“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.

“King Crow” by Michael Stewart (2011)

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‘king hell…

“When I look at people, I wonder what sort of birds they are.”

It’s been a long time since I found myself close to not bothering to finish a book, so this was very overdue. I haven’t not finished a book in years, and this one was only small, but after getting only 70 pages in over three days (given I read the 600+ pages of Dead Like You in the same time), I seriously thought about not finishing. But, then today happened, the weather was nice and I had a hangover to fight off, so I got stuck in and finished the damn thing.

Paul Cooper is a sixteen-year-old boy with no friends and a fascination with birds of all kinds. He has a rotten home life – his father left when he was very young, and his mother now has a string of affairs with unsuitable women – and has recently moved to a new school, where he’d rather read his ornithological books and ignore the world around him.

Then he meets Ashley, who is cool, good-looking and basically his polar opposite. Ashley has got involved with a gang of drug dealers and when a deal goes wrong, Ashley is tortured. Cooper helps him escape, and the two steal a car to get away from their assailants, but may kill one as they drive off. With some pissed off men on their heels, the two set off to the Lake District – Ashley to escape whatever crime he’s committed, and Cooper to finally see some wild ravens. Along the way they pick up the wealthy Becky who seems to fancy Cooper and his oddities, and soon their story reaches the national press. There’s a manhunt underway, but all Cooper can think about is how ravens scavenge at carcasses…

So, while it’s never explicitly stated, it’s fairly obvious that Cooper is meant to be somewhere on the autism spectrum. While this is handled beautifully in some novels, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, unfortunately here it seems to have been penned by someone who once read a pamphlet on the condition and all they took away was the fact that sometimes autistic people develop strong obsessions with one topic. This is played out here with Cooper ticking off all the birds he’s seen wild. Throughout, he’s more interested in the fact he’s just seen a woodcock and a raven than knowing he’s carrying drugs, or is embroiled in some serious crimes. His behaviour seems to be that of two entirely different people, which I guess plays in to the ending, but I found it so jarring to read.

While the ornithological facts that intersperse the text are quite interesting, there’s no engaging plot to hang them on. Cooper is irritating, Becky doesn’t seem deep enough to contain all the facets of the personality she’s supposed to have, and the resolution, as far as I’m concerned, just leaves so many questions unanswered that I was simply frustrated.

According to Amazon and Goodreads, I appear to be all but alone in this summary of the book, with everyone else hailing it as a masterpiece and an exciting new voice, but I was utterly unmoved. If you like birds, read H Is For Hawk instead.

“The Antagonist” by Lynn Coady (2011)

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antag
Every hero is someone else’s villain.

“There you are in the picture looking chubby and pompous, and it makes me remember how you told me that time you were afraid of fat people.”

Life isn’t black and white. There are innumerable shades of grey in between and when you tell a story, you’re guaranteed to tell it in a different way to anyone else. Something that is traumatic to you, might seem unimportant to someone else. Now imagine if that someone else had taken your trauma and sold it. How would that make you feel?

This is exactly what has happened to our antagonistic protagonist, Gordon “Rank” Rankin. At thirty-nine, after years moving around Canada with more than a few dark secrets in his past, he discovers that is old friend Adam has written a book. Inside this book is Rank’s story, and he’s furious. All his secrets, confessed one drunken night to this friend, have been laid bare on the page.

Raging, Rank finds Adam on the Internet and begins to send him emails that aren’t exactly non-threatening, but don’t suggest that he’s about to turn up and bash his door down at any minute. Rank just wants a chance to tell his side of the story – give Adam a refresher course of what happened at university and before, from his point of view.

What Rank ends up discovering, however, is so much more.

OK, so some books are immediate duds, and some books are immediately revered and held aloft, but then there are some – and they’re rarer – that sit simply on that three-star-review position and don’t seem to resonate particularly in either way. The Antagonist is one of those. It’s well written, and Coady has a flair for colourful, interesting language. She sets up fully rounded characters, painting them for us, and knows how and when to release certain information for the best reactions.

But frankly, there are a lot of words here for not much action. Rank’s three great tragedies in his life are revealed out of order, and one of them he isn’t even directly responsible for, which seems to be the one, ironically, that he can’t forgive himself for most. You can see where it’s going, and it’s rather interesting, but it just takes a bit too long to get there.

The conceit of having Rank speaking directly to Adam in the book is good, but he is a distracted narrator, drunk some of the time at least, and he weaves about the narrative, jumping backwards and forwards in time, changing from first to third person and back again with barely a warning. I guess more than anything it’s a story about Rank’s father, Gord, whether it’s intended to be or not. Unfortunately Gord isn’t a particularly captivating presence, more a cartoonishly angry man who has a bad relationship with his son.

We’re exploring too many themes here – narcissism, fate, forgiveness and religion – and as such none of them get enough page time to stand out. Again, it’s not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, the writing is polished and it’s an easy read, but it’s just not very memorable. Find me in a year and ask me what I thought of this book. I’m unlikely to be able to tell you much.

It’s a filler novel; but at heart a tale of fear, struggle and our obsessions with ourselves, always wondering how we come across to others, but never really knowing.

“More Than This” by Patrick Ness (2013)

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more than“Here is the boy, drowning.”

I was first introduced to Patrick Ness at the end of 2013 when the first of his Chaos Walking trilogy was thrust into my hands by a friend. After gulping the series down and loving every page of it, it wasn’t long before I was discussing the books with another friend and she suggested this one. I bought it last year and have only just got around to reading it (because I do that a lot). Always happy to return to an author I enjoyed, I expected to be blown away once more. Luckily, I was.

This is the story of teenager Seth Wearing and what happens after he dies. He wakes up wrapped in bandages on the front path of the house he grew up in, but hasn’t lived in for eight years not since … not since something terrible happened. The world is entirely deserted, filthy and with weeds growing out of every surface. He cannot explain how he has come to be here, given that this house is in England and was living in America, so comes to assume that this is his own personal hell. After all, the weather is very strange and only hell would send you back to the location where your worst memory took place.

Seth explores the old town, finding supplies in the remains of the shops and houses, but finding absolutely no other people. Every time he falls asleep he is plagued by dreams – bad dreams of what happened before he died, of how he led to his brother being mentally disturbed; how he fell in love with his best fiend Gudmund, but it was all taken away from him when his classmates found out. For days he believes he is all alone until he sees a van moving – the first sign of human activity since he arrived there. But when he tries to call out to the van for help, he finds himself captured by two misfits; angry, strong Regine, and tiny, enthusiastic Tomasz who insist that they are going to save his life. Seth has to work out exactly where he is and what’s going on, which is complicated when the last thing you remember before arriving in a desolate wasteland is breaking your skull against a rock.

Like the Chaos Walking series, Ness is very good at pacing. For the first hundred or so pages, there are no characters except Seth (not counting his flashbacks and dreams) but at no point does this seem a struggle. Ness is a master at cranking up the tension and the book is genuinely terrifying in parts, and just when you think things can’t get any worse, they do. The twists keep on coming and layer after layer of secrets are revealed with such speed and timing that the book soon runs out on itself and you find yourself on the final page with a cliffhanger that will probably frustrate you forevermore. I think it will me.

Although Seth is a fairly bland character – while not a typical boy-genius YA character, he’s pretty inoffensive with nothing to mark him out as special – the small cast around him more than makes up for it. Tomasz is unerringly cheery, even in this wasteland, and his English is flawed but sweet. He’s young but has the eyes and emotions of someone much older, someone who has had no choice in the matter of growing up. Regine is another strong, female character known well in the genre, not taking any shit from the boys but still maintaining a protective, caring side when it needs to be shown. Gudmund appears a nice guy, but is perhaps anything but, which is almost a shame.

This is the sort of book that makes hairs stand up on the back of your neck and you can never really explain why. There’s a lot of ambiguity, particularly as to whether this is all happening in Seth’s mind or if it’s real, and even when things do get explained, you can’t always tell if that makes the situations less creepy or more so.

Frankly, this book just needs to be read, especially if you enjoyed Patrick Ness’s other books, but also if you just like something a bit smart, a bit weird, a bit creepy, and a bit fantastic.

“Damned” by Chuck Palahniuk (2011)

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Adolescence is hell...

Adolescence is hell…

“Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison.”

Regardless of where you stand on the issue of religion, the idea of eternal torment and torture is not one you’ll be much keen on. The idea of where we go when we die has kept people thinking for millennia, and the only thing we know for sure is that none of us know. The Ancient Greeks thought everyone ended up in the same place regardless of Earthly behaviour, Muslims believe in Jahannam, and the Hindu faith suggests we are reincarnated. As such, the potential nature of the afterlife has interested writers forever, and as long-time visitors to this blog will know, I rather like books that take place in Heaven or Hell. In Palahniuk’s book, he takes us on a journey through one of the most vile incarnations of the place I’ve ever seen.

Madison Spencer is thirteen years old, daughter of a movie star mother and billionaire father, and has found herself dead and locked in a cell in the underworld of Hades. She recieves scant advice from those in neighbouring cells – don’t touch the bars, don’t eat the candy, etc – but senses that an eternity of this might get really old really quickly. Besides, she’s pretty sure that she shouldn’t be there anyway, and can’t remember the exact details that led to her death.

One of her neighbours, Archer, a guy with a blue mohawk and a safety pin through his cheek, breaks her out of her cage and the two of them, along with jock Patterson, nerd Leonard and beauty Babette, take a tour of Hell, taking in such sights as Shit Lake, the Sea of Insects and the Great Ocean of Wasted Sperm. After an encounter with a particularly unpleasant demon who tries to eat them, they are all taken to the main offices of Hell where they get jobs in telemarketing, calling the living during dinner to ask inane questions.

When Madison finds that most of the people she’s speaking to are either terminally ill or very old, she begins convincing them to do bad and hurry on down to Hell where the real party is happening. She becomes noteworthy for her ability to draw the living down to the afterlife, and soon everyone else in Hell has started to notice, and she begins to feel like she deserves more and more. Power, after all, is addictive.

OK, so for the off, Madison is a fairly irritating character for the most part, telling you every few pages that while she might only be thirteen, she is intelligent and optimistic (the biggest obstacle in Hell, she notes, is that you have to give up on hope to be able to survive), and her rise to power seems to happen rather too easily, although this is potentially explained away by later events that I won’t ruin now. The book flip-flops rather dramatically though, building up her fellow Hellmates (who are modelled roughly on the archetypes from The Breakfast Club) into supporting characters and then dropping them for much of the middle of the narrative. They return again towards the end in scenes that further colour them in, but the impression they leave isn’t that strong.

The world of Hell itself is terrifying in its vileness. Not only are there the aforementioned seas of insects and sperm, but there’s also rivers of vomit, forests of amputated limbs, mountains of fingernail clippings, and every demon you can imagine. According to the logic of this universe, every time a culture on Earth is wiped out, their gods become demons, meaning it notes that even one day Jesus himself may be regarded in this way. The rules for getting into Hell are also rather hilarious, and we get to see some of the statistics. Apparently 100% of redheads go to Hell, as do 100% of journalists, 98.3% of lawyers, and anyone with a university education is six times more likely to end up down here. You’re also allowed no more than 500 honks of your car horn, 100 dropped cigarette butts and 700 uses of the word “fuck” before you are condemned with no hope of redemption. The best of these is that you’re only allowed to fart in an occupied lift three times.

It’s dark enough to be recognisably Palahniuk, but I wasn’t entirely captivated by the characters, so my interest waxed and waned throughout. I feel that it may be a pastiched hybrid of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Dante’s Inferno, but since I’ve read neither, perhaps a lot of it went over my head. It’s also the first of a trilogy, but I’m in no hurry to hunt out the sequel, Doomed. It’s quite smart, but it just didn’t grip me.

For my take on the afterlife, download my debut novel The Atomic Blood-stained Bus from any online ebook store. Not only does it contain that, but also a headless horseman, an intrepid tabloid journalist, and tips on how to get down from the top of London’s tallest building.

“The Beginning Of Everything” by Robyn Schneider (2013)

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beginning“Sometimes I think that everyone has a tragedy waiting for them, that the people buying milk in their pajamas or picking their noses at stoplights could be only moments away from disaster.”

When I was in my third year of university, a strange thing occured. My reading list, which up until that point and Dickens aside hadn’t been too bad, contained a title that as far as I was concerned had no place on such a list. It was that well-known dung heap, The Da Vinci Code. This isn’t like a subjective hate either – it’s universally considered a bad book, and this was 2008 when the stench of it and the film were still fairly strong. My professor, however, ensured me that all would become clear in the following lecture and I should just read the damn thing. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you look at it) I had read the book years back just to see what all the fuss was about and so wasn’t about to waste my week doing it again. I skimmed reviews and Wikipedia and then, indeed, the idea was very clear in the next lecture: this was a lecture about how not to write fiction.

I’ve since then been intrigued by the idea of finishing up bad books simply as a study in how not to write. I happen to have rather a good knack for choosing books that I do go on to enjoy, but occasionally one or two slip through the net, including Witch & Wizard, Don’t Read This Book If You’re Stupid, Humanzee and Sick Building, to name a few. From each, I have learnt more than I could’ve done had I read an essay on how to write. I’m not by any means claiming that I am a good writer – my novel is never going to be a bestseller – but I read enough to know when something is really badly written. All of this will now be leading you to thinking that the book in question here joins this list. And you’re absolutely right.

The Beginning Of Everything starts out vaguely promising, but quickly goes downhill. The main character, Ezra Faulkner, describes how everyone gets a tragedy, and in the case of his best friend Toby, it’s when he was on a rollercoaster and caught the head of a tourist in front of him who got decapitated by standing up on the ride. Ezra meanwhile has a tragedy all of his own – his girlfriend cheated on him. Granted, he then stormed from a party, had a car accident and his leg will never heal so he’ll never be able to play tennis again. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, none of his friends will talk to him anymore! Luckily, when he gets back to school, finding himself the unwanted centre of attention due to his accident, his old friend Toby (who he’s ignored for the last four years) decides to befriend him again.

Meanwhile, there’s a new girl at school, the wacky and kooky Cassidy Thorpe, and the two of them have been signed up to the debate team with Toby and all his misfit, madcap friends. Ezra finds himself attracted to Cassidy and her goofy ways and soon memories of his air-headed ex Charlotte are a thing of the past. But Cassidy is hiding a secret, and perhaps she’s not the manic pixie dream girl that he hopes she is after all…

I'm not angry, I'm just disappointed.

I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed.

Formulaic to a fault, this reads like John Green has started giving lessons on how to write obnoxious, pompous white teen male protagonists, or else is writing under a pen name himself. Ezra (because these characters are never called Dave) is fundamentally unpleasant, stumbling over himself to tell the reader that he didn’t mean to be so popular, or that he didn’t ask to live in a six-bedroom house with swimming pool, and that it isn’t his fault that he doesn’t really study but is just naturally so gifted. So he’s got a busted leg, big whoop. Cassidy, in turn, is everything a manic pixie dream girl should be – full of stories about her adventures abroad, has a disregard for school dress codes that would get any student but her suspended, and a penchant for fun childish adventures while avoiding talking about her deep, dark secret.

The characterisation is all off, too, and I’ve got page numbers to prove it. Ezra is painted as early as page 69 as an “illiterate jock” and yet this goes out the window just nine pages later when he discusses themes in Steinbeck’s Sea of Cortez, a book he read for extra credit. On page 108 he finds himself in a university level organic chemistry class (don’t ask) and finds he’s an expert on the subject and just totally gets it. On page 276 he mentions and defines the German word kummerspeck, despite implying earlier he had no knowledge of even basic German. On 289, it’s noted that he understands the Latin term memento mori well enough to make a “joke” about it. And every other chapter gets a mention of The Great sodding Gatsby thrown in, given that it’s the only book most American high schoolers seem to have read.

I’m not even going to attempt to define the humour, but there are a lot of paragraphs where the characters get into hysterics or simply crack up at a comment one of them has made, but it’s an informed humour. I don’t see it. Schneider also appears to have them slightly out of time. If they’re sixteen, presumably they were born in the mid-to-late nineties but still have a moment where they pine for a life before mobile phones, which is a time even I barely remember, and I’m a good decade older than them.

There’s also the unforgivably bland and immature-sounding line, “and she bit my bottom lip a bit as we kissed, and I pretty much wanted to die, it was so sexy.” I read it deadpan and the action has never sounded quite so unsexy. These books do nothing but give teenagers an unrealistic picture of the world. It’s enough to give anyone a complex.

Granted, I will throw in a positive or two. Cassidy shoots Ezra down by the end and calls him out on treating her like a manic pixie dream girl (but even that’s not novel anymore) and the treatment of a student’s evolving sexuality is handled rather nicely, but otherwise, you can predict pretty much every page before you get to it, and call me old-fashioned, but I still like to be surprised by my literature every now and again.

If everyone does indeed get a tragedy, then this book may well have been mine.

“Every Day” by David Levithan (2012)

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every day“I wake up.”

Most stories spring from the notion of a “what if?” What if we could hear everybody’s thoughts? What if you could spend one more day with a dead relative? What if you grew horns? In the hands of a lesser author, these ideas can flounder and fail, but in the hands of a skilled storyteller, they can become something pretty awesome.

In the case, the question is “What if you woke up in a different body every day?” and it’s in the hands of David Levithan, who is by no means a lesser author, although it was first discussed with John Green, who is. Levithan writes with a charm that I’ve seen in pitifully few authors, imbuing his text with a sense of magic.

This is the story of A, who, every morning, wakes up in the body of someone new and has to live their life for the day. He (although he technically has no gender) has access to their memories, but not their feelings, and never knows exactly where he’ll be tomorrow. There are some limits to it (including the fact that since A is sixteen, he can only turn up in the bodies of sixteen-year-olds), and A has struggled to cope with it all his life.

Everything gets complicated however when he wakes up in the body of Justin and meets his girlfriend, Rhiannon. A immediately falls for her, and sees in Justin’s memories that he is not particularly pleasant to her. Determined to give her a better life, A uses his day as Justin to have a wonderful date. However, the next day it is all over, but A can’t let go. He begins kidnapping the bodies he’s controlling, taking them to see Rhiannon as often as he can.

Eventually, he reveals the truth to Rhiannon who has difficulty accepting it, but eventually sees that it’s the truth. She, too, is falling for A. They try to begin a relationship of sorts, but it becomes difficult, and the confusion is only added to when one of the bodies A inhabits, Nathan, remembers that he was taken over by somebody else and is convinced that he was possessed by the devil, causing a media shitstorm. A must be careful, but he takes more and more risks, potentially destroying lives as he goes.

As I said, the concept is a bit extreme, but in the hands of Levithan, it’s handled well. A is for the most part likeable, and Rhiannon is indeed a very pleasant and kind girl, although acts brow-beaten whenever she’s around Justin. It seems sometimes that there are two Rhiannon’s, as well as countless A’s, because she seems so strong when not in the orbit of her boyfriend. She is strong, displaying intense strength when faced with the difficulty of A’s existence. I like her more than I like A.

A’s intentions and lifestyle starts off good. He does his best to live the day in the same way that the owner of his temporary body would do, but once Rhiannon is on the scene, this goes haywire. He takes days out of these people’s lives for selfish reasons, seeming to show little remorse for potentially ruining their lives, although on one occasion at least it can be argued that he saves a life, despite promising to not interfere. It is this recklessness that leads to his problems with Nathan.

It’s interesting to see him as different characters, to experience the world from different eyes. The story is ultimately about the human condition, and how we’re all just striving to get through the day, and this is shown through characters that are black, white, gay, straight, fat, thin, beautiful, ugly, kind, nasty, and anything in between these. A couple of them feel a little bit like Levithan is just box-ticking, making sure that every minority gets a mention, in particular the obese teenager and the body that is biologically female and gendered male. The latter even warrants a whole speech about how it feels to be in the wrong body, as if the point hasn’t been hammered home enough as it is.

It’s a good book, it’s a classic Levithan and it’s smart. The ending is rather ambiguous and it would be interesting to know what happened to both A and Rhiannon after the final page, but I guess some things are best left to our imaginations.

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