“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.

“A Long Way Down” by Nick Hornby (2005)

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“Can I explain why I wanted to jump off the top of a tower-block?”

Suicide still seems to be one of the most taboo subjects in the Western world. Death is rarely something any of us want to think of, and many of us are upset, perhaps outraged, by the concept of someone taking their own life. Most, if not all, religions look upon it as a grave sin, and there are organisations dedicated to preventing people from doing it. I’ve, fortunately, never been in a position where I felt that death was the only option, so I can offer no explanation for how these people feel or what drives them to the edge, sometimes literally. In my first foray into a Nick Hornby novel, he dips his toe into the world of the suicidal and tries to shed some light on it all.

Martin Sharp doesn’t think he has anything left to live for. After sleeping with an underage girl, he’s done time in prison and is now dealing with no contact with his children, no career prospects, and no hope. On New Year’s Eve he makes his way to the roof of Topper’s House, a popular suicide spot in north London. However, while contemplating the leap, he finds himself joined by three other would-be jumpers: Maureen, a single mother struggling to cope with the prospect of another year with her disabled son, Jess, who is eighteen and only wanted an explanation from her ex-boyfriend as to why he left her, and JJ, an American whose dreams have not come true and he’s not a world-famous musician.

Unable and unwilling to jump with an audience, Martin comes away from the ledge and the four eat the pizza JJ was delivering to the building and then descend through the building to a party to find Jess’s ex. The four vastly different people are soon bound by this one act, and when the press hunt them down and start asking questions, they find themselves united and lying to the country about what really happened on the roof. As time goes on and their friendships develop, they begin to see that maybe death isn’t the answer. Maybe they were just asking the wrong questions.

The most incredible character of the novel is, in my opinion, Maureen. She has a son who is trapped in a wheelchair, unable to move or communicate, and she has dedicated her life to him, sacrificing any joy from her life to take care of him. Her life is tragic in the extreme. She is incredibly isolated and generally unaware of anything that’s happened in the outside world for about twenty years. You can see fully why she would want to end it, but are heartbroken by the fact that she thinks that’s the only option. She is as trapped as her son, and her passages are the most poignant and wonderful. She was my favourite character by a long way, if only because I wanted to help rescue her.

The narration shifts around between the four characters, and Hornby does a brilliant job of making them all sound so distinct. Maureen bleeps out her swear words, Jess doesn’t use correct punctuation and her sentences run on, and JJ uses Americanisms throughout. I like the other three characters just fine too, but they are all less sympathetic than Maureen. Jess seems like a typical angst-ridden teenager but we learn more about exactly who she is and what happened to her to get her in this position. JJ has the least reason to jump, almost seeming to find himself at Topper’s House on a whim, so he at first lies about his reason for wanting to end it all. Martin is arrogant and foolish, but he’s also rather self aware and his character does undergo some development throughout the novel, showing he is capable of learning from mistakes, even if he doesn’t always follow the lesson fully.

In another novel, maybe some of the things that happen to them would seem far-fetched, but here they seem to work. People bond in difficult times in strange ways, so I took it that it had to take something extraordinary to bring these people together, but once they were, everything they did seemed normal. There’s no reason these four should ever have met otherwise, but I think life generally throws us in the path of the people we need most.

A couple of laugh-out-loud moments, but generally not as funny as billed, however that’s not really a complaint. It’s very wise and thoughtful and really rather beautiful, and I enjoyed it immensely.

“Career Of Evil” by Robert Galbraith (2015)

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It was that, or a career in HR.

It was that, or a career in HR.

“He had not managed to scrub off all her blood.”

Although it seems so recently that Robert Galbraith hit the shelves as a respected and renowned crime writer, truth is this is a series that’s been going for two whole years already. Following on from the success – more than a little aided by the discovery of Galbraith’s true identity – of The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm, the third installment of the series takes us once more into the seedy underbelly of London with some of the greatest characters in modern literature.

Review starts now, and there might be one or two spoilers in it, so read on at your own risk.

Picking up a few months after the last book left off, it’s spring 2011 and while the country is preparing of the royal wedding, Cormoran Strike and his assistant Robin Ellacott have become notable in newspapers for their involvement in bringing to justice the murderers of Lula Landry and Owen Quine. Things are ticking over nicely, but everything looks set to go wrong when Robin accepts a package delivered to the office addressed to her. She assumes it’s something for her upcoming wedding to Matthew, her fiance who disapproves of her career choice, and signs for it quite happily. Upon opening the package, she finds it isn’t the disposable cameras that she was expecting.

It’s a woman’s severed leg.

Robin, and Cormoran, are obviously shocked by this development and call in the police. Not long after, the press are crowding around the office and they two of them have to leave it for the time being. It’s clear that whoever sent the leg is mad, dangerous and out to ruin Strike’s career. Eric Wardle, police officer in charge of the case, asks Strike who on earth would want to send him a leg. But Strike has a problem. There isn’t one person he knows who’d do something like that; there are four.

With his client list drying up and his determination to find the culprit growing, Strike begins to dig deep into his past to bring out the characters he’s wronged and who would hold such a grudge against him. Meanwhile, Robin is in danger, and whoever is threatening them is after her, and far cleverer than one would imagine.

Career of Evil is the first book in a while that I’ve had trouble putting down. Oddly compelling, it keeps you going despite constantly disgusting you too. There is violence in spades here, some of it incredibly gory, and the villains in this tale include crack addicts, rapists and paedophiles. The thing that actually disgusted me most of all though was the introduction of the condition called “body integrity identity disorder” (BIID), which was a new one on me. It’s predominately a mental illness of sorts where a person believes that they shouldn’t have a certain limb, or should be disabled. It’s otherwise known as being transabled. Basically, these are people who want to be disabled. Apparently this is a real condition (although not recognised by all medical professionals) and frankly I can think of little more vile than this. Anyone who has this condition needs to take a long, hard look at themselves and seek professional psychiatric help. Given that Strike is missing a leg, this whole issue becomes quite important within the story, and he’s got little time for these people.

This book also gives us more information about the backstory of, mostly, Strike, but also of Robin, finally explaining why she dropped out of university (it won’t come as a surprise to many, I’m sure), and showing more of the rising tensions between her and Matthew. Galbraith also makes far more of the latent sexual tension between Strike and Robin, a subplot I could happily do without. Oh sure, it works within the context of the story, but I like the friendship and working partnership between the two; I don’t think the introduction of the idea that they like each other romantically was strictly necessary or would make too much difference if it was removed. But this is a very small fly in a very large pot of ointment.

It’s slick, clever and the characters (the heroes, anyway – the villains are all appropriately and wickedly macabre and disturbing) are all great. I can’t help but think though that now Strike should have a bit more money, but perhaps after solving a third huge case, things will finally be on the up for him. I haven’t seen or heard any confirmation that the series will continue, but it ends on a mighty big cliffhanger with a lot of questions still to be answered, so I’d imagine this isn’t the last we’ve seen of Strike and Robin.

And long may it be until that end comes.

“Various Pets Alive And Dead” by Marina Lewycka (2012)

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Some are livelier than others...

Some are livelier than others…

“The whole world is deranged, though most people haven’t noticed yet.”

A friend of mine, the editor, handed over this book to me at Christmas. “I love this author, but I’ve not read this one of her books yet. Her other stuff was great, though.” I trust this friend instinctively, and I owe her a lot, so I felt a good deal of pressure to enjoy this one. It was like a litmus test of some sort. However, there was nothing to worry about, my trust was placed entirely correctly, and I really enjoyed the book.

I’ve heard of Lewycka – most people are aware of her unusually titled novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian if nothing else – but I’d never even contemplated reading her. The reviews on the back of the book said she was funny, which is never something I’d gathered from what I’d previously seen or heard (yeah, yeah, never judge a book by it’s cover, I know). Still, it wasn’t far wrong. While not laugh out loud funny, it’s dry and witty with some wonderfully surreal situations.

This is the story of an unconventional family. Doro and Marcus met during a protest in the 70s, and soon found themselves living with a group of other people in a commune, fighting for free love, feminism and the collapse of capitalism. They managed to raise three children out of it, and while they’ve turned out well, they’ve turned their backs on many of their hippie parents ideals. The eldest, Clara, is now a teacher who is happy to conform to normal society, just happy to have a bathroom she doesn’t have to share and her own clothes. Middle-child Serge has dropped out of Cambridge and is now earning megabucks in the City as a banker, something which he has neglected to tell his parents, who are sure to be ashamed. And then there’s Oolie-Anna, the youngest, who has Down’s Syndrome and is desperate to move out on her own and find some independence, but Doro is reluctant to cut the apron strings.

Set during the global economic collapse of 2008, the family find themselves brushing up against all sorts of people and ideas from their past. It doesn’t help that Doro and Marcus have now decided, in their sixties, that they should get married. This opens up more cans of worms as Oolie seeks her freedom, Serge seeks his utopian hideaway and Clara seeks an escaped hamster.

The credit crunch was an interesting time and by now many of the earlier details of it have faded into history, despite it only being six years ago. The world hasn’t recovered, and doesn’t seem set to for many years yet, but it is great to see the effects of it from different points of view. The book has three narrators – Clara, Serge and Doro – all of whom have their secrets from the time in the commune and those that have been born more recently, and you wish them all a happy ending. I think my favourite of the three is Serge, despite the reputation that bankers have. He likes money, there’s no denying it, but the guilt about keeping his job secret from his parents weighs heavily, and he’s also too busy obsessing over Ukrainian co-worker Maroushka with whom he is probably in love with. Clara is a decent sort, who loves her family and teaches for the joy of the job, not just for the paycheck. And Doro is simply what happens when those from the free-loving seventies with their hippie ideals realise that their dreams of changing the world were never going to come to fruition.

Even the cast of secondary characters, which is far from small, shows up some wonderful figures, like Bruno (Italian, very sexy, and prone to wearing very tiny underpants) and Mr Philpott (Shakespeare and Wittgenstein quoting caretaker of Clara’s school). The unusual title refers to the many pets kept at the commune by the children, and also, to me at least, seems to refer to the pet ideas that everyone has, how some of them linger on and never leave you, but others die and fall by the wayside as you get older and realise that lentils and sex rotas won’t save the world.

A captivating, charming and very real novel, and well worth a read.