“Nutshell” by Ian McEwan (2016)

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“So here I am, upside down in a woman.”

I’m repeatedly on record on this blog saying that I’m not a particular fan of child narrators. However, when the narrator sounds enough like the age they’re supposed to be, then I have less to complain about. However, Ian McEwan has taken the premise to its logical extreme here and, oddly enough, it works. In Nutshell, the narrator is perhaps a unique voice in the literary canon: he hasn’t yet been born.

Our protagonist is still a few weeks off his birth day, but he’s keeping himself entertained by listening to and learning from the world around him. He’s discovered that his mother is called Trudy. He’s also discovered that John (her husband and his father) doesn’t live with them anymore. Trudy does, however, spend an awful lot of time with Claude, John’s brother. It also soon becomes painfully clear that Trudy and Claude are plotting something, unaware of the witness that listens to every word and is the innocent implicated party in the whole plot.

You could take the premise of this novel in one of two ways – either to say that the whole thing’s ridiculous, or to just go with it and enjoy the wry humour of the unborn child who has a mastery of philosophy and prose that I can only dream of. It’s explained that Trudy listens to a lot of podcasts and news stories, all of which the baby also hears, and so he has become vastly informed about the state of the world, knowing not only that he lives in London, but also having a basic understanding of many of the socioeconomic factors governing twenty-first century Britain. His style is engaging and somewhat comical, yet also moving and profound and packed with debate on right and wrong, crime and punishment, gender, parenthood and modernity.

The whole thing is somewhat Shakespearean in nature, with the hero’s mother and uncle plotting against the father. I’m not clear enough on my Hamlet to know quite whether it’s a direct lift or not, but there feel like there are definitely enough similarities to assume that it’s a retelling. McEwan sparkles as usual, although I’ve not read very much of his catalogue. The premise is wonderfully unique and I think helps give it a bit more nuance, excitement and fun. One of the funniest ongoing jokes is that Trudy hasn’t quite given up drinking while she’s pregnant, and as such, the foetus is something of a wine snob before it’s even born, being able to detect the grape being imbibed even without hearing it said. Part of the novel style of the book comes from the fact that sight, smell and taste are all but impossible to use as senses, meaning the book relies heavily on sound and, interestingly, touch.

It’s a fascinating experiment and it’s really paid off. There’s a satisfying ending that still somehow leaves you wanting to know more, and the writing simply sparkles. Ingenious.

Hi everyone! Great news – my second novel, The Third Wheel, achieved its funding and will now be published in the near future! Thank you so much to everyone who supported. If you still want to support, or want to learn out more, click here!

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“The Escape” by C. L. Taylor (2017)

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“Someone is walking directly behind me, matching me pace for pace.”

I got through my two festive books this year long before Christmas had even begun, which put me in the strange position of reading a tense psychological thriller on Christmas Day – the moods didn’t match in the least. Did it contribute to Boxing Day melancholy? Or is that just tiredness and the inability to move after doubling my body weight in chocolate? Maybe we’ll never know. Anyway, C. L. Taylor was a new one on me, and it’d been a while since I read a book like this, so always good to shake things up.

Jo Blackmore is walking back to her car after work one night when she realises there is someone behind her. This woman, Paula, catches up to her and asks for a lift home, but she seems to know far more about Jo and her family than is normal. She knows her husband, where they live, and she has a glove belonging to Jo’s two-year-old, Elise. Paula gives a subtle threat and Jo is terrified, rushing to pick Elise up from nursery and getting her back home safe.

But home doesn’t seem to safe anymore. Paula keeps turning up, her threats becoming more blatant. She claims that Jo’s husband, Max, stole something from her and she wants it back. Max says he’s never met Paula in his life – she must be a relative of someone he framed in his role as a crime journalist. Things get worse when the police arrive on Jo’s doorstep with a warrant to search the premises, and find drugs in the toilet cistern. Following her arrest, social services are soon involved, and even Max now doesn’t believe that Jo is capable of looking after Elise. Everyone is against her, so all Jo can do is run. But sometimes you can’t escape…

Like many thrillers, it’s formulaic. Several standard cliches are present, such as the uncertainty of what the antagonist wants, and chapters from their point of view, giving away more information than the protagonist knows. While Jo is the only character who has chapters written in the first person, we do we insights from several other figures, but they’re all written in third person, so we can never really truly know what’s going on inside their head. Jo is painted as an agoraphobic with a supposed drug problem. This feels similar to The Girl on the Train, in which someone’s personal problems mean that they aren’t trusted.

While it’s a zippy plot, and I was caught up in it, I have to admit that the whole thing relies heavily on two things: coincidence and stupidity. The general rule, as I’ve heard (and played with) for writing is that only coincidences that lead to further problems are allowed. Here, people stumble into one another and while it works organically enough, it still feels a little too contrived. I also feel that Jo exacerbates her problems too much. Sure, I get that if she didn’t then there’s no novel, but realistically she over-reacts and simply digs herself deeper. Also, as a supposed agoraphobic, suddenly getting on a ferry and moving to Ireland doesn’t feel particularly fitting. Her personality would suggest that, despite the fear she has of living at home, it would have been far more plausible for her to be too scared to leave, and simply changing the locks.

Good enough as pure entertainment, but very little we haven’t seen before.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

“Saga: Volume 1” by Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples (2012)

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saga book“This is how an idea becomes real.”

Graphic novels have so far featured poorly on this blog and on my reading lists in general. It’s not that I don’t like them – actually, far from it – or don’t consider them “proper books”, it’s simply that I don’t know where to begin with them. The only ones to have graced my blog so far have been manga versions of Shakespeare plays,  so it’s about time I took a look at something else. Fortunately for me, having a wide circle of friends with varying circles of interest means that every genre and style finds its way to me eventually, and it’s thanks to two of these friends that Saga found its way onto my shelf.

The one I’ve read is the first six chapters of the story, collated together, although I’m told there is much more to come. The background of the world is that there are two warring races of aliens, those of the planet Landfall who all have wings, and those of Landfall’s moon, Wreath, who are all adorned with horns. While the war has now ended on this planet and moon (under the logic that the destruction of either will too destroy its companion) the battles have been outsourced, and now the entire galaxy has to choose whether to side with the planet or the moon. There is nowhere to hide from the war.

Amid the mess, two have fallen in love: Marko, a Wreather who has vowed to never use his sword again, and Alana, a Landfallian with a sharp tongue and little fear. Somehow, they have sired a daughter and are now on the run from both of their peoples, not wanting to be part of the neverending war. However, there is a bounty on their heads and several people are now after them. These include Prince Robot IV, a robotic royal with a screen for a face, and two freelance bounty hunters, The Will (a slightly washed-up figure who travels everywhere with his companion, Lying Cat) and The Stalk (a creature from your worst nightmares). With the help of a half-bodied teenage ghost called Izabel, Alana and Marko are determined to get as far away from the war as possible, but with everyone in the galaxy seemingly looking for them, that’s going to be a lot harder than it seems.

So what we have here is that someone has taken Game of Thrones, Star Wars and your worst nightmares, loaded them into a blender on full speed and poured out the remains onto the paper. The characters and story are immediately compelling and while the whole “two from different factions fall in love” shtick has been going since Romeo & Juliet if not before, this is one of the freshest takes I’ve ever seen. Fiona Staples’ artwork is a thing of absolute beauty and genius and the characters are phenomenally well-realised. The design is beautiful and there are no short cuts. Every single character is identifiable. Just because everyone in Marko’s race has horns, it doesn’t mean they have the same horns. While his are curled like a ram’s, we also see a whole bunch of other styles, including a unicorn.

By far and away the outstanding character so far is Lying Cat, The Will’s faithful companion, a large green feline who can immediately tell if someone is telling the truth or not. The facial expressions on the beast are so wonderfully realised that you totally go along with it. The whole universe has clearly had a lot of work put into it, so while there is all this ongoing political drama, the true focus is actually on this pair of new parents, trying to do what is right for their newborn daughter in a galaxy that is rife with problems. This humanising plot means that you totally buy everything else that’s going on.

Sure, there are some images here that are going to haunt my dreams for the next few nights, such as the two greeters on the brothel planet Sextillion who are merely porn-star heads on spindly legs, but it’s absolutely worth it. The imaginations of both Vaughan and Staples are out of control, and I for one am not willing to help them reel them in. Long may they continue.

“For One More Day” by Mitch Albom (2006)

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Another day, another destiny...

Another day, another destiny…

“Let me guess. You want to know why I tried to kill myself.”

So I threw down The Haunted Book and, once I’d showered enough to get the spook off of me and focused for a while on my NaNoWriMo ideas, I picked up another book. Ah, something nice about family and love and … oh god, it’s another ghost story.

But this one isn’t scary. This is the story of Charles “Chick” Benetto, a man who feels he has nothing left to live for. Alcohol and regret has stolen away his wife, his daughter and his job. He is broken and believes that there is only one option left open to him – he has to kill himself.

He decides to take one last drive before he does it, heading out to Pepperville Beach where he grew up, planning to visit his childhood home. When he arrives, his mother is there waiting for him. There’s just one problem with that – she died eight years ago.

Chick is then granted something that I daresay many of us have wished for with someone no longer with us – one more day together. His mother cooks up him some breakfast and then she takes him out with her on her errands and he begins to learn more about the secrets his family had and how he lost everything he once had.

This is my third Mitch Albom book, having previously read The Five People You Meet In Heaven and The Timekeeper. I love his brain and the way he constructs his worlds. They’re all wonderfully real and full of hope and joy, despite so often being about death and its omnipresent shadow over us. The idea of spending a final day with someone who you lost is one that undoubtedly appeals to so many people. This book goes into realistic detail of the relationship between a mother and her son, one of the most important relationships in any life. Chick loves his mother, then becomes embarrassed of her, and they begin to drift, all the while she tries to keep them together as best she knows how.

It is the kind of book that makes you want to go and hug your own parents because you never know when your final day with them will be (it’s tragic, but it’s true). There are some truly heartbreaking moments in this book, such as Chick’s reveal of his last interaction with his mother before her death, and his own downward spiral as he becomes unable to live with himself. The struggle that Posey (his mother) goes through as well is also terribly sad and even though she’s not my mother (and, of course, doesn’t actually exist), I just want to give her a hug too as she is a deeply loving and passionate person who will do anything for her children.

Beautiful and compelling, but keep a tissue handy.