“Wonder” by R. J. Palacio (2012)

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“I know I’m not an ordinary ten-year-old kid.”

Many of us don’t even realise how privileged we are. We have money, security, health, and we only notice we’ve got it once it’s gone. Books have that amazing ability to transport us into someone else’s way of life and see how things might be different for others. I’m not even talking about fighting dragons or hurtling through space this time, just simple things about people who are just like you and me, but society treats very differently.

Wonder introduces us to August Pullman, a ten-year-old boy who has Treacher Collins syndrome, which has caused his life thus far to be one of homeschooling, endless operations, and constant stares and whispers from people on the street when they see him for the first time. His unusual appearance has completely changed how he sees the world, and he prefers to hide under an astronaut’s helmet than endure the looks he gets.

His parents, however, have decided that it’s time for him to go to middle school, and he is introduced to the kind Mr Tushman and three students who have been selected for being particularly kind, and gets a tour of the school from them. But once he starts, it’s clear that perhaps those students weren’t the best start and after a rocky few days, August begins to wonder if he should just give up and drop out, as it seems that no one can see past his face. Or at least, almost no one…

I thought I was going to end up coming here today to write this and complain, as ever, about the child narrator. The book actually is in several parts, with most of them being narrated by August, but other characters also step forward and give their versions of the events. My usual complaint – the children talk like adults – stands, but for one, it really doesn’t seem to matter. There is something a lot more important going on here. Palacio says that she was inspired to write the book after a real-life incident involving a young girl with TCS. She was stood next to the girl and, convinced her children were about to say something embarrassing, she hurried off, thus making the whole situation worse. This incident appears within the book, too.

Many people may not think anymore about an incident like this, but Palacio obviously couldn’t let it lie. She thought long and hard about what it must be like to be stared at constantly, for something you have no control over and have people unable to look past. While the book naturally deals a lot with the idea that you shouldn’t judge a person by their appearance, it’s also keen to consistently point out that kindness is perhaps the most important trait someone can have. As Mr Tushman quotes later in the book from J M Barrie, “try to be a little kinder than is necessary”. All sorts of kindnesses are shown within the text, from the children who do look beyond August’s appearance and find a funny, charming and clever boy beneath, to the story of how Mr Pullman rescued their dog, and Miranda’s act of sacrifice to save an old friendship.

Children are shown here, as is so true in real life, to be far more honest than adults, although that honesty isn’t necessarily always welcome. Children can get used to anything though, and it really is older people who struggle with change and the unfamiliar. Just look at the amount of basement-dwelling nerds who have nothing better to do on the weekend than complain about why Doctor Who isn’t as good as it once was, or feel the need to irrationally argue on Twitter with anyone who espouses a different worldview.

As August says, “I think there should be a rule that everyone in the world should get a standing ovation at least once in their lives.” If R. J. Palacio doesn’t deserve one for this gorgeous book, then I don’t know what she has to do to get one.

“The Readers Of Broken Wheel Recommend” by Katarina Bivald (2013)

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There is a book for every person and a person for every book.

“The strange woman standing on Hope’s main street was so ordinary it was almost scandalous.”

Books are great, and books about books are even better. This blog already has a stack of reviews on it based around bookshops thanks to Veronica Henry, Penelope Fitzgerald and Robin Sloan, but there’s always room for one more. There’s something wonderful about bookshops; so much promise held in those shelves. Adventures await, romances are blossoming, and characters are waiting to tell us their stories. Here’s another excellent example.

Sara Lindqvist is a Swedish bibliophile who has just arrived in the small, notably un-notable town of Broken Wheel in rural Iowa. She has come to meet her penpal, Amy Harris, an old lady with whom she has been swapping books and letters for the last two years. Tragically, she arrives to find that Amy has died. Nevertheless, the townsfolk insist that she has to stay and that Amy would have wanted them to take care of her. They put her up in Amy’s house, and assign someone to drive her wherever she needs to go, despite the small size of the town.

Sara is shy, much prefers books to people, and is starting to wonder what madness gripped her to drop her into a situation so unfamiliar. Soon, she realises that no one is willing to accept her money. The shopkeeper, John, gives her free groceries. Grace, the diner cook, rustles up free dinners for her. Andy and his “very good friend” Carl at the bar refuse to take her money for beer. She becomes determined to do something to pay back the townsfolk for their kindness and soon hits on the very idea – Broken Wheel needs a bookshop.

Despite having a huge love of reading herself, Sara finds that no one else in the town much cares for reading, but she is determined to go through with her plan in Amy’s memory and to try and convince the residents that there is a book for everyone. The shop changes the town, and soon the locals are plotting a way to keep her around permanently before her visa expires.

It took a little while to get into, but once it has its claws into you, it isn’t letting go until the last page. Some of the plot points, such as Broken Wheel’s residents plot to keep Sara in town, are a bit madcap, but somehow still rather endearing, if not entirely believable. The characters themselves, however, are wonderfully deep and you really care about them and their happiness. The central plot eventually fell by the wayside for me, and I became far more interested in some of the more minor threads and what was happening with them, none of which I want to spoil here.

The book is packed with messages though, and the whole thing seems to be about the power of literature to change people. Those who have never picked up a book in their lives suddenly find themselves being given books that Sara thinks they’ll like, and many of them soon learn that they do indeed like reading, even if some of their tastes are a little bizarre. George, the old town drunk, develops a fondness for Bridget Jones and the Shopaholic series, and elderly Gertrude becomes hooked on the thrill of Steig Larsson. Sara is frequently to be found with her nose in a book, and her tastes are wide and eclectic, wonderfully often overlapping with my own. Indeed, I’ve never seen a character anywhere else read a Douglas Coupland novel.

There are also discussions to be had regarding religion, taste and decency, aging, family and community. One particularly notable scene has the very proper and Christian Caroline complain about Sara stocking gay erotica in her shop. Sara calls her out on judging something without trying it, and Caroline begins to thaw a little, sending her into a subplot that even she didn’t see coming.

Frankly, the whole thing is a little bit beautiful, and I found myself on the verge of tears more than once. It’s a love letter to books above anything, and I firmly believe its core message: there is a book for every person, and a person for every book. If you don’t like reading, you just haven’t found the right thing yet. A charming tale.

“Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley (1818)

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“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”

“I’m reading Frankenstein at the moment,” I said over Thursday afternoon cocktails (because that’s the sort of life I have). My friend looked at me from over his Manhattan and said, “Boring, isn’t it?” I sighed. “Yes.”

“Thing is,” he explained. “You have to read it through the lens of Frankenstein’s own hubris. He is melodramatic and you’ve gotta go with that to make it tolerable.” Yes, not only is this history’s first science fiction novel, it’s also probably the first emo committed to paper. Frankenstein spends the vast majority of the book moping, hand-wringing, cursing the universe, sobbing and generally wallowing in despair, leading him to be rather an unpleasant and irritating hero.

Cultural osmosis is such that when people think of Frankenstein, and this includes myself, they tend to picture a spooky castle, a stormy night, the hunchbacked assistant Igor and the birth of the Creature. Turns out that this is entirely becuase of the films. The novel is a different beast altogether. There’s no Igor here, and Frankenstein certainly doesn’t appear to be living in a castle. He’s much younger than I anticipated too, having been not long out of university, not even completing his degree, so any title of “Doctor” is a misnomer too. The actual event of him reanimating the Creature feels almost “blink and you’ll miss it”. In fact, I’m loathe to say, I did. It was only when Frankenstein encounters his creation in the Alps later on that I realised his experiment had been a success. I had to go back and read the pages again and there, buried beneath more pages of crying scientist, is a short section where it’s noted that life was indeed created, but Frankenstein immediately freaked out and hid in his bedroom while the Creature fled.

The action is really three stories, each nested within one another. It opens with Captain Robert Walton sailing a ship to explore the North Pole. He is writing letters to his sister, and details that he and his men saw a large, humanoid figure piloting a dog sled across the ice. Not long after, they take on board the very ill Victor Frankenstein who then tells his story.

Frankenstein tells of his life and his scientific experiments. A lot of time his given over to his family life and history, so the science almost seems to become incidental to the story. His tale is interrupted in the middle when he meets the Creature again. The Creature then tells his story and explains that since he ran away he’s been living in a hovel next to a cottage of some poor people, learning to read and speak, and about the world, from their conversations. He demands of Frankenstein that he make him a wife to love, as he doesn’t want to be the one being in the world who is forbidden from having anyone to love.

The story then goes back to Frankenstein’s exploits and how he becomes haunted by the Creature and his plans to bring to life a bride for his creation. Eventually deciding that he doesn’t want to bring about anymore monsters, the Creature then begins to extract revenge and make his creator’s life a living hell. The story ends with Captain Walton writing to his sister again, telling her Frankenstein’s story.

The thing is, the bits that don’t involve Frankenstein are easily the best bits. The Creature has a wonderful way of speaking and is deeply insightful, but I have so many questions. How is it he has to learn about to read and write and speak all over again, when he was once living before? He knows nothing, which seems a bit bizarre to me, although given the whole nature of the novel, it seems odd to focus on something like that. Frankenstein himself isn’t a likeable man, I felt, and many academics have since claimed that he’s really just written to mock Lord Byron, who Shelley knew well. An overemotional drama queen who dropped out of education because he thought he knew better than everyone else, and hated when things didn’t go his way? Sounds about right.

I’m not sorry I read it, but my brief love affair with the classics has, possibly, come to a natural resting point again. It’s remarkable how little of the original novel has seeped into popular culture, but then I suppose that’s the power of film, and maybe this is one where, to get the real sense of drama and horror, it needs to be more visual.

Of course, in this case there is a version of Frankenstein that is definitely better than the book. Morecambe and Wise did it years ago with guest Ian Carmichael. The usual nonsense occurs, with Ian occasionally slipping into song, Eric convinced that he’s in a pantomime, and Ernie being the least terrifying incarnation of the monster ever. Take it away, boys:

“After Dark” by Haruki Murakami (2004)

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“Eyes mark the shape of the city.”

It seems that eventually, if you read enough, you will brush up against Haruki Murakami. A few years ago I read Kafka on the Shore and was simultaneously smitten and bemused by it. He is probably Japan’s most famous literary export (Kazuo Ishiguro wrote his books in English) and his books are charmingly bizarre.

After Dark takes place over seven hours, from midnight to 7 am, in Tokyo. Mari Asai is sitting in a restaurant at midnight, reading a heavy book, when she is joined by a skinny trombonist who claims to know her sister. The sister, Eri, however, is asleep, and has been for two months. In another part of the city, a late-working businessman has attacked a Chinese prostitute and stolen everything she owns.

As the night draws on, these characters become linked and their stories wrap around one another in the black of the Japanese night. But not everything is as it seems. There’s a Man with No Face, staring at something unrevealed. An unplugged television is starting to show signs of life. And mirrors are are holding onto their reflections longer than they should. Is it all a trick of the night, or is something strange going on?

In parts, the book almost feels like it’s written in blank verse, having an almost lyrical quality to several parts. The narrator is “pure point of view”, able to watch, from any angle, but not interfere. It’s a short book, but the characters have enormous depth and are oddly likeable and, weirdly, relatable, despite the strangeness going on around them. The short time frame and the fact it all takes place at a time when most of the world is meant to be asleep gives it a haunting, magical quality. And, of course, as in everything Murakami does, there are cats.

There’s not much in the way of plot, and while things happen, little is resolved because daylight invades at the end of the novel and a new day starts. We are not allowed to know what will happen to any of the people here, but we can count ourselves lucky to have been able to spend a little time with them. Murakami’s style seems to cleverly mimic the way that time seems malleable in the early hours of the morning, and how the whole time is really one big liminal space. Everything feels a bit off, which means that you accept the more magical aspects of the story without hesitation. If a mirror is going to stop working properly, it would be at three in the morning.

Haunting and very beautiful, a shot of magic that will linger on like a half-forgotten dream long after you’ve woken up.

“The Sculptor” by Scott McCloud (2015)

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“Ready?”

Ah, comics. Sorry, “graphic novels”. I’ve never been one for superhero comics or anything sprung from that world, but visual stories are far more than that. I’ve not submerged myself in the world of graphic novels at all, but I dip a toe in now and again. I’ve read some Shakespeare adaptations in that form, and I’ve read Scott Pilgrim and am up to date with Saga, one of the best and strangest graphic novels around. Earlier this year I read the story of Agatha Christie’s life in the form. It’s definitely an area of publishing that seems to be maligned and ignored, although slowly they seem to be gaining slightly more prominence. I present to you today The Sculptor.

David Smith was once an admired artist, one of the greatest sculptors in America, if not the world. But times have changed and now he’s struggling to make ends meet, unable to create or have anyone show an interest in his work. He declares that he would give his life for his art, a statement he may come to regret.

He meets Death, who gives him that very option. If David takes up his offer, he will be able to create whatever he can imagine, just using his hands to mould any material he comes into contact with. However, if he chooses this path, he will die in two hundred days. David, so consumed by the desire to create, thinks that it can’t possibly be as bad as all that – he’ll achieve immortality with the art created from his new skills. Unfortunately, he’s just fallen in love, and time is ticking…

There are some stories that only work in certain mediums, and this is one that couldn’t possibly work as a traditional novel. It’s requires the visuals, and the old cliche of “a picture paints a thousand words” holds fast here. McCloud has a wonderful ability to use the right number of panels to set up anything, as well as setting up locations with great angles. In fact, I can see that it would work pretty well as a film, although I’d worry someone in a suit and a film studies degree meddling with it and adding or subtracting plot points. The story is plenty solid enough as it is. The artwork is beautiful, and McCloud balances well the panels that show us what’s going on without dialogue and those that contain speech.

It’s a really brilliant tale about how our obsessions consume us and to what extent we’ll go to do the things we love, no matter the cost. It’s a story of promises and carelessness, caution and mistakes, tragedy and art. I confess I even shed a tear towards the end. Graphic novels can move us just as much as a traditional novel. It’s heartbreaking and painful, but there’s a sense of hope among it, about making the most of our lives and accepting that we’re not all going to change the world, no matter how much we want it.

It’s a hefty tome, but I breezed through it in a couple of hours, lapping it up with great joy. It’s so real, and so vivid. If you think graphic novels aren’t for you, you could do worse than starting here.

“Nina Is Not OK” by Shappi Khorsandi (2016)

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“The burly bouncer was holding me by the scruff of the neck.”

I like a drink. A lot of my friends like a drink. We are, however, generally capable of knowing when we’ve had enough. We don’t drink to black out, but whether that’s down to our age (hangovers are much worse in your late twenties than they were at university) and or an inbuilt sense of responsibility, I won’t state here. However, in Nina is Not OK, the first novel by the phenomenal British comedian Shappi Khorsandi, we meet a girl who definitely doesn’t know when to quit.

As the story opens, Nina is being kicked out of a nightclub where she has been engaging in, let’s say, a public display of sexual activity. Followed out by the man involved and one of his friends, the next thing she remembers is being in a taxi holding her knickers. Things don’t get any better from here. Still smarting from the sudden departure of her boyfriend Jamie, she is unable to remember quite what happened on this night. Knowing something bad did, however, she seeks to block any ideas out from her mind, sending her into a downward spiral of heavy drinking and sleeping with whoever comes her way.

Amongst all this, she discovers that her friend Zoe is now dating the guy she met at the club, her mum and stepdad are planning on moving to Germany, Jamie isn’t replying to any of her messages, she’s struggling to come to terms with her sexuality, and her exams are creeping ever nearer. Things reach a head, however, when she tries to hit on her best friend’s dad. Rehab seems to be the only option, but even that isn’t going to be the end of all the drama…

I find myself deeply conflicted about the character of Nina for much of the novel. The trouble is, she reminds me quite a lot of a girl I knew at school. She was perpetually drunk, sleeping with inappropriate characters, and generally struggling to keep her life together. But we were all seventeen – as Nina is in this book – and what on earth do we know about helping keep one another sane? She moved away eventually – none of us had been able to cope with her – and I happen to know that she is now healthy and happy elsewhere. This whole thing makes the character far more real and less of a stereotype than Nina may appear to others. However, the girl I knew didn’t quite go as far as this, and her life wasn’t quite as much of a soap opera. I did, however, find myself sympathising more with her friends and family who had to put up with her drunken antics than I did Nina herself though.

It wasn’t until later in the book when the truth comes out that I began to feel sorry for her. I found it hard to have any sympathy for her as she seems to be willfully destroying her own life, and because the incident from the opening chapter is left vague, I seemed to forget about its severity. She goes through a lot, and Khorsandi handles it all with compassion and skill. The characters are vibrant and real, if not always particularly pleasant, and there are some horrible but vital truths about our society and its treatment of men and women, rape victims and alcoholism. The scenes set in rehab are tragic and bring home the reality of the situation for many people.

It’s a dark and brave novel full of heart and horror. Emotional doesn’t even begin to cover it. I’m a big fan of Khorsandi’s comedy, and I always turn to a novel by a celebrity with trepidation as I’ve been burnt before, but this one came highly recommended, and I’m pleased to say that she’s written a wonderful, if shocking, novel.

“Evil Under The Sun” by Agatha Christie (1941)

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“When Captain Roger Angmering built himself a house in the year 1782 on the island off Leathercombe Bay, it was thought the height of eccentricity on his part.”

Undaunted by a disappointing Agatha Christie last month, I press on with the final few novels. We’re much earlier in her career this time, 1941 to be exact, and back with Hercule Poirot, so there was a lot more hope that this was going to be one of the good ones. Indeed, it was.

We find our Belgian hero holidaying on a tiny island off of Devon at the Jolly Roger Hotel. His fellow guests are quite a jolly bunch, but one among them is causing quite a stir. Arlena Marshall is an uncommonly beautiful woman and all eyes turn to her as she makes her way down onto the beach every morning; the men look on with lust, the women with hatred and jealousy. She seems particularly intent on flirting with Patrick Redfern, a married man who follows her around like a loyal dog. With all this interest around her, it isn’t long before she’s found dead, strangled, on one of the island’s more remote beaches.

Ruling out the staff and noting it would be almost impossible for someone to cross from the mainland to the island unnoticed, it quickly becomes apparent that the murderer is among the hotel guests. Could it be that her husband, Kenneth Marshall, had finally had enough of her and the way she carried on and slipped off to murder her? Was it her step-daughter, Linda, who was seen that very morning with a bag of candles and no explanation? Is is Reverend Stephen Lane, convinced that Arlena was “evil through and through”? Perhaps Patrick’s wife Christie, jealous and angry? Not to mention Kenneth’s old friend Rosamund, athletic spinster Emily Brewster, or the garrulous Mrs Gardener? Everyone seems to have a perfect alibi, but Poirot is on the case, trying to work out what a bath, a bottle and a pair of nail scissors have to do with anything.

Fortunately, I adored this one. Poirot is on hand to help the local police, who are portrayed well and as a reasonably sensible group. The hotel guests are all interesting, and until the reveal, you could make quite a strong case against most of them. Liberally stuffed with red herrings, the story as usual has all the clues there, but it’s hard sometimes to even know what you’re looking for, or what offhand comment might reveal all. It’s a gorgeous setting too, and the novel includes a little map of the island, presumably added so Christie doesn’t have to provide a chapter of exposition on its shape and layout, and also to help amateur sleuths work out where everyone was when the crime occurred. There’s even a lovely little meta-joke: when one of the hotel guests asks Poirot to share with them his thoughts, he says, “I reserve the explanations for the last chapter.” And indeed, as usual, he does.

I’m going to be sorry when I’ve run out of Christie novels to discover for the first time. Undoubtedly a re-read of them all will have to take place. Still, until then, six to go.

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