubious qualities that draw Yasmin to him. Like many an outsider, she recognises a kindred spirit. And, like many an obsessive, she nurtures fantasies of rescuing the object of her affection in such a grand and public manner that she will naturally receive adoration in return. Her complicated attraction to Samuel, then, is partly a matter of wanting to protect her beloved Alice from a perceived threat, but at the same time wishing harm upon her so Yasmin can swoop in and save the day. In the middle of all this, the lines start blurring around who it is that Yasmin idolises, as her focus shifts from Alice to Samuel and back again. The chain of events that results turns this into a uniquely twisted coming-of-age story and a redefinition of 'be careful what you wish for'.

I spent much of this book wondering what it was that the narrator's voice reminded me of, unable to put my finger on it, and then towards the end I realised: it was Jacqueline Wilson, specifically a book of hers that was a childhood favourite of mine, The Suitcase Kid. I know it might seem like I'm insulting Kavanagh by comparing her novel to a book for pre-teen kids, but I mean it as a compliment - the author captures the voice of a young girl in such a way that her narrative has the ring of authenticity, but also works very well as entertainment. (And I always loved Wilson's style and characters, anyway.) It's because of this lightness that it's quite easy to sidestep the doubts you will inevitably have about Yasmin (is the simultaneous existence of such naivety and such manipulative power really believable for a gauche 15-year-old?) and simply allow yourself to be drawn into the irresistible flow of the story. The other, and for me more obvious, reference point is Jenn Ashworth's A Kind of Intimacy: Yasmin is, in more ways than one, a junior version of Ashworth's anti-heroine, Annie, and Things We Have in Common is the same kind of darkly humorous character study.

(When I started writing this, I'd forgotten the description used in the publisher's catalogue - it referred to Things We Have in Common as 'Sue Townsend meets Zoë Heller', which, of course, also works.)

This is a really strong debut novel, a subtle masterclass in character-building with a teenage voice so genuine that Yasmin really comes alive. It's rare for me to read a book quickly and yet find its characters and other details only become more solid in my head as time passes, but that's exactly what has happened with Things We Have in Common - partly, I think, because Yasmin's narration makes the book so easy to take in that you don't realise quite how expertly Kavanagh is crafting her characters and setting up the plot's final revelations. Watch out for this one: it deserves to be a hit (... and would also make a great film).

Rating: 8/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Tumblr | Bloglovin’ | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Reading round-up: March

March 2015 books

Don't Kiss Me by Lindsay Hunter - 8/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Lindsay Hunter's work has been a really great new discovery for me this month. I mentioned this in a recent post so I won't go on about it too much again here, but basically she writes amazing short stories full of cheap glamour and weird darkness. The stories in Don't Kiss Me vary from small-town Floridian drama to bizarro visions of the future, and although some are really magical stand-outs compared to others, they're all well worth reading. She even does first person plural well.

Dark Rooms by Lili Anolik - 4/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
This was one of the debuts I was most looking forward to in 2015, so it was a big disappointment to find it sadly lacking in the suspense, drama and style I'd hoped for. Set in and around one of those 'exclusive schools' often found in literature, it follows a teenage girl's attempts to get to the bottom of various mysteries surrounding her younger sister's death. Unfortunately the story is mostly banal, and dragged down further by part of the story being focused on a rape and associated romantic (yes, really) subplot. Readers who haven't paid attention to the comparisons made by the publisher - which include Gillian Flynn, Donna Tartt and Twin Peaks (it's nothing like any of them) - will likely get more out of this than I did.

The Cellar by Minette Walters - 5/10. Full review / Pre-order the ebook
Walters' entry in the Hammer Horror novella series is the suitably dark, but not terribly interesting, story of a girl who is kept as a slave by a wealthy family. When their son goes missing, she's finally allowed out of the titular cellar and sets about getting revenge. While it's a gripping, quick read, The Cellar isn't really horror, and it's peopled with characters I struggled to care about either way. Not one of the best offerings from this imprint.

Daddy's by Lindsay Hunter - 7/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
This was Hunter's first book of stories, and it covers many of the same themes as Don't Kiss Me, albeit with a slightly narrower scope. Still extremely good, though.

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell - 9/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Three sisters, the last of a seriously tainted family line, gather in their inherited New York apartment and determine to commit suicide. But only after they've written a book containing all the secrets of their ancestors' history. A Reunion of Ghosts is that book, but also the story of the eccentric sisters, Lady, Vee and Delph - characters so fiercely real that it's impossible not to root for them. The result of all these ingredients is a heartbreaking, hilarious, memorable novel which has instantly become one of my favourites of the year so far.

Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn - 7/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
Flynn's first novel, but the last one of hers I hadn't yet read. It may also be the most disturbing. It starts innocuously enough, with a journalist being sent back to her home town to get an insider's perspective on the abduction of two young girls. But it just gets sleazier and more skin-crawling from there, with major themes including self-harm, teenage girls behaving badly (when I say 'teenage' I mean barely 13, and when I say 'behaving badly' I mean to scarcely believable extremes), and family intimacy that constantly verges on the incestuous. It's really good (difficult to believe it was a debut) but not the author's best, and not for the faint-hearted either.

The Shore by Sara Taylor - 7/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
This much-talked-about 2015 debut, nominated for the Baileys Women's Fiction Prize, takes the form of a series of interconnected short stories that flip back and forth through time. 'The Shore' is the place they're all set in, an archipelago off the coast of Virginia, and the stories centre on members of two families whose fates are closely linked with that of the Shore as a whole. In parts it is unoriginal - it's frequently been compared to David Mitchell's work, and indeed it sometimes seems so close to Mitchell's style that it feels like a copy. But it's just about saved by engaging characters and the type of writing that can make you feel invested in what's going on within just a few lines. I'm not 100% convinced it deserves all the hype, though.

Penguin Random House Spring 2015 Debut Fiction Sampler by various authors - Full review
No overall rating for this one since the quality of the extracts (there are fifteen altogether) varied wildly. But the extract from Catie Disabato's The Ghost Network, out in early May, has got me wildly excited about reading the rest of the book. I was also interested to read an extract from Bradstreet Gate by Robin Kirman (out July) - it wasn't anywhere near as thrilling as the Disabato, but still enough to make me keen to read the rest. Of those I hadn't heard much about prior to this book, Sara Nović's Girl at War (also out in May) really piqued my interest.

So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson - 6/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
In his trademark irreverent and humorous style, Ronson investigates the idea that the concept of public shaming has been resurrected by social media. This is a fast-paced, compelling and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny book, but it seems to touch a little too lightly on many of the questions the central topic brings up. Overall it feels a bit rushed and doesn't have any meaningful conclusions - although I know that's not really the point of it.

The moving and entertaining A Reunion of Ghosts was the best book I read in March. I'd also urge everyone to seek out Lindsay Hunter's stories (there are plenty available online), and even though it was only a bit of the book, I can't get that extract from Catie Disabato's The Ghost Network out of my head. Now I've finished the course I've been studying for the past few months, and have a bit more free time on my hands, I'm hoping April will prove to be a fruitful month both in terms of reading new books, and crossing older ones off the to-read list.

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Tuesday, 31 March 2015

What's next: Reading everything in the Penguin Random House Spring 2015 Debut Fiction Sampler so you don't have to

Penguin Random House Spring 2015 Debut Fiction SamplerPenguin Random House Spring 2015 Debut Fiction Sampler (17 March 2015) by various authors

I don't normally read the whole of these publishers' samplers; I get them so I can pull out a list of titles, look them up, decide whether or not I'm interested. This one, though, being adult debut fiction coming soon from Penguin Random House, seemed like a better bet than most. As an experiment, I decided to do the opposite of my usual strategy, and read the extracts first, then look up the details of the books. Here are the results...

The Silver Swan by Elena Delbanco (out 21 May 2015)
Skimmed over this. I guessed it was one of those books that contrasts a historical plotline with a modern-day one, possibly revolving around the same family or something, but it appears it's a contemporary novel with music as the main theme. Seems to have that kind of 'elegant' but completely pallid prose that has pretensions towards literary fiction without quite getting there, and just doesn't engage me at all. I'm probably being totally unfair; this just isn't something I would have looked at under any other circumstances.

The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato (out 7 May 2015)
This extract has catapulted The Ghost Network, which was already vaguely on my radar, into my top five most anticipated books of the year. I stayed up late just to finish it, even though I knew I wouldn't be able to read the rest of the book. Written as if it's non-fiction (with the author describing herself as a mere 'editor' of an existing manuscript) in a faux-academic style, it's the story of two missing women: an internationally famous pop star, and a superfan who tried to find out what happened to her. Just a few pages is all it takes to be hooked. If you loved Marisha Pessl's Night Film as much as I did (though that may not actually be possible), you'll want to get this on your wishlist STAT.

House of Echoes by Brendan Duffy (out 14 April 2015)
Immediately had the feel of a horror novel. An intriguing prologue, with the main character making a gory discovery amongst some ruins near his new home. Some clichéd (but nevertheless very fun) elements typical of horror - the big old ramshackle house with a creepy history, the middle-of-nowhere location, and very obviously portentous imagery - are dragged down by irritating stock characters (the author self-insert protagonist, the impossibly perfect wife, the annoying kid) who I now see are described in the blurb as 'achingly sympathetic'. Haha... no. By the end of the extract I'd been thoroughly put off any notion of seeking this out.

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum (out now)
Skipped this because I already have the book and I don't want to spoil any of the story before I start it properly. Watch this space!

Muse by Jonathan Galassi (out 2 July 2015)
Now this I think will definitely be categorised as literary fiction. It's set in a publishing house in New York, with a somewhat bland (at least in this opening chapter) protagonist, and has a slightly disconcerting and quickly exhausting, though not entirely unlikeable, style with endless diversions into little stories about various characters. And there are lots of them: this short extract alone introduces a seemingly endless parade of bit players in a society drama with a literary theme. Now I've looked into the book, I know that the author is a poet, which fits with the tricksy style. The plot sounds intriguing, but I think the quirky humour might get a bit wearing.

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins (out 18 June 2015)
Definitely a fantasy. Very... fantasy-ish... fantasy. Reminded me a little of Lev Grossman's Magicians books with its juxtaposition of contemporary language, humour and recognisable motifs with situations straight out of a high fantasy epic. 100% definitely not for me, although according to Karen's review it does get better, so perhaps the first few chapters aren't the best part to pull out as a sample.

The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson (out 30 June 2015)
Family saga? Set in Barbados. Quite a short extract anyway compared to some of the others, but while I didn't particularly dislike it, nothing about this engaged me.

Bradstreet Gate by Robin Kirman (out 7 July 2015)
Another book already on my radar and tentatively on my wishlist. It's a campus novel about tangled friendships, an ill-advised affair and, ultimately, a murder, although it opens ten years after that murder, with one of the students who was involved - now a mother with a terminally ill husband - being visited by a journalist looking to find out more about the old case. While I'm not wild about the way it's written (it's a bit pedestrian), and it didn't get me madly excited about the book like the Ghost Network extract did, there's enough here to make Bradstreet Gate an intriguing prospect and one I'll be keeping an eye out for when it's published.

Freedom's Child by Jax Miller (out 2 June 2015)
The first line is 'My name is Freedom Oliver and I killed my daughter', so it's safe to assume this is a thriller. The book's blurb is full of praise from the likes of Lee Child and Karin Slaughter, which gives you an idea of the target audience. However, despite the gung-ho super-American style and a heroine who's the embodiment of a 'tough female character' brainstorm, I found enough about the extract compelling that I could probably quite happily read the whole of this.

Girl at War by Sara Nović (out 12 May 2015)
A novel of recent history, seemingly set in the early 1990s, dealing with the Yugoslavian civil war as seen from the viewpoint of a young girl in Croatia. The first few chapters see protagonist Ana and her friend Luka negotiating the new political landscape, trying to understand the new system of relations through the actions of their parents, neighbours and teachers. The publisher's description says the book goes on to look at Ana's life ten years later, when she's a student in New York. I have to admit, I've previously been offered a review copy of this and hadn't even considered it (the fact that it has a really boring cover doesn't help), and while I'm not going to be scrambling to read it as soon as possible, the elegant and emotionally engaging content here is enough for me to give it another look.

Re Jane by Patricia Park (out 7 May 2015)
Another book that appears to be set in the 90s (circa the 'dotcom bubble'), focusing on a group of Korean-American characters in an outer borough of New York. Zingy and overtly humorous, this opening was a bit too farcical for my tastes. I assume it gets a bit more serious later on, though, as it's apparently a modern retelling of Jane Eyre - which makes sense of the book's name: I thought it was 'Re: Jane', like the title of an email.

The Valley by John Renehan (out 9 April 2015)
Blah blah blah soldiers, war, the military. I couldn't even concentrate hard enough on this to make out any of what was going on. Profoundly dull.

Little Bastards in Springtime by Katja Rudolph (out 7 April 2015)
Opens in 1941 with a girl on the run; in a slightly surreal and fast-moving scene, she is quickly drawn into the machinations of a rebel political group. Coincidentally, this seems to be another book about war in Yugoslavia in the early 1990s, and the main character is a boy who I presume must be a descendant of the woman portrayed in this extract. However, the style of this didn't captivate me anywhere near as much as the excerpt from Girl at War.

Bennington Girls are Easy by Charlotte Silver (out 14 July 2015)
This seems to be the only extract that doesn't begin at the very beginning... although it's very difficult to tell, because for some reason the formatting is really messed up and a lot of lines are cut off mid-sentence, only to reappear in truncated form in a completely different place. Consequently, I couldn't have read it properly if I'd wanted to. From what I can make out, it's one of those coming-of-age stories about rich graduates in New York that will probably get compared to Girls. Seems very name-droppy and chick-lit-like and not that interesting.

The Ambassador's Wife by Jennifer Steil (out 28 July 2015)
Terrible title: I assumed straight away that it was going to be a sugary historical romance. In actual fact it seems to be a political/war thriller, albeit one focused on the eponymous wife. Based on this extract, I'm not keen on the tone, took an instant dislike to the main character, and I'm worried it might actually be kind of racist. Not for me at all.

I received this sampler from the publisher through NetGalley.

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Sunday, 29 March 2015

15 things about 2015 so far

This week I found myself thinking about a blog post of mine from October last year, in which I wrote about how I felt I was reaching a point of fatigue with my reading, how I wanted to put more effort into finding books that were right for me, how I also wanted to make time for many things other than reading. We're now three months into 2015: have I achieved any of this? I'm as surprised as anyone else that the answer is definitely yes.

I have to qualify that, though: I haven't succeeded quite so well at the first part. My reading choices in 2015 so far have been a result of the same scattergun approach I was trying to leave behind, and perhaps one consequence of that is the fact that I haven't yet come across anything I've absolutely loved: no five-star or 10/10 books yet. (Compare that with 2014: by this point in the year, according to my ever-helpful Goodreads stats, I'd rated a whole five books with five stars.) But all of this musing led to me writing a miscellaneous list of things I've read in 2015 and things I haven't (yet) and other stuff I've been doing and enjoying and some things I haven't got around to mentioning yet. Here it is.

1. For the past three months I've been doing an Oxford University online course in literary theory: Friday was the official last day. If anyone is thinking of doing one of these courses: they are totally worth it, and you will learn a lot, but it will be HARD fitting all the reading, forum contributions and coursework around your life if you have a full-time job. I've still got a hell of a lot of learning to do before I'm any kind of authority on literary theory, but the good thing is I now have a head start.

2. I've read 10 books published in 2015. Of those, seven were review copies. The two that stand out as the best so far: A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell, in which three middle-aged sisters agree to commit suicide after writing their ancestors' history, and The Curator by Jacques Strauss, about the many sins of two generations of a South African family.

3. Probably the two most disappointing new books I've read this year - Rebecca Scherm's Unbecoming and Lili Anolik's Dark Rooms - had protagonists in their late teens named Grace. There's a lesson in there somewhere.

4. I've tried to read, and given up on, about six books published in 2015. Some of these were surprises: The Raven's Head by Karen Maitland, whose work I've always enjoyed, and Weathering by Lucy Wood, which I'd been looking forward to for a long time after being impressed by her short story collection Diving Belles. I've been trying to keep track of 'books I didn't finish' here, although they don't always make it to the point of being worth talking about.

5. I have a handful of new or forthcoming books I need to read in the near future. Jill Alexander Essbaum's Hausfrau is among them: I wasn't interested in this when I first heard about it, supposing it would be another attempt at emulating Gone Girl, but the more great reviews I read, the more excited I am about it. Also in my review copy pile is Tasha Kavanagh's Things We Have in Common, which despite a number of recent disappointments I still have high hopes for, and Benjamin Percy's The Dead Lands, which probably won't be a dystopia to rival Station Eleven, but I can hope.

6. I discovered Lindsay Hunter through her fantastic short story collections, Daddy's (2010) and Don't Kiss Me (2013). She's one of those short story writers who makes it look easy, and her work is so inspiring: quickfire, breathless, and simultaneously repulsive and beautiful. One of the best stories from Don't Kiss Me, 'Three Things You Should Know About Peggy Paula', can be read online here, and there are more linked from her Tumblr.

7. I'm reading the whole of the Penguin Random House Spring 2015 Debut Fiction Sampler. I didn't mean to, but now it's become a mini-project/blog-post-in-progress. Through doing so, I read the first however-many-pages of Catie Disabato's The Ghost Network, and they were properly AMAZING. I have a really good feeling about this book; I think it's going to be the (my) next Night Film.

8. Chappie came out (that sounds weird as a sentence but 'Chappie was released' sounds even worse) and I saw it and it was way better than even I, the Neill Blomkamp fangirl, expected. I wrote an entire page of notes when I got home and have subsequently completely failed at actually writing any sort of review. I also found out that there are 'the art of the film' books for all of Blomkamp's movies. I bought the Elysium one straight away and have been lusting after the others ever since, although the District 9 one appears to be some sort of collector's item that you can't get for less than £25.

9. I've watched 42 films this year so far. I can't say this has led to the discovery of that many great films. The highlights, though: Nightcrawler, Big Eyes, White Bird in a Blizzard, Birdman, and the absolutely brilliant Young Adult. I have also found that I often really like films other people hate (Elysium, The Paperboy, the remake of Oldboy) and don't see the appeal of films everyone loves (Interstellar, Inherent Vice (ugh), Foxcatcher). The last two I saw were Fifty Shades of Grey and Cinderella and I think that's put me off watching films for a while.

10. I watched all of American Horror Story. Yes, ALL of it. Preferred seasons 1 and 3 (although I think 2 probably had the best story and certainly the best ending), which gives me hope that the forthcoming fifth season will also be good. Favourite things: QUEEN LANA WINTERS, Fiona Goode's intro scene, Fiona and the Axeman's relationship, Joseph Fiennes in a priest outfit, the ridiculousness of Dandy, Denis O'Hare as anyone, Misty Day :( (#justice4mistyday)

11. I started watching Better Call Saul despite - and I know this is weird - never having previously seen any of Breaking Bad. It's amazing how quickly it's come to feel like 'my show'. Full disclosure, I might be in love with Jimmy McGill. It's the VOICE. And the psuedonyms, ahh. Gotta love a man with several identities. Anyway, then I started watching Breaking Bad by skipping through it and watching only the scenes with Saul, which I think you'll agree is a pretty unique project. It doesn't make ANY SENSE but I'm enjoying it.

12. I seem to discover music mainly through TV shows and films now. Is that terrible? Mash up this playlist of songs from Better Call Saul and this one of the White Bird in a Blizzard soundtrack and you have what I've been listening to for the past month... glossing over the songs I found via The Only Way is Essex.

13. I did the Netflix month-long free trial. The trial ended halfway through American Horror Story season 2. A few days later, I reluctantly bought a Netflix membership. Now Better Call Saul has happened and it looks like Netflix and I are becoming a long-term thing.

14. I've started trying to cook more often. I made some 'black bean tortas with coconut chipotle mayo', which were delicious. I made my own granola, twice, and struggled not to eat all of it in one serving. It hasn't all been good: mango curry is... strange... and I just think nothing is ever going to make me really love cauliflower.

15. I haven't written anything. Except all the stuff on this blog, of course.

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Sunday, 22 March 2015

Cast adrift: Day Four by Sarah Lotz

Day Four by Sarah LotzDay Four (21 May 2015) by Sarah Lotz

The unfortunate thing about Lotz's follow-up (and loose 'sequel') to The Three is that it's not The Three. As one of my favourite books of 2014, it was always going to be a hard act to follow, and I was over the moon to get hold of an advance copy of Lotz's new book. It's with a heavy heart, then, that I have to report I simply didn't enjoy Day Four anywhere near as much. Despite that 'sequel' tag, it's actually a standalone novel, with a tenuous connection to a couple of characters from The Three: just enough to make it clear that both take place in the same world, but no more than that.

The setting is The Beautiful Dreamer, a cheap and not-very-cheerful cruise ship which gets stranded in the Gulf of Mexico. The story unfolds over four days as tensions rise, rescue starts to seem impossible, and conditions grow increasingly wretched. At the same time, the desperate passengers become more and more spooked by inexplicable goings-on: shadowy figures darting around the corridors, a distinctly fake showbiz medium suddenly gaining the ability to make extremely accurate predictions, even the dead - apparently - coming back to life. It's all filtered through a variety of viewpoints, with eight disparate characters revisited in alternate chapters. They are Maddie, long-suffering assistant to the aforementioned celebrity medium; Gary, a middle-aged, married passenger who is also, um, a murderer; Althea, a slightly sociopathic crew member; Helen and Elise, two elderly passengers who have joined the cruise with the intention of killing themselves before it's over; Jesse, the ship's doctor; Devi, a member of the security staff; and Xavier, a blogger trailing Celine (that celebrity medium again) and trying to expose her as a fraud.

What really drew me into this, much more than the premise, was the promise of reading more from Lotz. The Three was so thrilling, its characters so compelling, it was so terrifying, that I was certain I'd be glued to Day Four. The one thing I didn't expect it to be was boring. Unfortunately... it is, in parts.

So what exactly is it that's gone wrong here? Firstly, I was disappointed and a little bit surprised to find third person narration used throughout the book. The first person narratives in The Three were so effective, and with eight main characters to keep track of here, the lack of variety makes it harder than it should be to differentiate them. Attempts to mark them out using repetition within their internal monologues fall a bit flat because they simply become annoying - see Gary's 'his girl' and Althea's intensely irritating 'fuck-darned'. Secondly, the setting is limiting - the whole book (save the short last section) is set on board the ship, and since part of the story is how generic and tacky it is, it's simply not a place you want to keep reading about. Thirdly, while four days without rescue is certainly unusual, it just isn't long enough or big enough to create the same high-stakes sense of terror and imminent doom that The Three did so well. There are problems with some characters just not being interesting; problems with the simple fact that there are so many characters (once secondary characters are added in, it starts to feel like this surely must be everyone on board the ship).

That's not to say Day Four is actually a bad book. It is gripping, and I didn't want to put it down, though I'd be lying if I said that wasn't at least partly because I kept thinking 'I'll get to the good bit soon'. That Lotz's description is vivid and unflinching is both a strength and a problem; she makes everything feel real, but there's only so many descriptions of confined spaces with no working toilets, running water or air-con it's possible to read without feeling exhausted and slightly nauseated. In fact, when I think about it, maybe the whole reason this didn't work for me was because it was a different brand of horror from what I expected to experience. Far from the scintillating meld of ghost story, sci-fi and found-footage thriller I was expecting after The Three, Day Four details the banal horror of a microcosm of humanity left to its own devices, losing the will to care about hygiene and safety, trying to come to terms with the prospect of a slow and squalid death.

Towards the end, however, Day Four suddenly gains the momentum it should have had all along. After what seems like an anticlimatic conclusion to the characters' stories, the final chapter is composed of newspaper articles and 'leaked' fragments of interviews with the passengers. It was this 'mixed media' approach that gave The Three some of its magic, and it works here too, using partial stories and accounts removed from the scene itself to stir up a delicious sense of ambiguity. Plus it gives you some hints about what may, or may not, have happened after the end of the ship's four days afloat. But who is telling the truth; who's to say what is and isn't real? The ending is nothing short of brilliant, but - no matter how much I'd like to - I just can't say the same about the rest of the book.

I'm aware that every part of my review has involved comparisons between Day Four and The Three. I know that isn't really fair, but since Day Four has been touted as a sequel and even given a similar title and cover, those comparisons are inevitably going to be made. This is a solid book in its own right, with enough exciting bits to make it worth a rainy-day read. Fans of The Three, however, may need to adjust their expectations.

I received an advance review copy of Day Four from the publisher.

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Wednesday, 4 March 2015

What to read in March & April 2015

Books to look forward to in March and April 2015
23 new books to read in March and April 2015

Dark Rooms by Lili Anolik - 1 March
The Secret History meets Sharp Objects in this stunning debut about murder and glamour set in the ambiguous and claustrophobic world of an exclusive New England prep school. Death sets the plot in motion: the murder of Nica Baker, beautiful, wild, enigmatic, and only sixteen. The crime is solved, and quickly - a lonely classmate, unrequited love, a suicide note confession - but memory and instinct won’t allow Nica’s older sister, Grace, to accept the case as closed...’

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro - 3 March
The Buried Giant begins as a couple set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen in years. Sometimes savage, often intensely moving, Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel in a decade is about lost memories, love, revenge and war.’

The Well by Catherine Chanter - 5 March
‘When Ruth Ardingly and her family first drive up from London in their grime-encrusted car and view The Well, they are enchanted by a jewel of a place, a farm that appears to offer everything the family are searching for. But The Well's unique glory comes at a terrible price. The locals suspect foul play in its verdant fields and drooping fruit trees, and Ruth becomes increasingly isolated, less and less sure who she can trust...’

The Faithful Couple by A.D. Miller - 5 March
‘California, 1993: Neil Collins and Adam Tayler, two young British men on the cusp of adulthood, meet at a hostel in San Diego. They strike up a friendship that, while platonic, feels as intoxicating as a romance; they travel up the coast together, harmlessly competitive, innocently collusive, wrapped up in each other. On a camping trip to Yosemite they lead each other to behave in ways that, years later, they will desperately regret. The story of a friendship built on a shared guilt and a secret betrayal, The Faithful Couple follows Neil and Adam across two decades...’

The Raven's Head by Karen Maitland - 12 March
‘Vincent is an apprentice librarian who stumbles upon a secret powerful enough to destroy his master. With the foolish arrogance of youth, he attempts blackmail but the attempt fails and Vincent finds himself on the run and in possession of an intricately carved silver raven's head. Any attempt to sell the head fails ... until Vincent tries to palm it off on the intimidating Lord Sylvain - unbeknown to Vincent, a powerful Alchemist with an all-consuming quest...’

The Librarian by Mikhail Elizarov - 12 March
‘As the introduction to this book will tell you, the books by Gromov, obscure and long forgotten propaganda author of the Soviet era, have such an effect on their readers that they suddenly enjoy supernatural powers. Understandably, their readers need to keep accessing these books at all cost and gather into groups around book-bearers, or, as they're called, librarians. Alexei, until now a loser, comes to collect an uncle's inheritance and unexpectedly becomes a librarian. He tells his extraordinary, unbelievable story...’

Ghosting by Jonathan Kemp - 12 March
‘When 64-year-old Grace Wellbeck thinks she sees the ghost of her first husband, she fears for her sanity and worries that she’s having another breakdown. Long-buried memories come back thick and fast: from the fairground thrills of 1950s Blackpool to the dark reality of a violent marriage. But the ghost turns out to be very real: a charismatic young man named Luke. And as Grace gets to know him, she is jolted into an emotional awakening that brings her to a momentous decision.’

Héloïse is Bald by Émilie de Turckheim - 12 March
‘This strange, uneasy love story follows Héloïse as she attempts to seduce the silver-tongued Doctor Lawrence Calvagh. A man forty years her senior, who may love her too. But Lawrence is not all he appears, and while Héloïse begins injuring herself so that he will stitch her back together, every other woman in her family also seems to be under his spell. Reaching from the elegant salons of Paris to the golden sands of Corsica, the mountains of Algeria to the art galleries of New York, this subversive novel examines love at its most shocking and violent.’

The Mirror World of Melody Black by Gavin Extence - 12 March
‘It all starts, as these things sometimes do, with a dead man. He was a neighbour, not someone Abby knew well, but still, finding a body when you only came over to borrow a tin of tomatoes, that comes as a bit of a shock. And now she can't shake the feeling that if she hadn't gone into Simon's flat, if she'd had her normal Wednesday night instead, then none of what happened next would have happened. And she would never have met Melody Black...’

Soil by Jamie Kornegay - 12 March
‘It begins as a simple dream: an idealistic environmental scientist moves his wife and young son off the grid, to a stretch of river bottom farmland in the Mississippi hills, hoping to position himself at the forefront of a revolution in agriculture. When a corpse appears on his family's property, the farmer is convinced he's being set up. And so begins a journey into a maze of misperceptions and personal obsessions, as the farmer, his now-estranged wife, a predatory deputy, and a backwoods wanderer, all try to uphold a personal sense of honour.’

Satin Island by Tom McCarthy - 12 March
‘Meet U. – a 'corporate anthropologist' employed to help decode and manipulate the world around them. Instead, U. spends his days procrastinating, meandering through endless buffer-zones of information and becoming obsessed by the images with which the world bombards him on a daily basis: oil spills, African traffic jams, roller-blade processions, zombie parades. Is there, U. wonders, a secret logic holding all these images together – a codex that, once cracked, will unlock the master-meaning of our age? Might it have something to do with South Pacific Cargo Cults, or the dead parachutists in the news?’

The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov - 16 March
‘Using the myth of the Minotaur as its organizing image, the narrator of Gospodinov’s long-awaited novel constructs a labyrinth of stories about his family, jumping from era to era and viewpoint to viewpoint, exploring the mindset and trappings of Eastern Europeans. Incredibly moving and extraordinarily funny, The Physics of Sorrow traces connections and follows the narrator down various 'side passages', with the sorrowful, misunderstood Minotaur at the centre of it all.’

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell - 24 March
‘Meet the Alter sisters: Lady, Vee and Delph. These three mordantly witty, complex women share their family’s apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. They love each other fiercely, but being an Alter isn’t easy. Bad luck is in their genes, passed down through the generations. In the waning days of 1999, the sisters decide it’s time to close the circle of the Alter curse. But first, as the world counts down to the dawn of a new millennium, Lady, Vee and Delph must write the final chapter of a saga generations in the making...’

The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall - 24 March
‘For almost a decade Rachel Caine has turned her back on home, kept distant by family disputes and her work monitoring wolves on an Idaho reservation. But now, summoned by the eccentric Earl of Annerdale and his controversial scheme to reintroduce the Grey Wolf to the English countryside, she is back in the peat and wet light of the Lake District. The return of the Grey after hundreds of years coincides with her own regeneration: impending motherhood, and reconciliation with her estranged family...’

Raw Concrete by Barnabas Calder - 24 March
Raw Concrete provides a groundbreaking history of the heavy-concrete architecture of post-war Britain, as well as a personal and illuminating guide to eight pivotal Brutalist buildings. Beginning in a tiny concrete hermitage on the remote north Scottish coast, and ending up backstage at the National Theatre, Raw Concrete takes us on a wide-ranging journey through Britain over the past sixty years, stopping to examine how these buildings were made – from commission to construction – why they have been so hated, and why they should be loved.’

The Shore by Sara Taylor - 26 March
‘The Shore: a collection of small islands sticking out from the coast of Virginia into the Atlantic Ocean that has been home to generations of fierce and resilient women. Sanctuary to some but nightmare to others, it’s a place they’ve inhabited, fled, and returned to for hundreds of years. Their interconnecting stories form a deeply affecting legacy of two island families, illuminating the small miracles and miseries of a community of outsiders, and the bonds of blood and fate that connect them all.’

The Ladies of the House by Molly McGrann - 26 March
‘On a hot July day, three elderly people are found dead in a dilapidated house in Primrose Hill. Reading the story in a newspaper as she prepares to leave the country, Marie Gillies has an unshakable feeling that she is somehow to blame. How did these three people come to live together, and how did they all die at once? The truth lies in a very different England, and in the secret world of the ladies of the house...’

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum - 26 March
‘Anna Benz lives in comfort and affluence with her husband and three young children in Dietlikon, a picture-perfect suburb of Zurich, but inside she is falling apart. Feeling adrift and unable to connect, she attempts to assert her agency in the only way that makes sense to her: by engaging in short-lived but intense sexual affairs. But adultery, too, has its own morality, and when Anna finds herself crossing a line, she will set off a terrible chain of events that ends in unspeakable tragedy...’

Creative Truths in Provincial Policing by Paula Lichtarowicz - 26 March
‘It doesn’t take much to tip the world into chaos. You don’t even have to mean to do it. You might be an honest family man; a police chief in a small town in Central Vietnam, say, with no desire whatsoever to unleash catastrophe. A man such as Chief Duong, with simple dreams of domestic happiness and future immortality by means of a small statue on a roundabout. But the problem with dreams is it’s often hard to look ahead...’

Disclaimer by Renee Knight - 9 April
‘When an intriguing novel appears on Catherine’s bedside table, she curls up in bed and begins to read. But as she turns the pages she is sickened to realize the story will reveal her darkest secret. A secret she thought no one else knew...’

The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy - 9 April
‘Sanctuary: a citadel in the heart of the former United States of America. Hundreds of miles in every direction beyond its walls lies nothing but death and devastation. Everyone who lives in the safety Sanctuary provides knows that. Until the day a stranger appears. He has come to lead the survivors away from Sanctuary, to the promise of a new life without walls. But those who follow him will discover that not everything he says is true...’

All This Has Nothing To Do With Me by Monica Sabolo - 9 April
‘When journalist 'MS' interviews the mysterious 'XX' for a job at her magazine, she hires him straight away - because he's gorgeous. As one date leads to another, her obsession spirals. MS finds herself writing letters to Facebook, her phone company, even XX's favourite author (who is dead), all whilst the object of her affection remains aloof. All This Has Nothing To Do With Me is an exposé of a broken heart, documenting MS and XX's relationship from jubilant start to painful finish, and laying out her life - and past - for our scrutiny.’

Villa America by Liza Klaussmann - 23 April
‘Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Pablo Picasso, Cole and Linda Porter, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos - all are summer guests of Gerald and Sara Murphy, who met and married young, and set forth to create a beautiful world. They alight on Villa America: their coastal oasis of artistic genius, debauched parties, impeccable style and flamboyant imagination. But before long, a stranger enters into their relationship, and their marriage must accommodate an intensity that neither had forseen...’

With so many books on this list, there's almost no point in me adding much more, but some words about some of the above. The Well is absolutely brilliant - I might have mentioned that a few times before. Dark Rooms, which I finished a couple of days ago, was unfortunately a bit disappointing, and I actually gave up on The Raven's Head - not because it was bad, just because it seemed too similar to Maitland's other books. I'm reading A Reunion of Ghosts right now (great so far) and am looking forward to reading The Shore after that. As for what's on my wishlist... I've actually included some books I'm not interested in on this list for the sake of balance, but even so, there's loads here I'm excited about. I've seen The Mirror World of Melody Black compared to Scarlett Thomas, and although I didn't like A.D. Miller's Snowdrops, The Faithful Couple sounds totally different and pretty intriguing.

What are you looking forward to reading in the next couple of months? Have I missed out anything essential?

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Monday, 2 March 2015

Reading round-up: February

February 2015 books

Alison Wonderland by Helen Smith - 6/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
A recently divorced woman starts working at an all-female detective agency, and is sucked into a maybe-conspiracy and a distinctly odd quest to find an abandoned baby, all while navigating a will-they-won't-they relationship with her next door neighbour. One of those quintessentially 90s books that's definitely deserving of the epithet 'quirky', this is a light and slightly silly read - but it's better than all of that makes it sound.

No Easy Answers: The Truth Behind Death at Columbine by Brooks Brown and Rob Merritt - 5/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
This study of the Columbine high school massacre was co-written by a classmate and alleged friend of the shooters. As such, it offers a really interesting perspective, but it's also heavily biased and influenced by the author's personal experiences. It may have been revelatory when it was published 13 years ago, but there wasn't much here I hadn't already read about elsewhere, and the tone and style were offputting.

Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm - 4/10. Full review / Buy the book
Working in a Paris antiques shop, an American girl named Grace is living under a false identity: through a number of flashbacks, we find out what she is running from, and the convoluted tangle of relationships that caused her to be drawn into an art heist. While the premise is intriguing, it's wasted on a deeply boring set of characters, and lots of the details just don't make any sense.

The Curator by Jacques Strauss - 8/10. Full review / Buy the ebook
There's so much in this novel that it's difficult to sum it up briefly, but I'll try: shifting between 1976 and 1996, it follows two generations of a white South African family, personified by father and son Hendrik and Werner Deyer. Both as manipulative and obsessive as each other, Hendrik and Werner make for awful but fascinating anti-heroes - the latter's blend of naivety, self-delusion and murderous tendencies being the main focus. With dark themes but an impressively light touch, it's a powerful and memorable book.

On Evil by Terry Eagleton - 7/10. Buy the book
Mixing theology, political history, modern philosophy and contemporary literary criticism, this is a readable and entertaining treatise on the concept of evil. It's short - actually more like a long-form essay - and although its conclusions are arguably vague, it's very interesting, and you will come away with a long list of further reading.

The Predictions by Bianca Zander - 7/10. Full review / Pre-order the book
Two teenagers brought up on a New Zealand commune try to navigate the changing world of London in the 1970s and 80s, struggling to fit their relationship around 'the predictions' - future visions of their lives laid out by a charismatic fortune-teller in their youth. Zander, author of The Girl Below, has perfected her style with this second novel, and its only flaw is that the protagonists are slightly bland.

Day Four by Sarah Lotz - 6/10. Full review / Pre-order the ebook
Stuck on a cruise ship that's become stranded in the Gulf of Mexico, a diverse group of passengers and staff are tested to the limits by distinctly strange and increasingly inexplicable goings-on. While it has an absolutely fantastic ending, Lotz's follow-up to The Three (barely a sequel, though it's been described as such) is sadly a bit of a drag, weighed down by unengaging characters and a very limited setting.

Bus Station: Unbound by Jenn Ashworth and Richard Hirst - 7/10. Full review / Buy the ebook (read online)
An updated spin on the 'choose your own adventure' genre, this latest project from indie publisher Curious Tales has the unlikely setting of Preston Bus Station, from which the protagonist/reader has to attempt escape during a snowstorm, while deciding whether or not to avoid various sinister characters. With numerous different endings to discover, it's really enjoyable, more than just a novelty.

Even though it's the end of February, I definitely feel like my 2015 reading hasn't really begun yet. There are so many books I want to read 'properly', but I'm trying to a) not think about that (especially since the list is getting longer all the time) and b) wait until I can give them my full attention. So this was another month of random picks and new/forthcoming releases. I'm aware that this isn't a very diverse selection - nothing translated from another language, for example - although I did manage to read two non-fiction books (which is nothing short of miraculous for me).

It's not difficult to pick my favourite of the month - it would definitely be The Curator. Most of the others were, at least, either reasonably enjoyable or reasonably interesting, with Unbecoming the only one I wish I hadn't bothered reading. I must say, though, that Day Four was undeniably a letdown after the brilliance of The Three.

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